The Art of Losing Isn’t Hard to Master: Suffering in Games

Existential Comics is a weekly webcomic created by Corey Mohler that has been running since late 2013, with each strip humorously exploring a different aspect of philosophy. Generally, a strip places a number of famous philosophers in some contrived situation, one that will cause each philosopher to bring forth their signature arguments as part of the discussion. Such is the case for the strip published on October 12, 2015, entitled “Sorry! And the Nature of Suffering”.

The strip is one of many in the series that takes place during game night. Four philosophers—Friedrich Nietzsche, Epictetus, Buddha, and Arthur Schopenhauer—have gathered to play Sorry!, and through their discussion over the game the reader learns the basics of each philosopher’s approach to the question of suffering. Nietzsche attempts to exert his will on the board, Epictetus accepts that the punishments of the game are beyond his control, Buddha argues that the desire to win is the source of suffering, and Schopenhauer…well, to skip right to the punchline:

Schopenhauer: "We suffer because we were born."

Nietzsche: "What made you like this, Schopenhauer? You ruin the vibe at every game night."

Epictetus: "I've been imagining that he would the ruin the vibe this whole time."

As a vehicle for exploring approaches to suffering, I think Sorry! is an inspired choice. The game is a variation on the ancient Indian game pachisi, from which Parcheesi and Ludo also derive. All these games feature the mechanic of sending opponents’ pieces back to the starting position, but Sorry! is unique in that the name positions that mechanic (rather than, say, the race itself or the role of chance) as the game’s defining feature. In the supplemental text in which he expands on the concepts presented in the strip, Mohler writes that while in Sorry! “the goal is technically to get all your pieces to the ‘home’ area…most of the enjoyment comes from inflicting suffering on your opponents by knocking them back to the start at the last possible moment.” Of course, for every time someone like Nietzsche gloats at the chance to shout a sarcastic “Sorry!” there’s some like Epictetus suffering the indignity of restarting their journey.

One may wonder, given the likelihood that players will suffer at some point or another, why anyone would wish to play—not just Sorry!, but any game at all. Other games don’t necessarily make suffering as central to the experience as Sorry! does, but in theory the four philosophers of the comic strip could have had their discussion while playing innumerably many different games. Failure and frustration are features of just about any game that you can think of: being forced to pay rent in Monopoly, allowing the other team score a touchdown in American football, losing a life in Pac-Man, etc. We can expect to experience pain while playing all these games, yet we gladly keep playing them for pleasure. In fact, if these games never inflicted pain on us, we’d likely lose interest in them. That seems at least a little counterintuitive, right?

That apparent contradiction is the subject of Jesper Juul’s 2013 book The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games, published as part of MIT Press’s Playful Thinking series. Juul is interested in what is called the paradox of failure, a specific instance of the paradox of painful art. In the same way that the better known paradox of tragedy captures the oddity of us seeking out works of art that cause us sadness, the paradox of failure encapsulates the weird reality of us playing games when they bring us suffering. Juul lays out the paradox as follows:

1. We generally avoid failure.

2. We experience failure when playing games.

3. We seek out games, although we will experience something that we normally avoid.

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 2

Juul does not find a resolution to this paradox by the end of the book, which is hardly a strike against him. The paradox of painful art has puzzled philosophers from Aristotle to David Hume all the way up to the present day; I found myself running up against it when I wrote about how I find murder mysteries relaxing. Rather than seeking a definitive answer, Juul instead approaches the paradox through the lens of different fields, from philosophy to psychology to game design, to uncover what each field can tell us about the paradox.

Those discussions are all interesting in their own right, even if Juul goes about them with a rather repetitive prose style. But what really struck me while reading The Art of Failure is something Juul only gets at indirectly: the importance of a player’s attitude toward failure when playing a game. This comes up a bit whenever notions of sportsmanship enter the discussion; few things are less enjoyable during a game than dealing with a sore loser. But thinking more broadly, games seem to present us with unusual sets of social expectations. Early on in the book, Juul draws a contrast between two scenarios, an unhelpful guest at dinner and an unhelpful opponent in a board game:

Imagine that you are dining with some people you have just met. You reach for the saltshaker, but suddenly one of the other guests, let’s call him Joe, looks at you sullenly, then snatches the salt away and puts it out of your reach. Later, when you are leaving the restaurant, Joe dashes ahead of you and blocks the exit door from the outside. Joe is being rude—when you understand what another person is trying to do, it is offensive, or at least confrontational, to prevent that person from doing it.

