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Games theorist Jesper Juul on why gamers love (and hate) failure

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Academic theorist Jesper Juul discusses the draw of failure in games and the ways in which games have presented it differently over time.

Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy

Winning a game against great odds is certainly satisfying, but why do we keep playing QWOP or The Binding of Isaac after hundreds of failed tries? In an interview with Kill Screen, ludologist Jesper Juul discusses the draw of failure. Juul sees games as a place where it's possible to take on challenges and fail without fear. "We have this freedom in games to take it seriously, even though it may not matter financially or whatever to you," he says. "But there’s also a freedom to not take it seriously." Juul recounts times when his self-esteem has taken a hit from losing at something like StarCraft, but says it's easier in many games to not see failure as "a reflection of who I am or my identity."

Like any number of old-school gamers, Juul thinks that games have become easier, but it's not because of more linear maps or weaker enemies. "I think that games have become easier in one way; there’s that guiding line from your current state to incompetence to becoming competent. There are more signals. There used to be a longer time where you’re just sort of practicing blind. Now I think there are many more attempts at steering you toward improvement." In a game like Guitar Hero, for example, "you know that you’re messing up because the song isn’t playing right," while older games like Rhythm Heaven "will just go on without you." Click through to the source for more discussion of different types of failure and why they matter.