Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Mechanics of Failure

I’ve got about 25 years of experience in graphic arts, and using graphic-related software. In gaming terms I figure I’m a paragon-level graphic artist. Maybe 15th level? My software tools have evolved over time, as has my mastery of them. Every once in a while I’m called on to create materials for a presentation. This usually involves a certain program from a large software company that is, to put it mildly, less-capable as a graphic art application than my primary tools. It’s like picking up a weapon in an RPG that you aren’t proficient with. Yes, I can make graphics with it, but it’s like putting oven mitts on the hands of a violinist and asking him to play some Bach.

On Friday I was asked to step in for a coworker to finish a presentation for an end-of-day deadline. A presentation for a major brand. A presentation that was going to be projected on 45-foot wide screen in front of who knows how many people. Being the team player I am, I said “sure” and dove in. People started feeding me input and edits. It was quickly apparent that I was expected to work at the same pace, and with the same facility as my coworker. I sat there and imagined the oven mitts on my hands. An hour into it, with the deadline approaching, I realized I was going to fail. The d20 had been rolled, and it was showing a one. I raised a white flag, called my coworker back out of her crucial meeting, and explained the situation.

At this point, the team began to rally around and reorganize the effort. I took a portion I felt I could handle. Others stepped into the crucial meeting. The bases got covered and the presentation was completed on time.

Had this been an RPG encounter, my character would have been forced to pick up the Flail of Undead-Slaying, step up to the dragon (knowing full well that my lack of proficiency with the flail, coupled with the undead-centric nature of the weapon weren’t going to help me against a dragon) and take my best shot. And I rolled a one.

However, in many RPGs characters can be – and often are – built to avoid all prospects of failure. Players expect to succeed, and they micro-engineer their characters to ensure their success. In the various rulebooks for WotC’s 4e D&D they explain the roles that various character classes fulfill, and the concept of making sure that each player has time in the spotlight. The idea was to make the game more inclusive. Unfortunately, one of the side effects has been this idea that the spotlight shines exclusively on success.

Narratively speaking, failure builds tension. Like it did for me with the presentation assignment. The spotlight was on me. It highlighted my failure, and my coworkers rallied around me, allowed me the opportunity to identify a way I could help achieve the objective, and we carved out a win from what appeared to be a potential loss. In the moment, I felt like crap. It’s no fun to fail, after all. But in the end, with the teams’ success, I ended up feeling pretty good about it.

So why are gamers afraid to fail? Why do game designers feel compelled to craft systems that emphasize mastery and success so much that the possibility of failure is all but eliminated? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


  1. I think this stems from a combination of factors. One factor is the relatively recent societal trend away from penalizing failure. I keep hearing about Little League games where they don't even keep score, and everyone gets a little trophy just for showing up. Kids who grow up surrounded by that mentality may not learn the lesson that you often have to fail a few times before you get it right. As such, they'll have a lower tolerance for failure and may not be willing to invest a lot of time and money in a game that they consider "too hard."

    The second factor I see is possibly more particular to gamers. For many, gaming has become an escape, a way to transcend the limits of reality. As much as I hate to reinforce stereotypes, there are a lot of socially awkward gamers out there, and I think we've all been through times where our real lives contained more than enough failure...we sit down at the gaming table or fire up Skyrim because we want to forget all that and go be epic for a little while.

    All in all, I think it's a cycle. As game designers cater to these trends, it further reduces the gaming public's tolerance for failure, which then makes it more profitable to publish games that maximize the possibility of success.

  2. You need to play Fiasco!, post-haste. It's a game of one-shots that unfolds differently every time, and it's effectively Coen Brothers Movie: The Game.

    I don't know that a character I've played has ever lived or even been happy or successful at the end of a Fiasco! session, and I'm fairly certain that's the point.

    That said, D&D is the game of Epic Fantasy. Nobody wants Beowoulf to swim for 9 days straight to go fight Grendel, roll a 1 and have the Sword of Omens break on the ground and then he gets eaten.

    Dying in a game due to your actions is fine; submitting your agency for the 'luck of the die' and randomly going out like a punk isn't fun in collaborative storytelling (tabletop action games like Castle Ravenloft are an entire other story)

  3. Fiasco is great! The last time I played it, three of us died and the fourth person was on meds and institutionalized for the rest of her life. Good Times! :-P

    I do wonder if the term "failure" is a problem. Failure is a loaded word and, for some, it can become a judgment. I recently changed my tag line to the following quote from Thomas Edison: "I haven't failed. I've identified 10,000 ways this doesn’t work."

  4. Hey all, thanks for commenting!

    @Kevin: Good points, and (sadly) I suspect quite true.

    @Del: Heard a lot of good things about Fiasco. I will have to find time to try it. To your points about D&D, I'm not suggesting complete failure. But what would Beowulf do in the situation you've outlined? Hope he's there with a competent party. Or, he's quick-witted enough to figure out an alternative weapon...

    @Anna: I guess that's my point. It seems like we don't have enough "non-working" solutions in modern gaming. Just because it's Beowulf and he's swum for 9 days straight, and he has the Sword of Omens, does that mean he hits Grendel every time he swings? And what if the Sword of Omens did break?

  5. Great post Keith, and right on the money for allowing the real story to develop and flow, rather then forcing it into a shape before it ever has a chance to show us something. 'What if the Sword of Omens did break?' is exactly the right question to ask, I think.