Video Games and The Art of Losing

When was the last time that you can recall losing at a video game? I don’t mean dying and having to reload. I don’t mean losing all your lives and being sent back to the start of the map. I mean actually, honest to God, losing the game. It is a feeling that, as children, would have sent many of us into an emotional tailspin, the likes of which can only be drawn out by the uniquely cruel frustration that comes with losing a game.

Death of a Plumber

The first Super Mario game was notable for a number of reasons, but one of the really great things about it, and a source of endless fond memories for many of us was that when you ran out of lives, you went back to the beginning of the game. This meant that there was a palpable sense of tension that grew as you progressed through the game and God help you if you were part of the group and unlucky enough to be playing with the final life.

But then things changed. Soon, for Mario, death was not the end. You could acquire lives as you played the game, and you could lose them at a prodigious rate if you weren’t paying attention. But, even after the counter hit 0, Mario would simply dust himself off and return to the world’s beginning to try again. The concept of actually losing at a game, having the whole thing reset itself so you could try again from the beginning, has fallen out of favor. The continued existence of websites such as show that the challenge is still there, but the consequences of failure are not.

The Economics of Death

The most obvious explanation for this is quite simple. Although we think of Mario as being one of the classics, Mario was actually kind of late to the party. His first appearance was in the arcade hit Donkey Kong, another game where death meant death. This made sense in the arcade. Before there was a home market for video games, arcade operators needed the queues to keep moving and the money to keep rolling in. This wouldn’t have worked if the player could just play until they finished, or got bored, which was unlikely given that sustained fun in the real world hadn’t been invented yet.

Will We Ever Lose Again?

It seems that players just aren’t demanding the same challenge anymore and the way we approach games has changed. They are the only entertainment medium where if the product doesn’t judge you to be good enough, it will lock away content. Can you imagine a DVD that would stop playing if you couldn’t answer questions about the film?

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While many of us would love to see more games embrace the joy of losing, it is a risky proposition for a developer. And for players who are already grumbling about the ever-growing price tag of their games, perhaps there is a sense that they are entitled to win.

For many of us, video games taught us a valuable lesson about losing and while games have become more challenging, nothing can really capture the tension and excitement that comes with the threat of having all the hours you’ve put in so far ripped out from under you.


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