The Art of Losing: How Games Teach Us Life’s Most Arduous Lesson

Morpheus (left) about to give Neo (right) a lecture on Losing.

 

In the 1988 Nintendo Entertainment System classic ‘Mega Man 2’, after the player has successfully defeated all eight of Dr. Wily’s evil master robots, they are tasked with traversing the trials of his dreaded, skull-crested castle. This requires the player to overcome four consecutive levels whose brutal difficulty surpasses that of the first half of the game by leaps and bounds. The player then must go on an additional “boss run”, having to do battle with the eight aforementioned master robots again. This eventually leads to Dr. Wily himself, who has three separate forms, each more daunting and baffling than the last. All of these challenges must be completed back-to-back-to-back, with no way to save one’s progress.

 

Where nightmares are born.

 

In short: Mega Man 2 was hard. Like really, really hard, and even more so if you were an eight-year-old playing it with no Internet in the early 90’s like me. Dr. Wily and his brigade of robots made me sweat and cry, they beat my little boy ego into a fine powder and blew its’ dust particles into the ether like a sort of gaming Cthulhu, indifferent to my feelings and my existence. It truly was something my adolescent brain could not handle and I never was able to finish the game during my youth.

 

This part in particular…ridiculous.

 

Fast forward to my college years. I was still young, but much more skilled in gaming, with an inflated ego only 20-somethings can muster. I felt I could do anything then, especially if it involved playing and beating video games, so I revisited the Mega Man series and wondered why I had ever walked away from them. These games weren’t ‘impossible’ anymore; they were fun! I loved getting my butt handed to me by the clever level design and developed an appreciation for the challenging but usually fair mechanics. I soon realized that the ignorance of my adolescent brain had only led me astray, far away from the gratifying nature of overcoming adversity. I ended up beating all ten of the Mega Man games (on the highest difficulty setting, mind you!) and wearing the accomplishments as sort of mental trophies, shining examples of when I ‘grew’ up a little and evolved my ability to get the most out of a thing that once made me so frustrated.

 

Or has the game only just begun…?

 

But why? What the hell happened? What changed within me exactly? And what precisely was it that I was avoiding when I was younger? I know I grew up and matured and all that, and I know my tastes in things evolved, but Mega Man didn’t change. Those games were still hard as ever. I still died like a thousand times trying to beat them. Where’s the proverbial lynchpin between my perspective of old and my perspective of new? Where’s the conflict?

The answer’s simple: I wanted to win. I didn’t want to lose and a game like Mega Man forces you to lose. You are going to fail. In Mega Man there are unavoidable pitfalls, impossible to read enemy patterns, stuff that will just kill you for no reason at all and you have to deal with it. A lot of old school video games are like this. A lot of things in general are like this. Games seem to reveal it most earnestly though – the concept that failure is somehow inextricably linked to victory.

But every red blooded, honor-cultured American will tell you the same thing: Losing sucks.

And they’re right because it’s true: Losing does suck. It sucks so bad that we’ve built a society that makes losing seem like the worst thing that can happen to a person. America is about winning and in a lot of ways that’s what makes it such an amazing country. However, such a culture doesn’t always lend itself well to what Mega Man has to offer.

 

Vince would have hated Mega Man 2.

 

Fast forward another decade; I’m almost 30, I have recently quit my night shift post-production gig and need a job fast to keep my head afloat. Through a strange combination of unique friends and even odder circumstances, I suddenly find myself as an after-school chess teacher for children. Kids who can’t even tie their own shoes or spell their own names are looking to me to teach them the densest, most mind numbing grand daddy board game of them all, Chess. I don’t think it can be accurately assumed how insurmountable such a task can be. If nobody hates losing more than Americans, than there is definitely nobody in existence who hates losing more than American five-year-olds. And to them, everything about Chess is losing. They lose as soon as they look at the board, with its’ 64 confusing squares and plethora of pieces that all seem impossible to use because they all have different rules. Even if by some incredible display of magic does a child figure out how to play the game, they then have to actually get check mates, and even stale mates, which are even worse than losing because nobody wins. And don’t even get me started on opening theory, goodness!

 

When it comes to kids learning chess, the odds are stacked against them.

 

At every phase of Chess the children are losing, both literally and figuratively. At first, the task to teach them how to play did seem impossible. I felt like if little ol’ me couldn’t even enjoy losing in a game like Mega Man 2, how could these kids enjoy losing over and over again at Chess?

 

Michael probably has a Mega Man 2 tattoo.

 

Eventually though, like most things in life, I surprised myself. I realized that the children were willing to grit their teeth and bang their heads against the wall in order to get the proverbial ‘carrot’ dangling at the end of the Chess-stick. It all started with me showing them that losing didn’t matter and really it was the only way to improve at a game like Chess. I openly expressed instances where I lost, how I was not the best player and how losing wasn’t painful but educational. I never focused on who was winning or who was losing, just getting through the game was enough for victory. To really drive it home, I told the kids they had to lose at least fifty times before they could get any better. To them, fifty is an enormous number, something insurmountable, but it poised their minds for how to proceed. By removing the sting of losing, they were able to retain the higher-level concepts and actually began looking forward to playing a 1,500 year-old game. I had done the impossible. I had helped them not necessarily like losing but rather to ignore it as just a part of the process.

And that’s the real take away from all this. Yes, losing sucks and as ego-driven human beings we really should try to do all we can to find paths to success, but more often then not those paths run straight through Loser Ville, where there is always vacancy waiting. Whether it’s Mega Man or Chess, there are excellent examples of this concept being utilized over and over again. All it requires is for us to muster the courage to face the fact that in this life we will all lose and will lose often.

And really, honestly…that’s just fine.

 

If you enjoyed reading this article and would like to tell Christopher how much of a loser he is, tweet him directly @CLPFilm 

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