When I was younger, I used to play ice hockey and during practice once, I fell down trying to pass others. I thought my coach was going yell and scream about sloppy skating, but he didn’t. Coach said to the whole team, “It’s OK to fall down. It means you are challenging yourself, pushing your body to improve and strengthen your legs.” In other words, I was exploring the limits of my capabilities and fortunately, he did not punish me. I got back up and tried again. Then I fell down some more and it felt great.
After reading one of Clint Hocking’s presentations, it’s clear videogames allow players to explore. Players explore the game mechanics (rules and system dynamics), game space (world), and themselves. Just as when I was playing hockey, trying to explore the limits of my skills, games allow me to explore my skills and my perspectives about the world.
Games often use death and failure for various reasons such as to heighten anxiety/tension or to communicate incorrect choices by the player.
Yet, if games are about exploring and if we want games to encourage players to explore themselves, then using systems that punish players may actually prohibit exploration. Players may become frustrated and stop playing. They may seek out an approach that works and stick with that approach, without trying others in fear of more death and failure. Both of these hinder the freedom necessary to explore and learn from those explorations.
As an aside, not really related to the topic of games as an exploration, another reason to not use death and failure in a game design is because it simply destroys immersion. It breaks the fourth wall by reminding the player, “Hey, you’re playing a videogame! Go RELOAD your last SAVED GAME!”
It also breaks FLOW, the loop of players facing challenges, overcoming them via appropriate feedback loops and then facing increased challenges. Videogames that maintain the cycle of FLOW tend to be incredibly immersive. Players often note that they lost track of time and had no idea what else was going around them in the real world.
Whether you are looking to increase the immersiveness of your game or encourage players to explore the game and themselves, I suggest you think about what value using death and failure conditions adds to your game. You just might find you are better off without them.
© 2008, Reid Bryant Kimball. All rights reserved.