There’s a super geeky genre of video games known as “roguelikes” that are on the verge of going mainstream, at least in internet terms. I’ll happily be recommending a couple via the Better Than Cheap feature, where I’ll go a bit more in-depth about them, but for the purpose of these thoughts it’s sufficient to say that their appeal is intriguingly counter-intuitive: you’re not supposed to win.
Oh, you can win. They normally don’t have characters, storylines and dialogue, but the majority of them do have an ending. Generally, you go down into a dungeon, retrieve an item, then go back to the surface. You win. Their punishing difficulty ensures that most players never reach this point, but that doesn’t bother the community. The fun isn’t in winning, it’s in trying to win. You died on level 24 of the dungeon with 26 levels remaining? It’s frustrating, sure, but that’s 4 levels deeper than you got last time.
They look like this. (Angband)
It’d be easy to compare this to, say, a puzzle game, or any game in which you aim for high scores, but I think that’s an ill-fitting comparison. Many of those games don’t have an ending, like Tetris. The scores keep going up, eventually becoming a question of your endurance rather than your skill or thinking. Others might have levels and an end, but then higher scores become a question of refinement. You figure out where you can squeeze ten more points out of the game, and over hundreds of repetitions you perfect your method, like a true shokunin.
Roguelikes have both a constantly-increasing difficulty and an end. There is a definable goal – you’re just not likely to reach it. At least, not for the first fifty hours. So why do people keep playing, without a story or characters keeping them involved, knowing that they’re likely to never succeed?
Or, if you’re lucky, this. (Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup)
The answer is straightforward: they like getting better. That’s the only thing that motivates them. The end of the game, the goal, is an afterthought. Since scores are meaningless, there is no competition among your peers. They play simply to go further than they did last time, to improve their understanding of the game, to master its mechanics. Losing doesn’t hinder play, it merely educates you for when you start again. People play roguelikes for the simple enjoyment of getting better at them.
I think my single greatest failing is that I want to be good at things immediately. For example, I don’t want to be good at guitar just for the sake of it, or to show off. I want to be good at guitar because that’s one tool out of many I’ll need to create the music I want to create. Even once I’m comfortable with my ability, I’ll have to continue working on the other tools, such as singing, composition, recording and writing lyrics. It’s a long, long process, and I give up far too easily because even when I’m skilled, I still won’t be finished. I want to be good straight away because then I can immediately get to work on what I really to tackle: expressing myself.
I know personal and creative endeavours don’t have the luxury of an easily defined goal like roguelikes do. There isn’t a computer program that says “you’ve reached level 10 on the guitar” or “you have acquired the spell of Remove Writer’s Block”. There’s no immediate feedback from an impartial judge, and we’re sadly left to judge for our harsh selves whether or not we’re improving.
I think, however, we can learn a lot from the roguelike community. To them, learning the game is the game, so losing is irrelevant. It only ever helps you improve. They don’t sit in their room berating themselves over what a loser they are, or get that empty, dull ache when their character dies. After brief frustration they just start over, armed with what they learned from their ‘failure’. In fact, fans of one particular game in the genre have a saying.
“Losing is Fun.”