How to Learn from Losing in Video Games

Posted by Jacob St. Martin on May 13, 2013 in Editorial -- Share:

Nobody likes losing. We play games to win and winning feels great. Sadly, sometimes there can only be one winner, and sometimes that person isn’t you. Making mistakes and proverbially (and sometimes literally) dropping the ball is a part of both gaming and life, and a necessary one at that.

Ever met someone who claims to have never lost or made a mistake? Probably not. If so, they’ve either managed to avoid serious challenges or have a problem with honesty. Most professionals have lost thousands of times in practice and competition before reaching stardom. Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Michael Phelps, and other greats have all experienced setbacks.

Something which sets these individuals aside from their peers, even during youth, is a willingness to learn from setbacks. While less fun than winning, losing is far more educational. Analyzing a loss will show a player where they have opportunities for improvement.

Losing doesn’t make someone a loser. Losing over and over the same way makes someone a loser. Here are five tips which can help you learn from losses and avoid perpetuating the same mistakes:

1. Take Responsibility for the Loss

In psychology, there’s a concept/theory called locus of control. Locus of control relates to how individuals perceive their ability to control their actions, and therefore circumstances. Locus of control break down into two sections, external and internal:

External Locus: Those who lean towards an external locus of control believe that the environment and outside forces determines their life circumstances and reactions to events.

Internal Locus: Those with an internal locus of control believe that they are able to author their own destinies and are able to command their own behaviors.

Reality, of course, is a mixture of the two, but successful people tend to exhibit a more internal locus. So, how does this relate to learning from losses?

Individuals with an internal locus of control have a higher tendency to adopt and decisively execute plans of action instead of waiting for an environmental change. Actively looking to improve individual ability, and believing that it will make a difference, is a big step in the right direction. Blaming something or someone else simply guarantees a similar loss in the future.

Even games of chance work on systems of probability, and there are almost always ways to maximize opportunities and minimize losses. Neither will happen, however, unless a player buckles down and accepts that they have room for growth.

2. Find the root cause of loss

It can be hard to pinpoint exactly where a loss occurred because single mistakes often have a trickle down effect, creating problems at later points in a game. This can lead a player astray with red herrings and distract their focus from the real cause of the loss. To get the most out of a post-loss analysis, find that lynchpin moment which caused things to fall apart.

Strategy games provide great case studies of this principle. Let’s say that a player faced a larger army and needed absolutely perfect unit control and positioning. Over the course of the engagement, their unit control slightly slipped, leading to an eventual defeat. When reviewing the replay, this player may believe that the game was lost due to poor unit handling.

Better unit control would have helped, but the loss occurred for another reason entirely. The correct question to ask is, “why was my army outnumbered in the first place?” The correct areas to study are whether the real issue was caused by a weak economy, poor production infrastructure, or wasteful resource spending.

Here’s another example. Let’s say that a batter with average running speed keeps getting thrown out easily by the shortstop. Instead of working on a faster sprint, the real way to fix the problem would be to stop giving the shortstop easy access to the ball.

It’s important to invest time in that which will give the biggest payoff and pinpointing what needs fixing will speed up improvement. This can take some brainstorming, but it’s worth it in the long run.

3. Make a plan and set goals for correcting the problem

Pinpoint the issue is half the battle. However, there’s still another half to fight. Fixing the problem usually involves further study and tenacity. Plans and goals go hand in hand, so we’ll go ahead and address them as one idea.

One of the most well known platforms for planning change via goal setting is known through the acronym SMART. SMART stands for the following:

S – Specific
M – Measurable
A- Attainable
R – Relevant
T – Time Bound

Entire courses are taught on SMART, but it basically comes down to choosing objectives and strategies carefully. Let’s check out each concept individually:

Specific: It’s important to make sure that a goal is specific instead of general. For instance, if a Checker’s player keeps losing pieces early, it’s not enough for them to say “I will stop losing pieces early.” A specific goal and course of action would include: “I will look at all possible movements of enemy pieces before even touching mine.”

Measurable: The plan should have terms of measurement to judge whether any progress is occurring. A measurable goal won’t look like “win more games.” Instead, a better objective for our Checkers player is “lose no pieces outside of a trade within the first 3 moves.”

Attainable: Creating attainable goals should also take priority. Making sure a plan’s objectives are realistic will help prevent the player from becoming discouraged. There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, but it’s also important to be realistic.

Relevant: Additionally, the plan should highly relate to the identified problem. This will ensure that a player focuses on plans which significantly improve results.

Time: Finally, there should be some time constraint on when expected results should occur. Sometimes a plan needs readjustment, so it’s good to expect results to materialize by a certain set of time. If things don’t seem to be improving, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

4. Ask for Help

While most of us would prefer to fix problems without asking for help, exchanging pride for productivity is a good trade. The most important educational resources are those who know more than you do.

Within the gaming community, it can be surprising how many individuals are eager to help up and comers improve their play. Becoming involved in a game’s particular community will expose a player to individuals who can help overcome hurdles and provide advice.

If there’s a limit on the availability of person to person contact, there are other ways to indirectly get help from others. Strategy books/guides and gaming forums are both useful tools. While these aren’t a replacement for an experienced coach, they can shed light on game tactics and strategy.

Something else worth observing are recorded games, especially from professionals. It’s always better to learn from the mistakes of others. It’s a place where a player can emotionally detach and see the subtleties (and blunders) which win and lose games at the highest level.

One warning: verify the credentials of a teacher/source before subscribing to their advice, and especially before giving them money. When seeking advice, make sure that the instructor has quantifiable results. Otherwise, additional bad habits will crop up..

5. Don’t Give Up

There’s no replacement for hard work, and sometimes tailoring a game plan or play style takes time. Easily one of the most frustrating things in gaming is having new ideas and methods slapped down. However, improvement takes many forms and not all of them win games immediately. Plans will sometimes fail miserably and send a player reeling back to the drawing board – keep trying until the right one appears.

For example: a chess player switching from king’s pawn to queen’s pawn openings will probably lose quite a few games initially, and an athlete who adjusts their physical posture may also need some time to get used to the new position.

Even small changes can take some time to click and it’s important to persevere and put in some effort. Improvement usually does involve some growing pains. However, if a game stops being fun, that frustration can impede growth. If things reach that point, then it’s time to take a break and cool off.

Losing and winning are part of gaming, and of life in general. Nobody is going to do everything right all the time. However, how a player responds to losing can make all the difference in future performances.

Serious gamers derive great satisfaction from victory and knowing how to turn current losses into future wins is what separates the good from the great.

For the casual gamer, it’s not necessary to pour a lot of free time and energy into improving at a game. That being said, it is still worth the effort to make small, relaxed improvements. Winning isn’t everything, but a close challenging match is more fun for everyone involved.

Seeing results happen always feels good, and sometimes, the learning is the fun part itself. Learn from losses, so more wins happen later.

Written by

Jacob works at Big Fish Games out of Seattle. He loves to laugh, enjoy good food (all food except Avacados), and play competitive games of all sorts. When not gaming, he practices martial arts and has recently picked up snowboarding and dancing, with very mixed results. He loves a good challenge! Feel free to get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+