Editorial: Losing

Today we are going to talk about losing, as a phenomenon.

Losing is only possible where there is a structure, a definite set of rules that set a goal to accomplish and obstacles to accomplishing that goal: in short, a game.

We are going to discuss losing because it is very much on my mind. I am, you see, a very bad nerd. I enjoy the sport of American football. I even played it when I was but a wee tyke in high school.

Gettin' crazy with the Cheez-Whiz
Soy un perdidor...

My chosen team is that of my alma mater, the University of Texas Longhorns. Last night, they played for the national championship in college football, and lost after a heartbreaking game the University of Alabama. Their star quarterback went out during their first series. The replacement was a green freshman, who nevertheless played admirably, leading the team in an amazing comeback, but one that ultimately fell short due to a cavalcade of avoidable mistakes. In short, it was a potent mix of hubris and pathos that left me reeling, surly and angry.

I began to wonder why I attached such meaning to the contest. After all, like all games, it is ultimately a diversion devoid of meaning or significance except that which I attach to it. Then I noticed that I dislike losing at all, whether that counts as dying in a video game or having a team I favor lose a game. For instance, I quickly grew frustrated and upset with Demon’s Souls because of the unforgiving mechanic of dying all of the time. I know, somewhere deep inside, that this was a part of the game’s mechanics. That death was unavoidable. That the struggle for continued life was ultimately futile.

Likewise, I began to wonder why I was upset that a team I have only a tenuous connection to lost a single game. In the grand scheme of things, it has absolutely no effect on my life. I will wake up and go to work as usual. I will perform my job duties as usual. I will come home, clean the house, and spend time with my wife as usual. Nothing will have changed, except that I now feel shame, anger and hot-faced humiliation. My amorphous feelings have been hurt.

I play games, or vicariously play games through association with other players, to “win,” to achieve goals. This is what I find so enthralling about cooperative gameplay: it allows people to work together to achieve a common goal. I think that something like guild-based progression in an MMO has taken the place in my life that team sports have occupied since I was old enough to be at least moderately coordinated.

By matter of short biography, I am the son of a coach. My family is filled with sports buffs, and our major forms of filial entertainment are still contents of strength, skill, wit and coordination. All of this has led me back to my philosophy regarding games and their relation to human life. If the primary way in which we orient ourselves to the world is by telling narratives about ourselves and the world, then the theme of those narratives is always expressed in terms of some form of game: we must meet set goals while at the same time obeying self-imposed rules that limit our conduct. To lose therefore is not merely to fail to achieve our in-game goal, but rather is analogous to our failure as protagonists within our own personal narratives. In short, it is an “unhappy ending” where the hero(ine) dies, and evil triumphs.

Literary visions of the idea of antagonists triumphing, however, typically center around a theme of rebirth and new hope. The mythic structures of our culture, from our religions to our hero-tales to our video games, also embody hope. Hope, the possibility of rebirth, of trying again, is something made real only when failure, when loss, is also possible. Loss is the price we pay for hope. I am reminded of Conan’s explanation of his philosophy in Robert E. Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast”:

Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

Robert E. Howard's Finest Story
"Queen of the Black Coast" is the finest Conan story ever written

If we fear losing, if we indulge in self-pity and futile anger, however gratifying it might be immediately, we miss out on the contentment of life, of “living deep” while alive. If Conan were never more alive than during the mad exultation of battle, when he walked the razor edge between life and death, then we less-barbaric peoples can revel in our own life-games, and not trouble ourselves overmuch about loss or losing. Cathartic, no?


  1. That cover art *could* be better.

    That said, I would say that if one attaches meaning to any event, it is only natural to feel discontent at untoward or undesired happenings in the context of that event–this is part and parcel of the attachment of meaning to anything. One has become invested in the event.

    Many Cricket games are played between teams in which I have no investment. However, when England and Australia play, I am invested. The fortunes of those teams are of interest to me; I follow them and wish them well in their endeavours (except when they face each other, in which case I must side with Old Blighty against their youthful, ruddy-cheeked colony). When they win, I am pleased. When they lose, I am downcast. I would not feel these things were I not invested in their participation–and this is something I have done willfully. I have personally and deliberately attached myself to these teams.

