GDC Pre-Mortem: This is Your Brain On Games
A Secular Age (7): The Immanent Frame

Auctions and the Fear of Failure

Last week, the BBC reported on some research about behaviour in auctions that caught my attention. The researchers in question concluded that it was predominantly the fear of losing that drove people to overbid in auctions, and not the joy of winning as had previously been assumed. Here's an extract:

Brain scans of people taking part in an auction showed those "overbidding" had a greater response to losing than to winning, the Science journal reported... A type of scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that in the auction game there was an exaggerated response to loss in the striatum - part of the brain associated with reward - but hardly any response to winning. The greater the tendency to overbid, the stronger the response to loss suggesting that the prospect of losing the competition caused participants to bid too high, the researchers said.

Now this interests me as a game designer and researcher because the obvious interpretation of the auction game is that the participant wants the emotional reward of fiero (triumph over adversity) from being victorious - something ebay have capitalised upon in their "shop victoriously" campaign. But instead, what we see here is that the desire to avoid being beaten by the other players (the other bidders in auction terminology) is showing up as a prevailing force.

I don't want to jump to conclusions here, because if there's one thing my company's research has shown it's that fiero-seeking isn't a majority pursuit (my best estimate at the moment is about one fifth of players have this as their primary drive, but this figure is vague at best) and this is something the researchers won't have considered since the predominant paradigm for this kind of scientific research presumes all participants can be treated as instances of the same archetype (i.e. that all humans are essentially the same) which holds far better for some traits (such as enjoying food) than for others (such as enjoying pain).

But it does beg the question: do some or all challenge-oriented players strive to beat the games they are playing because they refuse to admit defeat? Are they seeking fiero, or just striving not to lose? Are they driven by a subconscious fear of failure rather than a desire for the emotional reward of winning? That's not to say that winning isn't fun... just that it might not be the anticipation of winning that drives certain videogame players to push for the win.

The situation could be far more complicated than we previously assumed: we've talked a lot about the carrot (fiero) but not really considered the stick (fear of failure). Alas, finding a way to investigate this further is going to be especially challenging. If anyone has a spare fMRI scanner they want to loan me I'd appreciate it!


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That's interesting - I always thought of the kind of play style that brings about fiero as being primarily motivated by fear of failure. I would even say that is the rejection of failure.

The reason I've drifted away from fiero play is that I've been forced to accept that I won't be able to complete some games...I just haven't the time or appetite anymore. It's not that I have less of an appetite for triumph over adversity (witness my growing obsession with karate :D ).

dj i/o here..

Chris, as you know I am very much a fiero seeker. I don't believe I exhibit this "fear of losing".

I'd like to examine two of my styles of gaming.. Singleplayer, and multiplayer

In regards to singleplayer - As I've mentioned, I love playing games that kick my ass so hard that I die hundreds of times on the same level. (N+ on PSP for example). But instead of getting frustrated on a particularly vicious challenge, it usually makes me smile and say "Man, that's clever" or sit in awe at how intricately designed the challenge is. Yes, I do feel a drive to overcome every challenge, but I don't think I'm afraid of not overcoming them all. My goal a month or so ago was to collect all the gold on every single level of N+ on PSP (there are about 250 levels). I was able to do this on all but a few of the levels. Those challenges, after many attempts, I have concluded, are so deviously laid out that I don't consider it worth my time at present to put the work into overcoming them. It would probably take me several hours of practice for each level, an investment I'm just not willing to make right now. But, instead of feeling "defeated", by the game, I have gladly set it aside for the time being, knowing that there may be a time in the future where I will feel up to tackling those challenges again.
I can similarly set aside other games I haven't completed, without feeling like I've failed, if I grow bored with the game. A first person shooter perhaps that was fun and interesting for the first few hours, but the levels eventually grow repetitive & tiresome. Stop playing, and move onto something else. No loss there. A loss would be wasting my time by forcing myself to play through the game even though I am no longer enjoying it.

