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.
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.
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?