No one likes to fail. So how is it that gamers can spend 80 percent of the time failing, and still love what they’re doing?” Games researcher Nicole Lazzaro likes to stump audiences with tough questions, and this is one of her favorites. Lazzaro, an expert on gameplay emotions, has been working in the game industry for twenty years as a design consultant. Lazzaro has long suspected that gamers love to fail, and a team of psychologists at the M.I.N.D. Lab in Helsinki, Finland, recently confirmed it with scientific evidence. When we’re playing a well-designed game, failure doesn’t disappoint us. It makes us happy in a very particular way: excited, interested, and most of all optimistic. If that finding surprises you, then you’re not alone—the Finnish researchers weren’t expecting that result, either. But today, the “fun failure” study is considered one of the most important findings in the history of video game research.3 It helped pinpoint for the first time exactly how a well-designed game helps players develop exceptional mental toughness.
The M.I.N.D. Lab is a state-of-the-art psychophysiology research center, packed with biometric systems designed to measure emotional response: heart rate monitors, brain wave monitors, electrical sensors, and more. In 2005, to kick off a new research effort focused on emotional response to video games, the lab invited thirty-two gamers to play the highly popular Super Monkey Ball 2. The M.I.N.D. Lab team expected that gamers would exhibit the strongest positive emotion when they earned high scores or when they completed difficult levels—in other words, during the triumphant fiero moments. players did indeed show peaks of excitement and satisfaction during these moments. But the researchers noticed another set of positive emotion peaks that caught them off guard. They found that players exhibited the most potent combination of positive emotions when they made a mistake and sent the monkey ball veering off the side of the lane. Excitement, joy, and interest shot through the roof the second they lost their monkey ball. Whenever a player made a mistake in Super Monkey Ball 2, something very interesting happened, and it happened immediately: the monkey went whirling and wailing over the edge and off into space. This animation sequence played a crucial role in making failure enjoyable. The flying monkey was a reward: it made players laugh. But more importantly, it was a vivid demonstration of the players’ agency in the game. The players hadn’t failed passively. They had failed spectacularly, and entertainingly.
The more we fail, the more eager we are to do better. The researchers were able to demonstrate this: the right kind of failure feedback is a reward. It makes us more engaged and more optimistic about our odds of success.
As technology journalist Clive Thompson reminds us, “It’s only fun to fail if the game is fair—and you had every chance of success.”
Koster says, “the destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun. Those of us who want games to be fun are fighting a losing battle against the human brain.” Fun will always morph into boredom, once we pass the critical point of being reliably successful. This is what makes games consumable: players wring all the learning (and fun) out of them. Fun failure is a way to prolong the game experience and stretch out the learning process. Meanwhile, when we can enjoy our own failure, we can spend more time suspended in a state of urgent optimism—the moment of hope just before our success is real, when we feel inspired to try our hardest and do our best.
As happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky writes, “We obtain maximum happiness when we take on flexible and appropriate goals.” Good games provide a steady flow of actionable goals in environments we know are designed for our success—and they give us the chance to inject some flexible and appropriate goals into our daily lives whenever we need them most. The success we achieve in games is not, of course, real-world success. But for many people it is more realistic than the kinds of success we put pressure on ourselves to achieve—whether it’s money, beauty, or fame.
To be a rock star is shorthand in our culture for supersized success. It’s one of our favorite symbols of status and fame—and it’s something that virtually none of us has any real hope of achieving. But when you play Rock Band 2, you get to aspire to rock stardom, with a knowing wink. Rock Band is a game for up to four friends who perform the role of rock stars by singing into a microphone, banging on a plastic drum kit, and pressing out chords on plastic guitars with buttons instead of strings. You follow musical cues from the game, which tell you which combination of notes to hit—or sing—and when. All the while, your customizable rock star avatar appears on the screen, rocking out on a stage. On all the instruments, the more accurately you hit your notes, the better and fuller the backing song tracks sound. If you’re messing up on drums, the drum track disappears from the song. If you’re hitting only half your guitar notes, the guitar track sounds spotty. But if the entire band is playing successfully, the song is virtually identical to the original artist’s track. Alex Rigopulos, one of the creators of the Rock Band series, has said that one of the goals of the game is for “the music to come alive when you’re playing.”And that’s the best way to describe the sensation of playing the game. Although you’re not really “playing” the music, you are making the music come to life. You can really hear the impact of your efforts in the song that’s produced—and hopefully you’re making it sound better. The more complicated your finger work or rhythm work, or the more demanding the pitch detector is of you, the more real the connection between your work and how the song feels. For all of these reasons, getting better at Rock Band feels like a truly worthy goal. You are mastering your favorite songs in a way that will let you connect and interact with them, and potentially perform them in front of an audience. This is perhaps the game’s biggest secret to cultivating the hope of success: the Rock Band gaming culture extends many, many opportunities to perform in front of audiences. You can perform in front of friends and family in your own home. You can go to bars in just about every major city to participate in Rock Band game nights and perform on a real stage. And Rock Band is also one of the most popular choices for live video game tournaments these days. The fun of Rock Band failure starts with the audio effects. If you get behind the beat or off your pitch or hit too many wrong notes, the song audibly starts to fall apart. First you hear bad notes in the musical accompaniment. Then you hear heckles and boos from the crowd. The more you fail, the more the song falls apart. Eventually, if you’re bad enough, the visual effects kick in: you’ll be booed off the stage by the animated crowd while your avatar pouts and skulks around the stage and all the band members shake their fists and scowl at each other. It’s a highly entertaining fail sequence—so over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh at yourself.