Now let's talk multiplayer. This is where I believe true agon takes place, and thus greater chances for more intense fiero.
In a 2 player situation of *true* agon, where both players are evenly matched, statistically speaking, each player should win 50% of the time.
In a very intense match where flow, or "the zone" is taking place, it is true that I would feel a sense of fiero if I won the match.
However, if I lost the same match (with the sense of flow/zone), I would not feel a sense of failure or defeat.
Two things would take place:
1) Simply the excitement of the intense game or match itself would have been reward enough, regardless that I lost. (Similar to the philosophy of "It's not the destination that matters, but the journey")
2) I would admit that by beating me, the opposing player might have some tactics that I could learn from.. Therefore, I should study his or her method and try to employ similar or more refined tactics in order to try to overcome them in the next match.

So ... I think the conclusion here is that I actually embrace defeat, and that it excites me, and gives me something to look forward to (future challenges).

I'm obviously not everyone else, so I can't speak for them but I think your suspicion here may be bogus, Chris. Fiero seekers in general probably experience failure much more frequently than they do victory. I mean, what would a challenge be if it wasn't challenging? :)
So I think it must be something other than the fear of failure that motivates most fiero seekers, perhaps for many it is the excitement of challenge (like me), or perhaps there is something else entirely.

But I think if fear of failure was such an influencing factor, fiero seekers would likely give up playing video games because it would make them feel depressed all the time. :)

Just my 2c. Take what you will :)

Just another quick thought...

Is it possible that this means that I'm not a "true fiero seeker", but perhaps something else draws me in more deeply.. Vertigo perhaps?

Let me know your thoughts on this :)

Well, "failure" can be defined in many ways, I guess.

Dying a squillion times in a hardcore video game is so routine that you probably dont worry about it. "Failure" would be giving up on the game without beating that level. (or using the level skip if such a feature exists.)

Whereas I can imagine that a more casual player is much more likely to just think it's not worth it and walk away without a care.

Interesting. I think I'll have to muse on this one for a while. But my gut reaction is that I definitely finish some games purely due to something akin to "fear of failure" - and those are the kinds of games I do NOT enjoy and tend to rubbish. Games which I find consistently fun are ones which give me more of the enjoyment fiero-seeking and I play for that. My win/loss record on Street Fighter Anniversary Edition for example is really terrible, because I always accept game invites from FAR better players than me - yet I still love playing it. I can lose 30 matches in a row to a better player without getting annoyed at all. I only tend to get annoyed when I can't seem to learn or improve at anything. I also get somewhat disappointed that I am not putting up a better challenge for the other player too.

I also find this very interesting. I think I know exactly what you mean by the difference between "desire to win" and "fear of losing" because I experience both. Let me tell you about myself to illustrate when I experience these two driving forces.

Like Dj i/o, I'll use the contrast between single player games and multiplayer games.

In single player games, I don't mind losing many times. In fact, I like it. It's often said that fiero is preceded by anger, but I rarely experience anger when losing in a game. I find this comment very interesting because I can relate to it a lot:

"But instead of getting frustrated on a particularly vicious challenge, it usually makes me smile and say "Man, that's clever" or sit in awe at how intricately designed the challenge is."

I'm the same way. Being defeated tends to make me smile too. In fact, when the gameplay is particularly good and I get defeated, sometimes I can't help but laugh and feel giddy about the challenge I am about to overcome.

I don't experience the "fear of failure" for three reasons:

1) Being defeated when trying to overcome a challenge isn't considered failure. It's simply an inevitable part of the process. The only way to fail is to give up. As long as you keep trying you have not failed.

2) I know that I will not fail. Just as you know by experience that the sun will show up tomorrow, I know from experience that no game is unbeatable. Victory is inevitable.

