You died. I died. Everyone died: the experience of failure in videogames

Study of failure in videogames

There is only a handful of game researchers who showed their interest for the phenomenological study of errors and failures (not related to usability) in videogames.

Among those I would highlight the work developed by Jesper Jull (see references at the bottom), Laura Ermi, Frans Mäyrä, Kiel Gilleade, Alan Dix, Jane McGonigal, Randy Fujimoto, Denis Ramirez and colleagues, and Niklas Ravaja and colleagues.

On the contrary, in HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), ergonomics or human factors fields there is an old record of human error research: error taxonomy (Reason, 1990), theoretical models for error detection, identification and recovery (Reason, 1990; Sellen & Norman, 1992; Sellen, 1994), methods to design and assess error tolerant systems (Molich & Nielsen, 1990; D. A. Norman, 1983; Reason, 2000), among other lines of research.

The biggest contribution of HCI, ergonomics or human factors to the study of failure in videogames is their positive view of human error. Errors or failures are not conceived as something to avoid and/or punished, but instead studied and exploited. From the perspective of ergonomics, an error demonstrates the audacity and curiosity of the human spirit, it is an open window for a deeper knowledge of ongoing activities, has a pedagogic quality and a role in regulating action (Silva, 2015).

Failure as a player experience dimension

Why is failure a dimension of player experience like flow, fun, gratification, immersion, and others?

1. Failure is present during most of the gameplay

Videogames, as life in general, are packed with failure: when we play we fail about 80% of the time (Fujimoto, 2012; Juul, 2013; McGonigal, 2011). Flow, a widely known dimension of player experience (PX) in games introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, was characterized by some authors (Blythe & Hassenzahl, Järvinen, A., Heliö, S. in Ermi & Mäyrä, 2005; Sweetser & Wyeth, 2005) as a sporadic psychological state that the player may or may not achieve during gameplay. The same can be applied to other PX dimensions such as immersion or presence.

Therefore, failure events occur with greater frequency in videogames than other PX dimensions, like flow, immersion or presence. Being present during most of the gameplay, failure is an aspect of games which cannot be ignored, nor be only associated with punishments or rewards, or just accounted as a objective measurement for balancing the level of difficulty or solving usability problems. Failure has to be studied as a single phenomenon that has specific potentialities in facilitating some cognitive and emotional states in human beings, and, as such, as a tool to change human behavior.

2. Failure is experienced in any game

Not only throughout a game, failure is also experienced in any game, or at least in the most positively rated videogames, as incredible as this sounds. In a qualitative study conducted by Juul (2009), in partnership with Gamelab, satisfaction and causal attribution questionnaires related to failure were applied to participants who lost or didn't lost during their gameplay. Players rated more positively videogames where they had lost at least one time, and on the contrary, rated more negatively games where they didn't lost at all.

3. Failure is necessary to start playing

We can fail from the very start, long before we enter in a state of immersion, flow or presence. For example, in the famous videogame Portal (Valve, 2007), the first 3D puzzle FPS, the player starts its game experience in a room where he doesn't know how to leave or how he got there, and no helping instruction is provided.

®Portal, Valve Corporation 2007

The player only hears a speaking computerized voice, the GLaDOS system, which comments about the wrong or right player actions (much like a feedback mechanism), but without any hard and concrete clues about how to open the room door. Right from the start, the player discovers the level (and game) goal through learn by doing which results from the interaction with the game's environment. Through direct interaction with each object, the player learns about the game's world, much like a child does when exploring the world for the first time.

One of the features that elicits the state of presence in videogames is its social and perceptive realism (Lombard et al., 2000; McMahan, 2003; Tamborini & Bowman, 2010). This means that the game world objects should contain affordances that mimic the ones in the real world. Well, in real life an instructional panel doesn't appear with a notice telling what's the goal to attain: we discover it through the interaction with the world and its actors, and feel amazing when we get to do it by ourselves. So, by making the player discover its goal instead of being effortlessly given to him, the game comes closer to reality and so promotes a deeper immersion of the player. Also, this strategy raises his sense of cognitive independence, as well as of responsibility for his learning successes and skill acquisition. In Portal, the player doesn't just follow orders (instructions); he discovers the game.

In this game, as in other good videogames, it's through trial and error, or failures that elicit more cognitive resources, that the player learns how to play.

To start playing the player has to fail, and to be proficient at playing the player has to keep on failing (Ramirez et al., 2014).

