Learning from your losses (Think:games blog #5)

There are other things going on in the world, and with this Think:games blog I just wanted to give them some perspective. Politics is not a game, and it would be unwise to pretend that it is, but in both you can win or you can lose. I started this blog to shed light on what games can teach, and here I want to talk about what games can teach about learning from your losses.


Tim Kaine knows a thing or two about losses.

Losing, strange as it may sound, is perhaps the most essential element of a game. There may be some games that have removed the competitive element (such as the absurd The Stanley Parable or some children’s games like my childhood favorite Lego Loco), but in the vast majority of games you can die, run out of time or otherwise lose. It’s everything you don’t want to happen, and what makes a game get you on the edge of your seat, where a movie or book will have you lay back.

Online multiplayer games do more than just get us to the edge of our seat, proven by the common phenomenon of rage quitting: becoming so angry at the game or the other players that you quit the game altogether. Of course, losing can be frustrating. It is a human characteristic to want to win, and if you don’t necessarily want to win, then at least you do not want to lose. Losing stands for failure, a waste of time and energy, seeing someone else take the honour. Many people seem to share this view, whether it’s about grades in school, a job interview, research, sports, even dating. But when we see losing this way, we miss one of the most important aspects of it: it’s something that happens to everyone. No one “wins” all the time.

If anyone knows the frustration of losing, it’s players of online video games, as this video will show you.

Jokes like this video compilation aside, when talking about winning or losing, I think we should be looking at a larger picture. Successful gamers as well as succesful people in other fields don’t have in common that they happen to be on winning streaks. They have in common that after each loss they get up again. One of my favorite examples is Albert Einstein, who at first would not be hired as a scientist but later became one of the greatest physicists in history. But the examples are countless. For every one person who achieved success without difficulty, you will find nine who worked hard and were still told no. Hell, Donald Trump just became president, and if he had quit after going bankrupt, he would have quit four times!

This perseverance is important, because staying with a project (game or career, even relationship, you name it) is one of the requirements for learning and improving. You don’t master a sport from a single match. You learn it over time, understanding a bit more of it and getting better with every game. Winning those games is good, because you’ll enjoy it and that’ll get your morale up, but losing can be just as valuable, when you analyse what you did wrong and where you should improve. A change of tactic during a game may even turn a loss into a win. Even the analysing itself without any direct result may take away some of that frustration and keep you from letting it out on other people. You take responsibility for your actions, work hard, and the next time you’ll do better.

There is a quote I picked up on Twitter recently that reads

That’s a secret every gamer knows well: you get better at winning by losing…a lot. Games encourage us to see failure as iteration.

If you can look at losing this way, that’s an immensely powerful skill. You know that sometimes the going gets rough, but you know what to do about it.

Or, back to US elections, you’re Tim Kaine and quote William Faulkner: ‘They kilt us but they ain’t whooped us yet.’ They kilt us. They kilt us. But they ain’t whooped us yet because we know, we know that the work remains.” (further explanation of this quote here).

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