“I already know how to lose! I need you to teach me to win!” my older brother exclaimed after losing a game of chess to my father for what seemed like the thousandth time. My brother was still in elementary school at the time. It was frustrating for a child that young to hear yet again from a parent that losing was a crucial part of learning to win. It’s a lesson that we all have to learn at some point. The sooner in life we learn to accept and work through our failures, the happier and healthier we are.
Video games are an increasingly large part of childhood. Just as games like chess or sports always have been, video games today are how many kids learn to process success and failure. Games can teach anyone how to learn from mistakes and be gracious in victory.
The lesson should go beyond that losing is a part of learning to win though. Perhaps the more important concept to grasp is that losing is simply a part of playing. Losing is evidence of the perseverance that makes success a possibility. It’s a lesson that everyone – even adults – can struggle with sometimes. If we refuse to ever lose, we essentially refuse to play. When we avoid the chance of failure we also avoid excelling in anything worthy of notice.
Men vs. Women
A recently published study found that the worse male players performed in Halo 3, the more likely they were to harass female players. The study explored different reasons why this could be the case, but an interesting remedy the researchers came up with was to teach young men the truth about losing.
“Results suggest that a way to counter it may be through teaching young males that losing to the opposite sex is not socially debilitating.” In other words, male players need to learn they are no less of a person for losing.
An immense amount of self-worth is invested in the win. In the absence of performing better than the other players, men will turn to taking jabs at women players specifically – jabs ranging from jokes and teasing to be being downright creepy and disturbing. If they can’t compete in the video game, these men will mount a verbal contest of misogynistic abuse in order to keep hierarchal status.
The findings of this study are corroborated by plenty of anecdotes friends have shared with me. One friend told me how she was doing quite well during a casual Team Fortress 2 tournament at PAX Prime last year… until the rest of the players heard her voice and voted to kick her from the server for “cheating” (AKA winning while female.) Another good friend of mine had to change her feminine screenname in League of Legends after being continually harassed and berated during matches. Teammates in a PvP match insulted and refused to assist a guild mate of mine in Star Wars: The Old Republic after she “failed” to keep them all alive. Their comments were misogynistic and shared with the opposite team as an excuse for their loss.
Men Shouldn’t Lose
We live in a culture that is heavily invested in the idea that men and boys shouldn’t lose – especially to women and girls. It’s normal to strive to win, but men who lose are often cast in a negative light beyond simply losing the game. Sports casting is full of references to losing players or teams “not wanting it enough” as if losing were also a moral failing bigger than physical and mental practice combined with luck. We even use the word “loser” as a derogatory term for guys lower on the social order. Rather than loss or failure being an inevitable part of trying, we give it the weight to define people negatively. We loudly praise a competitor who comes back from behind to win, but maybe we should reserve some praise for the “losers” who simply still show up for the next game. Sometimes growth is more important than the achievement. Without parents providing some guidance through pervasive ideas of failure and worth, a child’s view of reality might not include the process of growth. With no context for development through trial and error, our view of the world can become toxic and skewed.
Why might it impact the men and boys in particular? While true for all genders, the weight of failure is sometimes worse for boys and men, because we, as a society, have made it so. While girls are given unachievable – often contradictory – ideals to live up to, boys are pressured in competitive terms. They are urged to “be the best” specifically in comparison to others around them. Boys are more likely to be placed in competitive activities where the emphasis can be focused on victory rather than growth.
Even if parents are careful to give boys an even-keeled outlook on competition and success, movies, TV, and video games can give a distorted view of masculine worth. Our male heroes tend to be guys with flaws only large enough to make them relatable. Even if male heroes have unlikeable traits, these are overcome or set aside to win the day in the end. Our heroes tend to be lone wolf types too. Their shortcomings tend to be something they overcome by themselves through sheer willpower. When our heroes do get some help from their friends, the friends usually take an auxiliary role helping the hero, rather than complementary role where the team makes up for each others’ weaknesses.
The truth is that we all have a few chances to be heroes in our lifetime. It may simply be a kind word, looking after a loved one, or standing up for what’s right in ways that make a big difference. Along the way, however, there will be many more times when we make mistakes. We will lose out to a competitor. We will be overlooked. We are destined to exhibit a great deal of mediocrity. There will be times for all of us that we barely scrape by and there will be times when we outright fail.
It is how we process these less stellar moments that largely define who we are and what our heroic moments will look like. Games can teach kids early on how to deal with those ups and downs, but not without some guidance from adults who have been there. We must teach our kids how to lose. These lessons have to cover everything from games to sports to grades. Failure is not the precursor to inevitable success either, but rather it is proof that you’re doing something worth trying. It’s a lesson best learned as a child, but is also invaluable to be recalled as an adult. I hope parents will challenge their kids to some competitive games after reading this. I hope both kids and adults will learn some lessons about being gracious in victory and the value of defeat.