However, if you were meeting the same people to play the board game Settlers, it would be completely acceptable for the same Joe to prevent you from winning the game. In the restaurant as well as in the game, Joe is aware of your intention, and Joe prevents you from doing what you are trying to do. At the restaurant, this is rude. In the game, this is expected and acceptable behavior. Apparently, games give us a license to engage in conflicts, to prevent others from achieving their goals. When playing a game, a number of actions that would regularly be awkward and rude are recast as pleasant and sociable (as long as we are not poor losers, of course).

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 10 (footnote omitted)

We can see this contrast at work in the comic strip mentioned earlier. In the first panel, when Nietzsche draws a Sorry! card and sends Epictetus’s piece back to the start, there’s nothing malicious about the act. Mohler even draws Nietzsche with a playful expression to show that the punishment here is all in good fun. It’s not until the subsequent panels that Nietzsche’s actions go from “pleasant and sociable” to “awkward and rude”: throwing Epictetus’s piece against the board, calling him an idiot, etc. In both phases, Nietzsche intends to inflict pain on his opponent, but only in the second phase do his actions read as unacceptable.

Now, saying that actions that cause suffering in games are acceptable is not the same as saying that they are desirable. We might think that Epictetus tolerates the punishment of returning to the start because it accompanies a fun night with friends or a stimulating challenge, but that he would prefer a hypothetical version of the game that did not include that mechanic. Indeed, a later panel reveals that Epictetus has been playing the game in a way that minimizes the suffering central to Sorry!

Epictetus: The only thing you can control is your own virtue, and the most virtuous thing to do is fulfill your civic responsibilities, which is why I select moves that best help all the players.

Nietzsche: You were doing that on purpose?! I thought you were just an idiot.

We might think that Nietzsche’s response is another example of his being a jerk, but I think his frustration with Epictetus is understandable here. Epictetus confesses that he has not been playing the game in the proper spirit. Even though such a cooperative approach to Sorry! is not exactly prohibited by the rules, it’s also clearly not what the game’s designers consider to be optimal play (again, the game is called Sorry!). Epictetus’s subversive approach is an extreme case, but it does remind me of one passage from The Art of Failure in which Juul discusses how designers often need to push players toward failure:

The contribution of failure [to growth] becomes even more clearly visible when it is absent. It is not that growth cannot happen without failure, but that failure concretely pushes us toward personal improvement, and players often need to be pushed because they, as game designer David Jaffe has said, are fundamentally lazy. Designer Soren Johnson of the Civilization series describes it as a general problem that players seek out the optimal path to play a game but stick to it even when they find it fundamentally uninteresting.

Jesper Juul, The Art of Failure, p. 59 (footnotes omitted, emphasis in original)

That optimal path that Johnson mentions is designed to avoid the prospects of failure and suffering; players who take that path are likely to succeed in an absolute sense but rob themselves of the game’s actual pleasures in the process. In the case of a round of Civilization played against computer-controlled opponents, perhaps such players will only inconvenience themselves. But when other human players are involved, we may expect something like Nietzsche’s frustration to emerge.

To draw an example from my own experience: I was once invited to play a board game that simulated air combat maneuvering, with each player having the goal of shooting down their opponents’ fighter planes. My friends approached the game in the intended fashion, looking for opportunities to engage their foes in a dog fight. I, on the other hand, did no such thing. Instead, I simply circled my planes around the fray, avoiding combat at all costs because I did not want to risk getting fired upon. You might think that I was aiming to win the game by just waiting out the madness, as though I were Foxface during the Hunger Games. But really, I was just worried about the possibility of failure, and so I found a strategy that eliminated that possibility.

The friend who had invited me was not amused. “If you don’t start fighting,” he told me, “I’m going to find you derelict of duty.” I then realized that my strategy for avoiding suffering violated the social contract of the game; it deprived my opponents of opportunities to fight and therefore made the game less enjoyable for everyone. Whether it’s my friends and I pretending to have dog fights or four philosophers arguing over Sorry!, the only way for us to have fun while playing a game is to embrace the suffering that comes our way.

That seems like as good a place as any to leave off. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this whole discussion. Do you have a preferred way of resolving the paradox of failure? Can you think of any games that don’t involve failure? Let me know in the comments!

I’d like to tip my cap to Chris Franklin of Errant Signal, whose video on Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy introduced me to Juul’s book. I think it’s one of Franklin’s best, and you can watch it below.

Thoughts on “A Dark Room”

The first time I played through A Dark Room (browser version available here), there was a moment early on in the game—the village was still small, I had yet venture onto the dusty path, most everything was still mysterious—where I started to question my own virtue. Not my character’s virtue, but mine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those who haven’t played it: A Dark Room is an online/mobile text-based game, published by Doublespeak Games in 2013, which slowly reveals its true nature over the course of play.

