“What a Loser!”

Today I happened to see a friend playing FIFA – he was doing really well, playing an inferior team against Brazil and holding on all the way to a penalty shootout. In the shootout, though, things didn’t go so well and once Brazil took a commanding lead, he turned off the game. I know this impulse oh so well, and it always makes me feel kind guilty, even a bit dirty. It makes me ask myself what it would take to lose. (I have written a bit about this before, but it’s interesting, so sue me.)

My personal experience is of a constant struggle to accept loss in video game, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The reason is pretty transparent: games place us in the position of power, the most important person in the world of the game (at least in single-player, where we are the only person in the world of the game, really). We literally own the game, and it gives us different facilities to make sure we do well: it holds our hand in tutorials, it has graded difficulty levels, we can restore our games, we respawn when we die. And on and on.

Sports games though, walk a different line, I think. They’re usually premised pretty heavily on realism (well, the ones I ordinarily play – things like NFL Blitz are exlucded here). In real sports, you win some and you lose some (unless you’re the ’72 Dolphins). As a sports fan, I heavily subscribe to the existential importance of losing as part of my experience of watching sport – it’s something I’ve had a lot of practice with thanks to the Dallas Cowboys of the past decade and a half. If your team never loses then, in a strange sense, there’s something wrong. It wouldn’t seem right.

These two aspects of sports and games create a tension in sports-based video games: we’re the all-powerful ruler of the game, but we have to lose sometimes to maintain the integrity of our experience. This means that in a very real sense we have to let ourselves lose, a little like a deity allowing mortals to wrap him in chains and detain him, say. We have to resist simply reloading the game, we have to know that we won’t during our actual play, we have to avoid the cheap-ass plays that always work. All in the quest of a pure sporting experience, and also the experience of a more true agency – the idea that we brought about an outcome that was fair and thus, in an important sense, real.

The rewards for managing to allow loss are great. The agony of defeat is strangely sweet. The glory of winning in the last seconds is intensified by knowing it could have gone the other way. There is, ultimately, a perverse pride and even nobility in being able to lose. You can hold your head high as a defender of reality, a guardian of possibility – no small thing in a virtual world. When I play well, I win some and I lose some, but when I lose I imagine the virtual crowd looks on admiringly and murmurs,

“Ah, yes, but what a loser he was!”

13 August 2010
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