4. Failure facilitates flow, immersion and presence states

It has been widely accepted that attentional resources have to be in their best (high) so that the player can enter into flow, immersion or presence states (Brown & Cairns, 2004; Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, 1992, 2014; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 2014; Takatalo, Häkkinen, Kaistinen, & Nyman, 2008 and others), and that failure events elicit a raise in cognitive resources right after the failure. So, by having to allocate more cognitive resources due to failure (specially those related to attentional resources), the player more easily enters into the mentioned states.

5. Failure is recognized by players as part of the experience

In a study conducted by Poels and colleagues (in Takatalo et al., 2015), on the basis of qualitative interviews to gamers and specialist assessments, they were able to categorize 9 sub-components or dimensions which defined game's PX (player experience). One of the dimensions was the negative affects associated with disappointment and frustration, the resulting emotions related to failure. Therefore, failure, with its emotional valences, it's recognized by players as a fundamental aspect of the playing experience.

In another study, by Drachen and colleagues (2009) and with focus on Tomb Raider:Underworld (Crystal Dynamics, 2008), the average number of player deaths was 140, but nonetheless this game got a player average rating of 7.6/10 and 80/100 on the assessments made by game critics (Metacritic, 2008).

After all, gaming doesn't mean to be fun or amused all the time; on the contrary, games activate a series of negative emotions like frustration, anger, anxiety and sadness (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014). However, gamers rate games positively even of they fail a lot. And I mean really a lot.

So in short, failure is:

  • Independent from other PX dimensions, such as immersion or flow, appearing before and after them;
  • Recognized by players as a fundamental aspect of the playing experience;
  • A frequent phenomenon throughout the game, and universal to all games;
  • A facilitator for other less frequent cognitive states, or motivational factors, like flow or presence;
  • An aspect that when not present promotes a more negative player rating of the game.

Because all of this, failure is indeed a fundamental aspect or dimension of the player experience (PX).

Yet, it is certain that you can remember several personal occasions where your failure experience in a game was not felt at all as positive or fun, but as a punishment. If failure has so much positive traits why do we almost always rate it negatively? For that, in my next article I will explore the distinction between failure and punishment and provide some reasons to why we recall failure as a negative experience.


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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (Vol. 41). HarperPerennial New York.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (2014). Validity and reliability of the experience-sampling method. In Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology (pp. 35–54). Springer.

Drachen, A., Canossa, A., & Yannakakis, G. N. (2009). Player modeling using self-organization in Tomb Raider: Underworld. In Computational Intelligence and Games, 2009. CIG 2009. IEEE Symposium on (pp. 1–8). IEEE.

Ermi, L., & Mäyrä, F. (2005). Fundamental components of the gameplay experience: Analysing immersion. Worlds in Play: International Perspectives on Digital Games Research, 37, 2.

Fujimoto, R. (2012). Games and Failure. Retrieved December 14, 2015, from

Granic, I., Lobel, A., & Engels, R. C. M. E. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69(1), 66.

Juul, J. (2009). Fear of failing? the many meanings of difficulty in video games. The Video Game Theory Reader, 2, 237–252.

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Ramirez, D., Seyler, S., Squire, K., & Berland, M. (2014). I’m a Loser, Baby: Gamer Identity & Failure. In Proceedings of DiGRA 2014: Verb that ends in “ing”> the noun> of Game plural noun>.

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Sellen, A. J. (1994). Detection of everyday errors. Applied Psychology, 43(4), 475–498.

Silva, C. (2015). Class 3: Enquadramento conceptual de erro humano (2), Taxonomias do erro humano e Caráter relativo do direito ao erro [Powerpoint slides].

Sweetser, P., & Wyeth, P. (2005). GameFlow: a model for evaluating player enjoyment in games. Computers in Entertainment (CIE), 3(3), 3.

Takatalo, J., Häkkinen, J., & Nyman, G. (2015). Understanding Presence, Involvement, and Flow in Digital Games. In Game User Experience Evaluation (pp. 87–111). Springer.

Tamborini, R., & Bowman, N. D. (2010). Presence in video games. Immersed in media: Telepresence in everyday life. Routledge New York, NY.

Takatalo, J., Häkkinen, J., Kaistinen, J., & Nyman, G. (2008). User Experience in Digital Games. In I. Pavlidis (Ed.), Human-Computer Interaction (pp. 315–334). InTech.

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