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Games are about failure, eventually

I’ve been musing for a while about games and the habits and patterns of thought that they encourage—I believe that board games and card games and parlor games are terrific for those habits and patterns of thought. As the Youngest Member gets older and better at games, we have been playing more of them and more complex ones. Lately we’ve been playing a lot of Splendor and 6 Nimmt! and some One Deck Dungeon and some Careers and some Settlers of Catan and some other stuff.

But still, more of my time and more of my children’s time is spent playing on the computer than on the table top. It’s an easy and simple thing to pick up the laptop or tablet and play a game on the computer: you don’t need anyone else to be around and not busy, and you don’t need to play a whole game at once, and it tickles the lights and buzzes and clickety-click parts of the brain in a way that board games don’t.

And I was thinking… I mostly play Tetris, Twenty and 2048, in short bursts throughout the day. Terrific games, great time-killers and mood-eveners for me. And they are all designed to end with the player losing. The point of the game is to postpone losing as long as you can, but losing is inevitable. It’s the only end condition. You can’t win; you can only play for long enough to reach various goals. You can declare victory when you get to twenty twenties, or when you get to two-to-the-eighth, and if you have strength of will you can stop playing at that moment, but the game is designed to continue until failure.

This is fundamentally different from solitaire, where there is at least a chance to win, even if in many solitaire games you seldom do. A habit of mind based on playing that sort of game a lot might, perhaps, train a person not to expect success at long odds, but to be happy when it comes. And of course it’s different from a game where someone is bound to lose because there can be only one winner—most games are like that, and they may ingrain various habits of mind about competition, losing gracefully, winning gracefully, tactics v. strategy, and of course whatever the actual game involves, resource management or probability or hand-eye coordination or whatever. But what are the habits of mind that are ingrained, unconsciously, by playing games that you know will always end in failure?

When I was very small, there were no games that were designed to end in failure. That was a computer-game thing that came in when I was old enough to stand at a console. Asteroids and Space Invaders and Lunar Lander, Galaga and Missile Command and Centipede, you played for as long as you could on a quarter. That wasn’t every game at the time, any more than it is now, but the concept of the game that ends when your last ship crashes became a perfectly normal game at that point. When I was ten or so. Not earlier.

Well, is that true? Pinball ends in failure, and pinball has been around since 1950. I mean, with flippers, such that the point is to play as long as you can on a single ball. The pinball/pachinko concept is older than that, but was kinda like skeeball, in that the point was to garner a lot of points, not to keep playing. And of course the point of pinball is to get a high score, which is not failure, but then if you think about it, nobody ever just gets the high score and lets the ball go through the chute immediately after. Once you have a high score (if you do) you try to get more points, and then it’s just like Tetris, innit?

Similarly, I played catch with my brothers, counting up the number of successful toss-and-catch events, and that could only end in someone dropping the ball or Frisbee. Keeping a balloon in the air for as many taps as possible—however long it stayed up, it can end only in the balloon touching the ground. I don’t remember playing any other such games, although I could invent them. Sinking as many consecutive free-throws as possible; pitching cards into a hat; stacking building blocks as high as I can reach. Building a house of cards, I seem to recall, could end in success, when I decided the house was perfect, or maybe when I used the whole deck. I mean, eventually it falls, but I think I would at least sometimes build to my satisfaction and then knock the thing down on purpose. Maybe I’m misremembering, though.

Anyway, the less interesting question, to me at the moment at any rate, is whether the prevalence of play-until-failure games really does develop different habits of mind in the generation raised after 1980 or so. The more interesting question is whether there are play-until-failure games that predate pinball with flippers in 1950 or so, and how common they were for previous generations.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I'm not sure about habits of mind, but it seems like it's a good metaphor for life, and possibly a beneficial one, because in life the goal isn't to win and then stop, the goal is to keep on playing until you can't any more, and, ideally, have a shit-ton of fun along the way.

Jacks, no?

In general, for play-until-failure to be interesting, there has to be a mechanism for play to get progressively harder. Computers are great at that. For earlier games, it would typically mean adding more thingies - more jacks, more pick-up sticks, etc. In computer games, there's often an increase in speed. I'm not sure how you would do that with a game that wasn't automated. I'd be curious, though, if there were mechanical but not electronic games that sped up.

Something that comes immediately to mind from pre-1950 is the concept of the hitting streak in baseball. Now, the hitting streak is incidental to the goals of the game, but can only end in failure, and it was certainly a big deal, at least by the time that Joe Dimaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games in 1941.

I'll have to think more about (what I know of) the history of games, but I don't know that the psychology of "the game ends when you fail" is sufficiently different from "the game ends when you have a set number of turns" to be significant. One could say that baseball always ends, for the batting team, in failure. The inning ends when you have made three outs--that's basically like one quarter's worth of space invaders, isn't it?

