Review: The Art of Failure by Jesper Juul

Book: The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Paid of Playing Video Games
Author: Jesper Juul, game studies academic
Year: 2013

Summary: A very smart look at failure in games as a psychological state, a gameplay mechanic, and as a narrative device. This is a theory book I would recommend to developers.

artoffailureThe Art of Failure is part of a “playful thinking” series published by MIT Press and, like the other books in the series, it’s a short rather academic exploration of a somewhat niche topic in games. The book describes itself as an “essay” and that may almost be accurate: the book is short at only 124 pages, not including the pages and pages of references at the end. One of the reasons I picked this book (and yes, the short length was one of them) is that the author – Jesper Juul – is often referenced in other academic or theory books on game design.

Since the topic has such a small scope, The Art of Failure is able to go into a great deal of depth into the issue while also being fairly comprehensive. This avoids a lot of the problems I’ve found with more general-topic game design textbooks, which tend to survey the field rather than dig deep into a single corner of it.

The book is divided into six sections: an introduction, defining what we mean by failure, the psychology of failure, failure as a gameplay mechanic, and failure as a narrative device or fictional dressing. While failure itself is explored largely in its relationship to games, the book also address failure (and related ideas of tragedy and catharsis) and its relationship to media in general.

The author introduces the readers to the topic of the book by exploring the “paradox of failure” – that we feel bad when we fail, but yet we seek out situations (games) that guarantee failure. The Art of Failure is Juul’s attempt to reconcile what we know about “failure” and our relationship to it and help understand and explain the allure of failure in games. While doing so, he introduces various psychological concepts such as self-defeating behaviors – players who purposely self-sabotage so that when they fail it has less impact than if they had properly prepared – and learned helplessness – the lack of belief in your own competence when faced with the possibility of failure.

Juul uses the chapter on the psychology of failure to cover a kind of axis of failure: internal-to-external (the fault of the player or the game), stable vs. unstable (whether or not it is due to chance), and global vs. specific (whether the player is deficient with no ability to improve, or just deficient in a particular skill). By mapping these against, say, a piece of gameplay, you can get a pretty good idea as to whether player failure feels fair or unfair and if players feel they can improve (and keep playing) or if the odds are stacked against them (and give up).

I felt that the chapter on failure as a gameplay mechanic was particularly good – in many ways, failure is just another way of looking at goal-setting. Juul’s divides goals into three categories – completable goals that can be reached only once, transient goals that can be reached many times (i.e. multiplayer matches), and improvement goals that measure you against your last performance (i.e. scoreboard). None of this is particularly new to me as a designer, but since the author approaches all these familiar concepts from the point of view of failure I found some new insights. For example, he points out that while games – in general – have gotten easier compared to the unforgiving nature of the 80s and 90s, failure itself has actually become more common.

I haven’t really addressed the chapter on failure as a narrative device in games because I find myself divided on it. The author uses Anna Karenina as an example of a tragedy – failure in fiction form – and explores how one might translate that story into a game. He ultimately comes to the conclusion that tragedy in a game involves a level of uncomfortable complicity – a player must direct the tragedy – that stands games apart from other media and makes it particularly difficult to implement. (I say ‘conclusion’ but really it’s more of an exploration of these ideas rather than grandstanding claims).

Keep in mind that this is an academic book so it’s drier than some of the other books written by and for designers, but since it’s short it doesn’t really last long enough to lose momentum. I will say that the introduction – which is almost a quarter of the whole book – felt like a slog that didn’t add much to the rest of the book and could be skipped. Once I got past the introduction I couldn’t put the book down, and barely a page goes by that I haven’t heavily underlined with great, fascinating pull-quotes. For such a short book, I barely touched on the topics it covers – I only highlighted a handful that I found particularly interesting.

That said, after reading the book I did have a sense that it was somewhat meandering, and not as directed or carefully organized as I would have preferred. To be fair the author does describe it almost as a personal essay of sorts. I think it’s best to describe The Art of Failure as an attempt to explore the topic from various angles rather than leading the reader through a predetermined thesis and conclusion. (This is possibly one of its strengths rather than a weakness).

The Art of Failure is probably best at home among game studies students and academics, but it’s written in a way that I think a lot of developers who are interested in a bit of theory would appreciate. While I can’t claim it’s practice-oriented, it does use lots of real life examples of games to support its exploration of failure , grounding it better than some other academic writing I’ve come across.

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