Failure in Video Games

By Michael Mendis

All gamers have had that moment, where you try your best and it just isn’t good enough.  You can’t figure out how to dodge that boss’s devastating attack; the swarms of zombies overwhelm you as you’re running out of ammo; a guard turns at just the wrong moment and spots you trying to sneak into the enemy compound.  You’ve failed.  You died.  Game over.


While we often think of all the triumphs that gamers enjoy when they save the princess and beat the game, we usually overlook the mountains of failure that came before.  Failure is a common part of the gaming experience, forcing you to learn and adapt until you can overcome the obstacles that the game puts in your path.  And beyond that, game developers have found ways to express their creativity through player failure, making experiences that can only be found in an interactive medium like gaming.

In some games, failure is inevitable.  Many classic arcade games are designed around the concept of achieving high scores rather than completing a story; the game doesn’t end until you die, until Pacman is finally devoured by ghosts or your last spaceship is blasted to pieces.  Even if you succeed in beating the highest scores of those who had played on that arcade machine before you, you won’t escape your character’s demise in the game.  This was how the arcades made money: no player could ever truly “beat the game”, but they could keep playing over and over again, inserting more coins into the slot and seeing how far they could go before they crashed and burned.


This thought process in game development spilled over into early console games, even though consoles don’t take coins.  Many games for the original Nintendo were notorious for their brutal difficulty, from challenging platforming sequences to insane “bullet hell” boss fights in shooting games.  People even came up for a term for difficult games from this era: they weren’t simply hard, they were “Nintendo hard.”  While many games today tend to be a bit easier on their players in order to attract a broad audience, there are still some games (such as Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden) which find their niche through brutally challenging gameplay that leaves gamers hurling their controllers time and time again.

But the ways that failure has influenced gaming goes beyond just basic difficulty.  Some games use a trope called the “Hopeless Boss Fight” to advance a story.  In these scenarios, the player is presented with a fight that may seem winnable at first, but actually isn’t: the boss has infinite or near infinite health, and can wipe out your character(s) with little effort.  These moments serve to establish the opposing character as an intimidating and overwhelming foe, one that the player is usually given a fair chance to defeat later in the game.  Beating that boss later, when your character is stronger and you have a more complete knowledge of the game, feels  sweeter due to that earlier defeat.


Still other games will up the ante of failure by using a mechanic called “permadeath”: if a player’s character dies, that character stays dead.  Roguelikes (a type of game that often uses procedurally generated levels) typically incorporate permadeath into their gameplay, meaning that every time you attempt a run through the game’s unique levels, you are playing as a brand new character, one who gains little or no advantage from any of the successes of the characters that came before.  They sometimes find clever ways to memorialize the player’s defeat, such as in Rogue Legacy, where the fallen character is given a painting and some parting words.


These are just a few examples of the ways that developers incorporate player failure into the gaming experience.  It’s something that can’t be replicated by movies or TV shows, where the audience is a passive observer with no control over what happens onscreen.  Such an observer merely sees the defeat of a character; for the player, failure is personal.  TV and movies can tell you a great story, but games let you be a part of it.

Community in Mobile Gaming

By Ben Kieffer

In the early 90’s when I was but a lad, my mom had one of the early versions of a Nokia cell phone (the kind with an all green background and black ink block letters).  I was too young to have friends to call, but it didn’t take long before I found on her phone a game called “Snake”. It was a simple concept where you direct a line using the 2, 8, 6, and 4 buttons to move your line up, down, left, and right; the goal is to drive the snake around “eating” blocks that appeared on the screen and the snake grew with each one collected.

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The game that went unnoticed by my mom was one of the early versions of mobile gaming, an enterprise which today shows up on smartphones, kindles, and tablets in the form of apps and is worth legitimate money. As an adult I do not have a smart phone, but I do enjoy mobile gaming on a Kindle. Far from the days of Snake on a solid green background, I have recently been playing Madden Mobile. The console sports game which has been a staple of EA Sports for many years now has a handheld version.

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I quickly found myself filling the little gaps of time with a season game here or a live event there. Smart phones and tablets are a bastion of individualism, each one fitted with all the apps and setting of the owner. Mobile gaming, therefore, can be a completely solitary experience. However, in many mobile games there is a social component. From my experience with Madden Mobile, I got involved in a league; leagues give the player an opportunity to compete against other members and compete in league vs. league tournaments.

In Madden Mobile leagues there are rankings, the ability to send gifts, and a chat box which also automatically updates you on the accomplishments of your members. For the first few weeks I didn’t see anything in the chat box, but then out of nowhere I saw people asking to be made an admin and bemoaning losses. I found a great opportunity in the chat box to get to know people, as well as congratulate and encourage them in their victories. Some would not respond at all, most were polite. Once in a blue moon, someone would give a detailed summary of his entire day. These league members made for the easiest conversation.

