In The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, Jesper Juul analyzes what he considers to be the paradox of failure in games which he outlines as thus:
- We generally avoid failure
- We experience failure when playing games
- We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid
Using this paradox as the premise of analysis, Juul examines the paradox from various vantage points such as philosophy, psychology, game design, and fiction in order to understand how and why we seek out games willingly and consciously knowing they will involve the experience of failure, despite our normal predispositions to avoid failure.
Through his philosophical analysis, Juul concludes that the presence of failure in games is both what prompts us to take the game seriously (or to engage in the act of play) and the element that gives us something to do in the first place (to overcome the experience of failure) (44-45). Given this observation, Juul further suggests that failure is “integral to the enjoyment of playing” (45).
Building on his philosophical analysis, in his psychological analysis Juul observes that although we may generally avoid failure, in games, “it is only through feeling responsible for failure (which we dislike) that we can feel responsible for escaping failure (which we like) (54). In this way, the player risks the opportunity of failure for the opposite opportunity of success. The success only matters if the binary of failure remains intact. Furthermore, Juul argues that game present opportunities for learning, and that learning is integral to overcoming success, but that failure is also central to learning how to succeed in games. Critical thinking is important in the failure-improvement cycle that leads to overcoming failure in games, and the failure-improvement cycle should be pleasant for the player.
Whether the experience of the failure-improvement cycle is pleasant for the player depends on the game’s design. In his analysis of design, Juul presents the three paths to success in games: skill (whereby success depends on the players ability to display the skill – or to improve skills – necessary to win), chance (whereby success is never promised, but dependent on luck), and labor (whereby the player succeed by performing routine tasks and by investing time to those tasks but whereby little to no skills is required to perform them). Ideally, however, games will blend these paths in such a way that the player must think critically and will enjoy the failure-improvement cycle. Juul states that although “games have become easier,” to finish, the opportunities for failure-improvement have also increased. When blended well together, the three paths to failure help us to “spend more energy thinking about why we failed, what we can do about it, and how it reflects on us personally” (90).
Finally, Juul examines the paradox of failure in games in lieu of fictional failures of tragedy in game narratives. Because player-characters and players are generally expected to experience the same emotions, tragedy in games – whereby the protagonist fails – is hard. To deny the protagonist in the game narrative a final success or happy ending is to deny the player the opportunity of success in a paradoxical way too; though the player will have “won” the game, the narrative will remain a failed or tragic one. This is where failure, however, can become more than failure – but art. Unlike other mediums, tragedy in games requires player complicity; the player doesn’t witness tragedy as in a book or film, but instead is partisan to it (113). Thus, games deny us deniability. though games free us of culpability, they still require critical admissions of potentially deplorable thoughts: “we really did consider the logistics of how to commit, or cover up the crime” ( 114).