Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

Last winter, I spent some time living in a large house on top of a hill in Berkeley, California that was being shared by a group of people who all worked in dance, physical therapy, massage and other things to do with movement and the body. It felt like a world apart from the games industry — in fact, finding a place in the house where I could use my computer without disrupting the “energy” for other people was a challenge. Yet it helped me to think about the aesthetics of games, precisely by forcing me to connect with playfulness outside of computation and dice rolls.

One of the housemates was explaining a class he sometimes teaches, called “monkey conditioning”. Monkey conditioning is about exercising in a playful way: scrambling around, climbing things, being sociable and curious. He said that part of the work of designing a monkey conditioning class is working out what kind of goals to set, and how to make the goals interesting targets rather than benchmarks for failure. If you’re like me, then this sounds to you a lot like game design.

Failure conditions and penalties represent a significant aesthetic choice for designers of games and other playful experiences. Other exercise classes, he said, might have a stricter failure threshold: you want people to keep trying to do something properly, and failing at it in order to train the body into something very strictly defined: it’s a more transformative process, and one that brings the inherent reward of gaining something that was hard won. In contrast to other classes’ focus on pushing the body to do something it previously could not do, this teacher saw monkey conditioning as much more about rediscovering what you can do.

If we want to get to grips with the joy of play, we have to address the pain of failure. Click To Tweet

When it comes to games and play, failure is a site of important design questions. What constitutes failure, if anything? How far does this game punish failure? How much time do you spend dwelling on repairing a failure, compared to exploring a new avenue for success? In Raph Koster’s early work on game grammar, the absence of a cost for failure was to him a possible explanation for why a game might not feel like “fun”. At the time Koster wrote this, he was thinking about the lessons learned from designing the early MMO Everquest; by now, there is a lineage of games influenced by Everquest with an a characteristic try-fail-repeat rhythm, perfected to ensure that players stay interested for longer. The monkey conditioning teacher might see the value of failure penalties very differently, preferring fewer failure moments. That speaks to the different aesthetics of fun that different designers might be going for.

As critically-minded players and designers, we can embrace failure in a number of ways. If we’re more interested in a variety of aesthetic experiences beyond the search for stickiness and “fun”, we could ask how the aesthetic of a playful experience is affected by how failure has been constructed. In most games, failure comes with a death, a true interruption to your stream of consciousness and intention and a forced return to a previous state. Gaming becomes an ascetic exercise in experiencing death time and time again and analysing its conditions, in order to better learn how to live. The level of asceticism depends on the harshness of the failure conditions: the level of fervour inspired by Dark Souls (2011) might be explained by this quasi-spiritual quality, its unrelenting interference in the illusion of a continuing ego.

In other games, failure is just a step in a different direction – if you’re willing embrace the consequences of your past failures, you might discover something you would never have known had you clung to the dream of success. As The Sims has developed as a franchise over the years, death itself has become just a transition into a different form of life: ghosts, for example, are now playable characters who just happen to not be human anymore: the header image for this post, from The Sims 4 (2014), shows a bad-boy ghost in a studded leather jacket touching his cold dead hand to an adoring partner’s face.

Failure has been on my mind for a long time, in one way or another. At Queerness and Games Conference 2013 a conversation was facilitated over Skype between two theorists – Jesper Juul, one of the figureheads of games studies, and Jack Halberstam, one of the figureheads of queer studies. Juul had recently published a book called The Art of Failure (2013), and Halberstam had published one called The Queer Art of Failure (2011).

Both theorists were accounting for cases where failure is seemingly embraced. In games, we go into this experience knowing that the software is, in most cases, designed to give us challenges that we will fail at at least a couple of times. Queerness is about accepting and loving ourselves for things that we may have been brought up to see as our failings: that’s the point of reclaiming the slur word in the first place. A failure to be a “proper man,” for example, gets transformed through queer-coded cultural signs into something beautiful in itself. Though not queer-coded, Octodad (2014) could be described as a camp game, because its aesthetic  comes from one’s failure to be a proper man.

Embracing failure can feel more alive and authentic than striving for success. Click To Tweet

These two scholars’ ideas about failures reflect different aesthetics of playfulness. What Juul is exploring is almost a kind of masochism, failing over and over again and feeling that humiliation and frustration as a motivator to keep going, knowing that eventually we will overcome and the success will feel all the sweeter for it. Halberstam’s failure is different, because it’s a failure to succeed at a game that was rigged to begin with: nobody truly succeeds at heteronormativity, because everybody fails to fit the mould in one way or another. Better to fail fabulously and expose the system for its inadequacies, than to diminish oneself in order to pass as a success.

“Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style, to quote Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon “trying and trying again.” In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.”

Both approaches to failure aim at constructing a kind of pride: either the pride at having perfected something that was difficult to achieve, or the pride that comes from reclaiming the failure as an expression of freedom. Both theories teach us that it is the game that produces the failure in the first place, just as heteronormativity is itself the source of queerness. Here’s Juul on Portal (2007):

“Before playing a game in the Portal series, we probably did not consider the possibility that we would have problems solving the warp-based spatial puzzles that the game is based on—we had never seen such puzzles before! This is what games do: they promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy—an inadequacy that they produce in us in the first place.”

In life and in games, a question we can ask about our actions is how they design philosophies of failure. Is failure a proof of your inadequacies as a player, or does it expose the quirks of the game itself? When do we try to overcome the failure through transforming ourselves, and when do we let the failure stand testament to how the game was broken to begin with?