    In any video game the issue is the same. By involving oneself in the structure of the game world, one is willingly going along (at least to some degree) with the developer’s intentions. As characters are developed, emotional investment may deepen–but the most important investment has already taken place, that of the player and his ‘contract’ with the game itself, by which I mean the interaction and rules that make up the conditions of play. The player expects that if he jumps and lands on the ground, he will survive. If he falls in the hole, he will die. This ‘contract’ gives him confidence that the conditions for victory and defeat are, if arbitrary, at least just. When that perception is shattered, the investment is lost. It is only then that defeat becomes meaningless, as does victory. (This is why beating a game with a Game Genie is unfulfilling, and why dying in Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins is entirely empty.)

  2. I disagree slightly, it goes further than emotional investment and attatchment to teams. The reason that we take loss so personally and painfully is that we identify with the sporting team/game avatar (regardless of how vicariously). We choose to associate ourselves with their fortunes, the fabric of our very identity is peppered with such associations, and so when they fail to perform as we feel they should, then it seems like a personal failure and we share in a small part of their shame.

    Have you ever felt shamed or embarassed by your chosen teams poor performance? Have you felt proud as punch about their successes on the feild? When asked, have you ever had a hard time imparting the results of a game that you found to be particularly humiliating? Have you ever known someone to abandon a sporting team after a period of protracted loss? That is because they are a small patchwork part of the identity that you project to the outside world, one of many to which your esteem is inextricably linked, and any event which devalues their standing also devalues your own in your eyes.

    Obviously the in game failure of your game avatar is a much less vicarious thing, sharing a 1:1 relationship to your skill as a gamer and facility with the game in question. Yet luckily for us the penalty for losing isn’t so great as it is on the sporting feild, else we’d be an ashen faced bunch. Most game’s penalties are light to negligible, as you can often attempt a certain challange repeatedly until you succeed, thus lifting and fortifying the gamer’s esteem. Demon’s Souls obviously makes for a stark contrast to this however, and takes great pride in stomping on your esteem and efficacy until you feel as helpless and hapless as a worm.

  3. An excellent example of losing happened to me last night when I was playing Super Mario Bros. I had never completed the game before so at the time I felt it important to beat the game for the first time. That being said, I had an initial accomplishment that I wanted to fulfill from the beginning, allowing myself to feel the stings of defeat with more force than if I had originally played the game for fun or just for kicks if you will. This being said, I died many times, most when I was beginning to reach the end of the game. The feeling of losing became ever so apparent when I reached World 8. Full of confidence with my many lifes and being able to traverse through the other worlds with ease, I was cautious but my motivation outweighted the thought of a difficult level or how tricky the level design was or how many hammer bros I would be facing.

    As I went through World 8, I was losing life after life, after life due to a miscaulculation in my jump or an unexpected enemy up ahead or perhaps the lack of apparent mushrooms I could find to guard me from at least one hit. As I continued to lose, in a sense, the thrill of a challenge consumed my thoughts, giving me a sense of pride each time I completed one of the levels in world 8. Sure I died many times, and the loses made me frail and scream like a mad mad, but the losing helped me to shed the overconfidence and I was able to humble myself to a down to earth level. It also strengthed my resolve to complete this level, making me to yearn to complete the game even more for the sake of personal accomplishment. The level was difficult yes but not impossible once I found the pattern in the enemies and level format.

    Once I reached World 8-4, things began to tumble. The castle was a formiddable foe, full of traps and pit falls and many sundry enemies that would appear out of no where. I was losing lifes left and right until I discovered I only had ten lifes left. The thought of lose pushed me to my limits, made me want to save the princess that much more to the point where I almost succedded, if it weren’t for my mistakes. I got a game over eventually and was so furious with the game, I shut my Wii off and went to bed with a cloud over my head.

    However, one may wonder why I continued, even after losing. It’s simple. I had created an accomplishment which was to complete Super Mario Bros. I lost many lifes in the process but the overall sense of beating the game outweighted my fustrations and tribulations. And some may say that when I got a game over, the losing aspect of the game got me to me, sending me into a fury. However after a good nights sleep and some light contemplation, I decided to have another go at it tonight, with a mind to conqueor.

    Sure I will probably lose many lifes in the process of this goal but without the loses I would never improve on my platforming skills, I would not have the same sense of accomplishment once I completed the game. Losing improves us, makes us look at our mistakes with the hopes of correcting those mistakes and giving us a fresh start.