Freeze tag--play until everyone on the "being frozen" team is frozen, then change sides. Release--play until everyone on one side is caught, then change sides. Again, it's like Space Invaders, except that in human vs. human games, the teams with the separate roles change sides. The computer games just omit the switch.

Jacob—excellent thinking of Jacks and Pick-up sticks, but at last the way I used to play them, there was a winning condition. That is, while most turns end in failure, it is possible to run through onesies all the way up to tensies and win. And with pick-up sticks, someone is eventually bound to win by successfully picking up the last stick. Each individual turn has failure as an end condition, but the game's winner is successful, and not necessarily just through the failure of others.

I think your point about increasing difficulty is excellent, but got me thinking about mumblety-peg and five-finger-fillet and other games that end in a different sort of failure. So, um, not good.

Chris—Freeze tag is a good example, although of course that ends in failure for everyone except the first 'it' (or, rather, in my experience, actually ends in someone hitting someone else or cheating or crying or otherwise causing the game to short-circuit, but that's not the structure of the rules). Similarly Ga-Ga or other elimination games have failure as an end-condition for everyone except the winner.

Baseball does mostly end in failure for the offense (although I have largely stopped thinking of it as offense-defense—that is, mentally I think the pitchers should think of themselves as the offense with a goal of getting 27 outs, and should think of the batters as defending the plate against them) but that's not structural. Each team comes to bat for the last time with a victory condition that is at least theoretically achievable, and occasionally happens. Failure is not the only end condition; walk-off victories do occur.

I wonder if H-O-R-S-E could be said to have failure as a structural end condition. That is, someone has to fail at a thing to get that E sometime.


Oh! I thought of a non-computer game that always involves playing to failure! Riding a mechanical bull (or, presumably, riding a real bull, if you're a rodeo type).

Also, of course, ferret-legging.

When I was growing up, we played a version of dodgeball in which there were people in the middle, dodging, and people on the outside, throwing at them. The game would continue until everybody on the inside (either of a circle or between two marked lines on a driveway) was hit and eliminated. That means, of course, that the throwers "win," but that's the same as the Space Invaders winning. It's an inevitable outcome, unless the kids get called in to dinner before the game is finished or something. That form of dodgeball is different from scatter dodgeball in which each person plays for himself or herself, with play continuing until only one player is left, making that player the winner. It also differs from pin dodgeball, which we played in school, with two teams waling balls at each other and at the four bowling pins behind the people. One team or the other would win in that case.

Yes, Jacob... I have never ridden a bull of any kind, but clearly that is a game with failure as a necessary end-condition. If not hospitalization.

Chris, I do think your elimination dodgeball is a failure-end-condition- game, and I vaguely remember playing that, back in the day. If I am remembering correctly, it did have the same sort of feel as Tetris, that there was a sort of sense of accomplishment when I lasted longer than other people in the middle, and that sense could last even after getting out, despite the failure that led to my final getting out. In truth, since I don't think I have actually won a game of Ga-Ga, the experience for me was much the same as a failure-end-condition game, but in that case there was the possibility of winning; in this dodgeball variant there is not.


They generally have a mechanical bull at the Durham Fair -- my wife got on last year and did pretty well. She's got strong arms. Come down and try it this summer. :)

One of the things that's fun for me about computer games that speed up as you go (such as Tetris) is the way you get used to the speed. For me, at least, if I jumped in on an advanced level of Tetris or a game like that, it would be way too fast. But having built up to it from the earlier levels, I can do it. Not sure if that counts as a habit of mind.

I've gone down a bit of a rathole looking around at antique mechanical arcade games, many of which are pretty cool. I have not found any that speed up as you go until you fail, in the way that computer arcade games generally do. The most standard types in the early 20th century appear to have been pachinko-style games where you flip a ball or coin and hope it lands in the right chute, bowling games, shooting range games, and devices that would give you an electric shock if you put in a coin. Maybe that last one isn't really a game -- the not-really-a-game category also includes strength testers, love meters, and fortune tellers.

I feel as if I ought to jump in and declare the love meters to be a game that ends in failure before anyone else gets a chance to.


I have had "keep the balloon off the ground" end in being done playing before it touches the ground (victory), and end in the balloon popping in the air (not victory, but not defeat), and end in the balloon getting stuck in something on top of something a floor lamp (victory as long as the lamp isn't too hot). Most of the time it's like group hackeysack or volleyball practice, though, with inevitable group defeat.

But I think there's something qualitatively different about group defeat vs individual defeat. If I'm not the one who let the balloon touch the ground, then the loss is less traumatic. In Tetris, I'm going to be the one who inevitably loses.

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