3) If a game is truly good, it doesn't matter how many times I lose. It will keep me entertained until I win. If I decide to stop playing, it won't be because it's too hard. It will be because it was too boring, or badly designed. In which case I'm not the one who failed, but instead it was the developer who failed, for not making his challenges good enough for me to want to overcome.

Therefore, because I never experience the fear of failure in single player games, it could be said that I might be driven predominantly by the reward of fiero.

However, in multiplayer games it's completely different for me. I experience the fear of failure in full. Why is this? I suppose it has to do with there being other people involved. Unfortunately, I happen to be someone who cares a lot about what other people think of me. I don't care about losing or not doing well at something when no one's around, but if someone is watching, it becomes almost unbearable. I guess it's because I have a very fragile ego, and also because I'm very insecure.

But whatever the case, in competitive multiplayer games, the fear of failure is very real for me. And it's not an enjoyable emotion at all. In fact, when I do win in this situation, I no longer experience fiero. Instead, I experience the emotion of RELIEF. Relief at not losing. And while relief is indeed a positive emotion, it's also not as strong as fiero and thus it doesn't offset the more powerful negative emotion of fear.

The result is that, even when I win, I find that I did not enjoy the game because the negative emotions I felt outweighed the positive ones. I think I might fall into the category of people who are competitive (because I clearly care whether I win or lose), but don't enjoy the emotions this brings up in them.

The only time I don't feel the fear of failure in a competitive multiplayer game is when I'm clearly better than everyone else. In which case I can relax and just enjoy the game.

Well, there you go. That's me. Just another strange case for you to look at.

Dear all,

I'm absolutely fascinated and delighted by what we have stumbled upon here which is a distinction in what was previously lumped together as one behaviour - fiero-seeking. We should talk some more about this, as I'll need to devise some kind of study to pursue this further. Some mulling will also be required. :)

Also, many many thanks for your descriptions of play! I truly appreciate the efforts the community here are now taking to describe their play in the research language being developed by myself and others such as zenBen and Nicole Lazzaro. It opens new doors.

zenBen: "I always thought of the kind of play style that brings about fiero as being primarily motivated by fear of failure. I would even say that is the rejection of failure."

As an individual, I totally identify with what you say here. I can easily see that in my fiero-seeking days, a sublimated fear of failure lay behind my desire to continue - because I *had* to be good enough to beat the game, even though consciously this drive was never apparent. But how much of this is my Myers-Briggs Judging tendency (I have a putative biological explanation for this now, but this can wait)? There are Judging and Perceiving variants of fiero-seeking, and I think this might relate to what we are hearing here.

dj i/o: "I can similarly set aside other games I haven't completed, without feeling like I've failed, if I grow bored with the game. "

Where do you weigh up on Judging-versus-Perceiving in Myers-Briggs? Do you happen to know? Because if, as it sounds, you're perceiving dominant your description here would support my assertion of this splitting fiero-seeking into two flavours. Your goal is apparently Mastery (the Type 2 style approach) but you still love the fiero (the Type 1 approach). This dovetails with things I have been thinking about elsewhere, and will return to later.

Please let me know if you happen to know how your Myers-Briggs readings come out.

zeech: "'Failure' would be giving up on the game without beating that level. (or using the level skip if such a feature exists.)"

Absolutely. This is precisely what I meant by fear of failure here.

Rik: "But my gut reaction is that I definitely finish some games purely due to something akin to 'fear of failure' - and those are the kinds of games I do NOT enjoy and tend to rubbish."

Same question I asked dj i/o: do you know where you land on the Judging versus Perceiving axis of Myers-Briggs?

And I recognise "old me" in your description here. :)

Sirc: "2) I know that I will not fail. Just as you know by experience that the sun will show up tomorrow, I know from experience that no game is unbeatable. Victory is inevitable."

Now the thing is, since failure is not an option I would argue that you are being influenced by what we have tagged "fear of failure". It just doesn't manifest as an anxiety for you because it has been defined as impossible.