You begin, naturally, in a dark room, with only one possible input: “light fire.” But from single point of interaction, the world quickly expands. Quoting from Michael Thomsen’s account of the game in The New Yorker (full article here):

After stoking the fire a few more times, you have a new option: collect wood, which can be used to build a cart. Once a cart is built, you can make traps and set them in the surrounding forest, and soon you’re collecting cloths and furs, which can be used to build more huts to attract others to your small enclave, allowing for the collection of even more fur and meat. You can begin to see a structure emerge from the fragments, but where that structure will lead you remains impossible to predict, and so the compulsion to keep pressing little word buttons becomes stronger.

It’s those “others” Thomsen alludes to here that I’m interested in, the villagers who take refuge in your growing community. The start of A Dark Room feels profoundly lonely. The only company you have is the builder, a stranger who stumbles into your now-lightened room who says that she can, well, build you things. Once she starts erecting huts, though, the town’s population starts to grow. A “stranger” here, a “weathered family” there: it all adds up. You as the player-character can then start assigning those villagers tasks, such as gathering wood or hunting.

When villagers began to appear in my first play-through, I was glad for the presence of extra people, even if those people were, in fact, nothing more than a number and a job description. When a wild beast attacked the village and killed several of them, I felt something resembling guilt. I, the de facto leader of this village, had failed to protect my neighbors, and now there was no evidence they ever existed.

This emotional connection did not last very long.

Around the time my village hit a population of twenty, when I had started assigning villagers to cure meat and tan leather (for reasons I was not yet clear on), another wild beast attacked. Rather than feeling guilty or sad this time, though, I was merely annoyed. The number of gatherers in the village plummeted, meaning it would take so much longer to collect enough wood to build a workshop (for reasons I was also not yet clear on). The only other option would be to re-assign the other workers to gathering, which of course meant a trade-off in resource gathering: more wood at the expense of meat, fur, etc.

Right then, in a brief flash of insight, I realized that I had stopped seeing the villagers as text-based representations of people, and had started seeing them as resources. They were merely means to my own still-unclear ends, sacrifices to some vague notion of “progress.” And then, as if that sudden doubt never occurred, I went back to pressing buttons, back to accumulating resources.

After all, there was so much of this world that had yet to unfold.

This is, I concede, not a grand revelation about the nature of player/non-player character relationships. Games consistently take an instrumentalist approach to NPCs. They are resource gatherers, quest givers, and of course, enemies. That the villagers have no lives and no function beyond their job descriptions is hardly a surprise.

What I do find surprising, though, is that the subtext of “NPCs have only instrumental value”—which is not even a subtext of the game, really, more a convention it happens to use—is brought to the level of text in the mobile version of A Dark Room.

The browser version of the game, as developed by Michael Townsend, does suggest that the player-character is a villain in the narrative of the game. They’re one of the so-called “wanderers” who conquered this world and have left it in ruins. You eventually find a spaceship in the wilderness, your ticket out of this hellscape. It’s been badly damaged, but it could be restored, and you find it fortunate that the “natives,” people like the villagers, haven’t figured out how to yet. One could read a colonialist narrative onto that story, but the game does not directly implicate the player (as opposed to the player-character) in that narrative. It’s just too oblique in its story-telling to do so.

It wasn’t until Amir Rajan adapted A Dark Room for iOS that the game’s critique of the player’s actions became overt. In the early goings—coincidentally, near the point when I had that flash of doubt—the builder begs you to stop overworking the villagers. When you keep pushing them to gather wood anyway, the game overtly relabels them. They are no longer “villagers.” They are “slaves.”

The player’s instrumental approach to the NPCs has consequences, which is certainly uncomfortable, as Rajan notes in an interview with Brian Riggsbee (full interview here):

The web version didn’t have any of the builder commentary or the slave transition…It’s funny actually, someone reached out to me on Twitter about the slaves transition and how “it wasn’t his choice.” He was pretty angry about it. His Twitter profile background was that of Fallout: New Vegas, where you can literally [be] part of a slave-driving army.

It’s all fun and games until the game points out that your progress has come at the expense of someone else’s autonomy.

To include the slaves transition was an editorial decision on Rajan’s part, an act of interpretation as well as adaptation. But does it pull the adaptation too far from the source material? Hardly. If anything, it simply reinforces the in-game narrative. Just as the wanderer uses the people they conquered to serve their own ends, the players use the NPCs to gradually satisfy their curiosity.

After all, how else can this story unfold?