No one likes to lose.
Except…that’s not true is it?
We play games like Lost Souls, where the point is to win but only through grinding loss. We read grimdark in massive numbers where the hero isn’t and no one really wins; traumatised survival really being the best outcome.
In the UK, at least, we love the heroic failure so much there are even books about them that we cherish as national icons.
Except most of that isn’t really failure, not in the immanent, personal sense. Many people (me included) find games where repeated failure is the aim to be off putting. Most of us avoid conflict (if we’re lucky enough to live in stable societies where such a thing can be done). We avoid quitting jobs because of the risk, we worry about doing anything where we might not be great immediately.
Indeed, in many forms of fiction, failure is symptomatic of moral weakness or failure. Often bad guys are flawed in precisely this way – they have failed at something crucial and now are bad as a direct response to that failure.
Perhaps worse still – in real life, although we say we want authenticity, we want leaders who take risks…well we turn on them pretty quickly when they fail to deliver. Consider how so many people turned on Obama because he couldn’t deliver on what they expected from him. (Now you may say it was poor expectation management, but really? Are people so infantile that they believed the extraordinarily complex process of government could deliver whatever baggage they put onto Obama?)
Along with everything else I do, I play and crew a couple of LARPs. I do it because I i) love stories, ii) love hitting other nerds in the face and iii) get to meet a huge bunch of wonderful, kind and funny people in a field with booze and fancy dress.
We had a big battle at one of these over the summer where the players lost the battle in record time. Now, I’m not that interested in discussing here why that was. What I want to talk about is how we respond compared to how we say we respond.
Overall the response was positive – the system is one where if you get it wrong, well there’s some hand holding but not a lot. As far as I’m concerned, the players got it about as wrong as humanly possible.
The aftermath is where I thought it got interesting as it was, for me, like someone had put together a very specific social experiment all for me to observe. I saw all the classic forms of response to failure.
- People denied it was a failure (the we meant to do it scenario)
- People denied it was their fault (the it wasn’t my fault scenario, if I’d been in charge, it would have been different!)
- People denied it was anyone’s fault (the it’s an accident scenario)
- People blamed others (the It was your fault)
- People blamed the system (The we were powerless! scenario)
- People said it was fixed (The ‘we were always going to lose’ scenario alongside the ‘the others cheated’ scenario)
After the initial reactions bubbles took effect where small circles of people were able to claim that ‘lots of people’ agreed with them. Which is another classic case of self-reinforcing socialisation of ideas.
The leaders in that group did not publicly apologise for their role in the debacle, nor did there appear to be much reflection on how they got it wrong…except the next battle evidenced such clear learning that they came in and smashed it out of the park.
Now I wasn’t charged with responding to much of this – to be honest I do it in more challenging contexts (ie where actual money and lives are affected) in real life, so that’s fine by me, but watching the procession was no different to watching people process grief – which is fine, because that’s exactly what losing provokes in us. That dissonance between the world turning out one way and what we expect it to do when we consider that we’re in control.
I was considering how this intersects with real life and why it provoked such a storm of people responding in a classic instinctive sense and it occurred to me, in proper pop-science fashion, that we spend most of our real lives avoiding failure at all costs. I don’t mean that we spend most of our lives succeeding wildly so it’s not an issue. We’re a bit of a cross between Captain Kirk in Wrath of Kahn (who cheated the test designed to make him face failure) and Homer Simpson, who always (haplessly) chooses the easy way out.
We live in a safe culture, sure it has its grinding issues that we can discuss elsewhere, but we’re bloody fortunate. However, extending Richard Sennett’s argument in The Corrosion of Character that proposes that work regulations are so tight that we no longer have to make moral choices on a day to day basis (which renders us weakly sensitive to them more generally), I wonder if the lack of living in circumstances where we can fail enough to learn how to innovate, respond to it and overcome such challenges does the same for us in terms of how we build the capacity to fail into our characters.
Think about when you failed last. I mean actually failed. Be it relationship, work, in being a good friend. Then think about the things you don’t do because you don’t want to look dumb, or foolish – like dancing, or speaking up in public, or in making yourself vulnerable. I think we actively choose not to fail in that we actively choose not to engage in activities where we think failure is an option.
No, I don’t like failing. I suspect you don’t either. But some failure is good for the soul because it stops us reacting to its inevitable arrival in other contexts like four year olds who think the world is targeting them personally and how dare it.
One of the things I love about the USA is its view of failure is very different. Even legally. Bankruptcy is just another process there – without moral implications of personal failure. It’s one reason why they’re better at taking innovation through from idea to actual business. Sure, it has its downsides as an attitude as well, but I wish we Brits were a bit braver in general.
For my fiction this means that I tend to want characters who are dislikable but go through some change, some failure that forces them to rethink who and what they are. It’s not always successful as many readers want characters who are more like them than not. I struggle with that; it’s not why I read fiction, personally. I want to meet alien ideas, people I detest but who are plausible and situations I’m not going to be in ever. Now, I don’t mind absurdist writing like most grimdark, or epic fantasy, where the characters operate in the far end of what, in our society, we’d designate as seriously mentally ill and in need to some immediate aid. But I prefer properly alien, properly other to the faux other of most fantasy and contemporary fiction.
I hope to write that too.