When I was a kid, my parents got me a later model Radio Shack Trash 80 (TRS-80) computer, but what I really wanted was an Atari. All my friends had them, so I spent hours in other people’s basements, pushing that one red button and twisting the joystick as we navigated pixellated characters through two-dimensional landscapes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in addition to having fun I was also learning something about handling success and failure. In some ways, sitting down with my friends now and playing the Lego universe games (Lego Star Wars, Bat Man, Indiana Jones) takes me back to those days.
One of my favorite Atari games was Pitfall. I remember endless attempts to swing over pits of mud large enough that if you didn’t push the jump button at exactly the right moment you sank and had to start over at the beginning and replay the whole level. When I got into a groove, swinging and leaping steadily across the screen, it was satisfyingly rhythmic and effortless. There was an almost meditative quality to it. But when I kept having to repeat the same section over and over, it was frustrating and tedious. I’d play until I was cranky and my eyes hurt, and I wasn’t sure why except that I felt compelled not to quit until I got it right.
That compulsion to prove you can do it, succeed and advance to the next level, is one of the familiar driving forces in video game play. To get to point D you have to reach goal B and acquire item C. Rinse, lather, repeat until you develop the skill and achieve the goal. Usually there’s a right way to do it, and any missteps will lead to an untimely demise. In contrast to the anxiety-provoking unpredictability of human interaction, the logical certainty of a world in which the same action always produces the same result is one of the underlying appeals of video games. As Leigh Alexander put it in an eloquent post about her experience at the Game Developers Conference:
You cannot redo that time you said or did the wrong thing; you cannot practice it until you solve the situation… Only in games can you restart, correct, and master. Only in your closed, pretend world can you reload a save if you break something.
That quest for a certainty of outcome can also be linked to what Carol Dweck, creator of the educational tool Brainology and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, calls a “fixed mind-set”. A fixed mind-set is predicated on the belief that ability and intelligence are inherent rather than learned, and is usually associated with being praised for being good or smart rather than for trying and learning. Her research showed that people with this way of thinking would rather repeat a specific skill they knew they’d succeed at (= smart and competent) than risk something new where they might fail (= stupid and incompetent). I grew up with a pretty fixed mind-set, and I think that for me games like Pitfall were a self-perpetuating loop of tiny successes, each well-timed jump confirming the belief that I was proficient and a winner.
From a fixed mind-set perspective, if you’re not a winner you’re a loser,
which puts an unbearably high price tag on failure. With a growth mind-set, which is the other perspective Dweck proposes, the value is in learning and developing. The growth approach is to take risks and learn from mistakes, which allows for failure to be taken much more lightly. But as Alexander points out, beyond all that there’s something valuable in knowing that it’s possible to actually get it right, even just once:
In games, there is always the possibility that we can win, at times when winning at life seems impossible. In bleak times I think about how I can never “win” my life; I will do some good things and some bad, I will be sad sometimes and happy others, and then I will die.
Video games might seem like a relatively low-stakes arena, but a challenging game sequence where the result of making a mistake is your character’s death brings up a bunch of the same physiological stress responses that would help you survive a genuine physical threat. One example that left me full of adrenaline was the ending of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I never actually managed to make it through the final fight in which the hero, Link, faces the shadow version of himself, Dark Link. It seems true to life somehow that the only adversary I wasn’t able to defeat was my evil self.
But the Lego games are different in a significant and interesting way, which is that you never die. In some games falling off a cliff means starting over at the beginning, and in others you get to start right before the hard part, but in the Lego universe you just flicker back into existence on the closest solid ground to whereever you messed up. It completely changes the definition of failure. You do lose money every time you “die” and there are lots of rewards that are only unlocked with coins, but you can actually play pretty much all the way through the games without making a dime.
When failure isn’t a disaster, and is even kind of fun – say jumping off a cliff in new and amusing ways or whacking C3PO until his limbs pop off and he has to hop everywhere – it opens up the game (and life) to different approaches and values. Players are free to interact with the universe and say, “hey, what happens if I do this?” Let’s both play the Emperor and take turns zapping each other with the force! It’s like a truly recreational sports league where you can play for fun or cooperatively, achieve at your own level, and practice as many times as necessary. You can choose to achieve all the goals and collect all the things, or wander around aimlessly, or attempt six impossible things before breakfast.
The million dollar question is: what would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?
alex MacFadyen wishes life were more like Lego.