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February 27, 2014

A Lunch BIT from The Art of Failure by Jesper Juul

Why do we feel like failures after narrowly losing that four hour marathon game of Risk played with your friends? Even though the stakes are low, we still do not want to lose. We wonder what we could’ve done differently to win. In, “The Feeling of Failure” the BIT of The Art of Failure, Jesper Juul explores the psychology of failure in games. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Games are remarkably similar to other, more “serious” rule-based pursuits such as politics or education. As such, much of the psychology of game playing is closely related to these other activities, but it remains a defining feature of games that their tangible consequences (such as playing for money) are negotiable, rather than fixed. What is not fixed, but not purely negotiable either, is how personally valuable we consider it to succeed in a given game. Our emotions toward failure also hinge on a broad and open question with existential implications: the third distinction in the theory of learned helplessness was whether we perceived our failure as local, pertaining only to the specific challenge of a specific game, or as global, a reflection of our general skills and intelligence. This question is not the standard question of whether games can teach us useful skills, but the reverse: does the fact that I failed mean that I came to the game lacking skills, intelligence, charm, or any other positive personal quality? More generally: was this failure a failure of me being who I want to be?

Logically, we should first be deciding on culpability, and then have an emotional response, but the truth is that we let our attributions be influenced by our desire to protect our self-esteem. The basic trick of learning and improvement is that we have to accept the painful answer (this is my fault, and a failure of me being who I want to be) in order to be motivated to become who we want to be. This is how each moment-to-moment attempt to avoid failure has existential significance for us. 

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