The language may need massaging, but the behaviour seems to be robust.

"I no longer experience fiero. Instead, I experience the emotion of RELIEF. Relief at not losing."

Yes, I've reported this behaviour as a general case before, of course.


I think we're on to something here. Definitely want to pursue this further - please wade in with your Myers-Briggs data if you know it.

Many thanks!

dj i/o here..
You are indeed correct about my Myers Briggs type :) When I was younger, I used to score INFP, gradually moved over to INXP (between F and T), and then I think the last time I took it, it was INTP. However the P has always remained consistent. I can't remember exactly but I think it usually leans heavily on the side of P, somewhere around the 75% mark. You know me well!

Myers-Briggs INxP (confirmed over 15 years - the P is somewhat weak, and can turn to J when I'm under heavy stress; the x is typically around 10% either way, and this looks to be within the error margin).

In an ebay auction, I'll decide how much I want something, place a bid to that point, then walk away. I'll get it, or I won't. This is a deliberate modification (after burnout/depression and counselling) of my younger "must... win... even... if... I... don't... have... the... resources..." view.

In a game - single or multi-player - I'll similarly kid myself that I'm playing it to see how it works. Actually, that's a large part... but I want to win, dammit! But as soon as the game becomes hard enough that it's clear I'll have to expend significant effort in order to win, I'll decide that the game is not worth the candle and move on. This behaviour predates my first (known) episode of depression and my first burnout, though I had a higher time budget then. My tolerance for difficult games is definitely getting lower over time.

Not sure whether this is useful data, but hey :-).

dj i/o here..

Well Peter, I think we've made it harder for Chris.. You and I have similar Myers-Briggs types, but apparently very different preferences of difficult games. :)

"There are Judging and Perceiving variants of fiero-seeking, and I think this might relate to what we are hearing here."

I have the intuitive feeling that results from my first tests with the Conqueror classifier are revealing this variation within players' level log. As the game progresses, the classifications (which happen at the end of each level) seem to show that the stress of the difficulty increase is altering the dominant playing style. This often swings back again in the last level, whatever that might mean (the inevitability of the end relieves stress?). The data is far from strong enough to be conclusive though.

"the P is somewhat weak, and can turn to J when I'm under heavy stress;"
Perhaps this can happen even i a single game of pacman?!


Short of time but I'll comment briefly. Judging and Perceiving tendencies aren't hard and fast. It's a measure of a particular behaviour (actually, I believe it may be a measure of the activation of a particular brain site, but I'll get to this in good time).

There's no contradiction in Peter reporting same Myers-Briggs tendency here but different behaviour. What would contradict it to some degree would be someone reporting the same behaviour but the opposite Myers-Briggs tendency. Alas, no time to expand this point.

I'm going to need to think about how best to study this distinction... Might start with a quick poll here at the blog (not scientifically valid, but great for quick explorations) and then we can take it from there.

Further commentary welcome!

You and I have similar Myers-Briggs types, but apparently very different preferences of difficult games. :)

Not necessarily. I've consciously altered my initial "win at all costs" behaviour due to life events.

Can I get some assistance in drafting questions for a poll on this subject?

Here's my draft.

Q. What is your attitude to winning in videogames?

- I want to beat every game I play in order to revel in the satisfaction of victory.
- I want to beat every game I play because I don't like to feel that I've been defeated.
- I enjoy winning, but I'm not willing to strive too hard to achieve that goal.
- I enjoy winning, but mostly I give up on the games I'm playing.
- I don't care about winning at all, I just look for enjoyable experiences.

This has been quickly drafted as an opening for further discussions, so feel free to suggest which of these is the "runt of the litter" and what it could be replaced with, and also to suggest rewordings of individual entries.

I'll aim to run the new poll from next Friday, so we have time for the discussions.

Thanks in advance for your contribution!

