Games and the joy of failure

I came across an interesting article with implications for game design and, perhaps, for the etiology of some addictions. In their study The Psychophysiology of Video Gaming: Phasic Emotional Responses to Game Events¬†, Ravaja, Saari, Laarni, Kallinen, Salminen, Holopainen, and J√§rvinen discovered that “Not only putatively positive game events, but also putatively negative events that involved active participation by the player elicited positive emotional responses…” Interestingly, the reaction to failure was more strongly positive than the reaction to success, and the pleasure associated with success was primarily anticipatory, with a noticeable drop once success was achieved. It’s no secret that a game that is too easy, that presents no opportunity for failure, is quickly abandoned as “boring”. Game designers and Game Masters have long been aware of the necessity of balancing challenge and achievement. A “Monty Haul” adventure is generally accepted to be less “fun” than “Mission: Impossible.” So it is no secret that the actual or perceived possibility of failure is critical to the enjoyment of success, but the concept of failure as a source of pleasure was new to me.

The upside of this is that game designers have an additional tool to apply consciously in the quest to entertain and educate. The downside is the ugly intersection of this pleasurable failure with the unhealthy psyche. For individuals convinced at some level that they deserve to fail, whether by neurochemical imbalance, environmental factors, or an agent of the enemy of their soul, this quick and repeatable source of failure can be dangerous. The endless treadmill of MMPOGs are perhaps the most dangerous. It’s like putting a crack-dispenser in an addict’s bedroom.

This doesn’t mean I think games are evil or should be eliminated or restricted in some way. I am firmly convinced that games, storytelling through games, and the art of game design offer benefits to society, technology innovation, education, etc. that outweigh the associated dangers. Additionally, I suspect that perhaps this pleasure in failure may underly other addictive behaviors. Similar patterns appear to exist in addictions to work, unsuccessful relationships, spending, approval from others, food, pot, and other psychological (vs. chemical) addictions.

What I do suggest, is that mentors, parents, pastors, and others who care about someone demonstrating symptoms of addiction consider this as a possible underlying cause. In my experience, games stopped being a snare for me when I came to grips with my belovedness in the eyes of God. Human approval, even intense human love, was insufficient. People can be deceived or mistaken; God cannot. Only recognizing that the same God who knows everything about me loves me intensely was sufficient to drive the changes that took me from addicted and depressed to joyful and free.

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