One negative aspect of mobile gaming is the chat in league vs. league tournament. People have two levels of anonymity in knowing that they will share the chat space only for 24 hours, and they will be hard to find afterward. I have had people say offensive things that are completely unfounded in reality. I had one opponent mock my ability to play the game and my physical appearance (of which he or she could not have been aware) so I decided to politely agree and say that I probably was bad at the game and would never find love with a pig face like mine. Generally, I don’t engage with the trash talkers, but in this particular experience it was fun to see the person be disarmed and confused when I agreed with their claims.

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Mobile gaming is a paradox. It is alone and it is together. It is disconnected and it is entirely connected. It is achievement based and it is a waste of time. So, the question is, are you willing to spend your spare ten minutes growing fake crops, playing in a 3-minute super bowl, or developing a civilization? Because with today’s technology you can do all of that and more, and be as alone or in community as you want in the process.

Gamer Motivations: Community

By Michael Mendis

This is part three of a three-part series on gamer motivations.  Click here to read part 1 on escapism, and here to read part 2 on challenge.

In the past two articles in this series, we’ve talked about how people play games in order to tap into their innate desire to create, explore, and utilize their talents and abilities.  Today I’d like to take a look at another gamer motivation that once again finds its origin in our nature as image-bearers of God: a desire for community.

God himself is an embodiment of community; the three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – live together in perfect union and harmony.  When God made mankind, he decreed very quickly that it was not good for one man to be alone, and so God created another human to give the first one company.  We are hardwired for community, foremost with our creator, but also with one another; our human relationships take many forms (professional, family, friendships), but at the core of all of them is a desire to share our lives with other people and grow close to each other.

Gamers are no exception; for many people, games are a way to bond with others.  There are a variety of ways that gamers do these things, so let’s examine a few of them in some detail.


Perhaps most obvious way of building community through gaming is by playing games with other people.  If you talk to gamers my age or a little older, you’ll likely hear many stories of people in their youth sitting in front of the TV at home with siblings, neighbors, or other friends their age and playing video games together, passing off the controller so that everyone gets a chance to play (or hogging the controller if they were in a particularly selfish mood).  These gamers will also likely recall times when they and their friends carried their game consoles or computers to a friend’s house, linked them all together, and held LAN (Local Area Network) parties.  Arcades were once a common element of gaming culture, where groups of people would gather to play games together, but even today, long after arcades have faded from the gaming scene, you can still find people gathering together to compete in fighting game tournaments across the world, including EVO, a massive annual tournament held in Las Vegas.

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As technology has advanced over the years, online gaming has transformed how we play video games with others, for better and worse.  The great part about it is that we can now connect with people from all over the world, which lets us find online matches quickly.  We can also find communities of people online who are eager to talk about their gaming experiences with others, and in some cases, share their online IDs so that they can team up with friends they’ve met on the web.

The unfortunate aspect of online gaming is that the cover of anonymity it provides is often misused.  Since you often do not know the people you are playing with and cannot see their faces, it is all too easy for people to denigrate their fellow players without fear of any significant repercussion.  Game companies have worked hard to try to figure out how to combat this, using various reporting systems and algorithms to weed out the toxic players from the rest, but it remains an ongoing problem.  Female gamers in particular face a lot of discrimination from their male counterparts, leading many to mute their microphones or avoid multiplayer games altogether.

Even in the realm of single-player video games, community still exists.  Gamers who spend most of their gaming time delving into solo experiences often seek out other gamers on forums like Neogaf and Reddit in order to share their passion for gaming.  Some of the most thought-provoking and insightful games on the market are single-player games with deep story and character development, and these games help drive countless online discussions amongst the people who play them.

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The world of board gaming is inherently very social, as the vast majority of board/card games are played face-to-face with people you know.  Families, church members, and other groups of friends spend time playing games together, whether those games be simple party games like Apples to Apples, or more complex games such as Settlers of Catan or Dominion.  A group of people playing through a campaign in Dungeons and Dragons will meet together on a regular basis to raid dungeons, complete quests, and vanquish mighty foes (in my own personal experience, D&D is one of the best games for meeting and building relationships with people, as it requires you to interact with the people in your group for hours at a time, cooperating with one another to complete objectives).  And while most board games are played in person, the advent of the internet has expanded the board gaming scene, as there are now programs you can use which allow you to play virtual board games with people online; we’ve already been using virtual board games as a part of our ministry at Gospel & Gaming in order to connect people and expand our community.

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Community.  Escapism.  Challenge.  These are just a few of the reasons why people play games, but understanding these motivations helps us understand people in the gaming community, and perhaps gives us a little more insight into ourselves as well.  My prayer is that these articles will equip you to better love the gamers that God puts into your life, that the Kingdom may be expanded ever more into this largely unreached people group.