My main problem with a "How I play Games" kind of question is that it very heavily depends upon the game.

Some games I will beat to death, and some I can hardly wait to put down. Mainly I fall in between (don't we all?), but it is very hard for me to generalise about all games in this way.

I *want* to 100% games (maybe more so now the joyful Achievements are here), but mainly the goals are set by full on hardcore gamers (unlike about-gas-mark-4 hardcore gamers like myself) in the industry, and it leaves me frustrated.

All-in-all from the above I could choose: - "I enjoy winning, but I'm not willing to strive too hard to achieve that goal" with the caveat that I wouldn't enjoy picking it, but it seems like the bestest choice for me. :-\

I dont know if your poll will give you the sorts of data you're looking for.

For example, I dont care much about winning or losing, but I love combat games, and deep fighting mechanics. Which means my approach to games like DMC and 2D fighters is very hardcore indeed, and I'll practice and play every difficulty level just because I enjoy every moment of the combat.

However, in your poll, there will be many other people who also dont care about winning or losing, but who prefer toys-not-games or similar games. Is it your intention to capture these two groups in the one answer?

Neil: "My main problem with a "How I play Games" kind of question is that it very heavily depends upon the game."

Yes, you often advance this argument, but polls of this kind are *always* asking you to abstract past this kind of case-by-case issue. It's the nature of the poll format! The research which doesn't fall prey of this are the case studies, but for polls there's little point in objecting to the format, unless you have a suggestion for how the wording can be changed to lessen the impact of this problem.

Since the first two answers say "every" then falling down to answer three is presumably the slot for you in the case of the current wording.

What's at task is whether the wording of the first two need softening somewhat, but in your case I don't feel you express what's being tested in the first two at all. The fact that there are a few games that you might 100% really isn't enough, especially when characteristic of those games is that you wouldn't do so if it was sufficiently hard ("Brian hard", if you will). I think 3 is the best fit to you.

The reason you seem to want to fall short of going to this answer is that you feel you do express something of the first two answers. But this can only be if you ignore the "every" that's there.

What might be more useful at this point would be if you advanced a statement that captured your position better than option three, since you're obviously unhappy choosing it. What exactly is wrong with answer 3 when applied to you?

zeech: what the poll is actually interested in is the distinction between answer 1 and answer 2. Anyone who doesn't fit into these categories is rather tangential to the poll, so the fact that you would fall into a bucket with toyplay gamers isn't an issue, since you are both falling into the "this poll has nothing to do with me" hole! :)

But just to confirm: you don't strive to complete games you're playing, you never push for 100%, you don't have any of this kind of drive?

I suppose this suggests that we should collapse answers 4 and 5 into one "count me out" answer (since the distinction here tells us nothing) and add a new answer that offers an alternative middle ground, or remove answer 3 and provide two new answers which offer softer versions of 1 and 2.


It seems to me that some rewording of the first two might be required as the "every" requirement might set the bar too high. But I don't want to set the bar too low either! Because, for instance, Neil is not comfortable excluding himself from 1 and 2, yet I don't believe he expresses what I am trying to capture in 1 or 2 since he puts games aside easily and often.

It's more about players like I used to be, who *don't* put aside games either easily or often. In that respect, I suppose I could use to hear from someone who represents this group of players and see if they can comfortably decide between 1 and 2. Because if not, the poll serves no useful purpose!

Thanks for the discussions! Further input welcome!

I enjoy not-losing (I'll settle for being able to bump along the bottom and continue the storyline). I don't like to feel that I've been defeated, but I'll live with it.

... but that's too long for a poll entry!

I suppose my viewpoint on this is really skewed by the amount of multiplayer gaming I do. There's simply no way I can win every game of a most games I play. Losing or failure, conversely to Sirc, is inevitable for the types of games I play a lot. But I have no fear of losing at these kinds of games, and certainly no embarrassment, and when I do win (even after I lost 30 in a row!) it is definitely pure fiero and not just relief. It's a huge thrill.

I also struggle with any concept of "finishing" many video games. When have I finished Street Fighter.. or chess? - When I can beat all my friends? When I'm #1 ranked in XBox Live? When I'm the chess Grand Master.. etc?

That poll question is really tricky. I've tried to think of any way you could word it so I wouldn't come out as '3' but I am not sure. There are games I play 'just to complete them' & have a feeling of 'ok, onto the next now' when I do finish them, there are games I am most definitely hammering away at for the fiero that I wish carried on longer when I finish them, then there are also plenty of games I won't finish at all, and plenty of games where concept of 'finishing' just doesn't work for me as mentioned.

It all depends on the game and how much I enjoy it. But it's certainly the fiero-inducing ones that I enjoy the most. I think some games are in between though. For example Braid, which I struggled through, was definitely an example of both 'fear of failure' and 'fiero' for me. I'm slogging through Lost Oddysey (a JRPG) which has no real fiero for me, yet I really want to finish it to see the storyline, all the items, test all the skills, see just how powerful I can get. I really feel like "Juggernaught" type when playing this kind of pure logistic-play game.

Myers-Briggs, well as the blog dunce here, I had to look this up - aha. I did recall something from PSY101 then all those years ago. However I cannot remember what type I came out as at all - which is likely very different now. Can you recommend a good self-assessment place? I see there are masses online, but any that are actually recommended would be useful... still intrigued by this. My thoughts about it all are still very mixed up and I'm finding it very hard to analyse myself on it, which always interests me.

Thanks. :)

Thank you all for pushing against the framework here... all your objections were useful in rethinking the poll idea. Here is an alternative take on the same concept...


Q. You have just tried and failed to beat a challenge in a game several times, and now you have to leave for an appointment. What is your most likely response to the game when you return?

1. I'll keep striving until I am victorious, because I want the win!
2. I'll keep going until I beat it, because I refuse to admit defeat!
3. I'll keep trying until I get so angry that I stop playing the game altogether in disgust
4. I might think about going back to the game in the future, but probably never will.
5. I'll stop playing the game and try something else.


The boundaries between 1 and 2 are a bit tight, but they always will be I suppose.

How does this seem to everyone?

Let me know!

Sounds like it will work!

Cheers! Any more feedback?

(I posted this comment just to keep this post alive in the comments roll!) :)

Well, in that situation, I usually give the game "One more Chance". I come back to it fresh and if I make some progress the game will more likely stay in rotation. Otherwise it is highly likely the game will get shelved.

I guess I would have to pick 3 or 4. The wording of 3 makes me want to choose 4, though I think apart from the angry emotion 3 is more accurate.

But it is more engaging a set of questions than originally, for sure :-)

I assume you are looking for an emotional angle? If not I would remove the emotional key words from the Qs.

Neil: by all means give me some more emotionally neutral wordings so I have something to pick between. :)


I know it's the purpose of a poll to generalise but I spent most of a day's idle time pondering this and I still don't know how to answer. Because my answer is so different depending on the game and type of game... so try as I might, I can't seem to find a 'most likely' response. My 'least likely' response is #5, and #3 (if I was even thinking like that I'd end up as a #4 and not even bothering) but all the others I have done with some game recently.

What's doubly confusing is that with vs fighting games, I still can't even envisage the scenario described - since the challenge is really another player more than the game itself. I'd always try and play someone I "couldn't beat" again though, so I guess I'd be a #1 answer for that. I suppose another analogy would be when I've gone online and taken a load of beatings and seen my online 'rating' fall badly - in that case again, I'd be #1. I'd want to go back and fight to get my rating back to respectability again.

Hmm, so I suppose, if you think these analogies to multiplayer gaming are valid for the poll, I'm #1 for games I really like. Yet for other games I'd definitely be a #2 or #4. I don't know how to ascertain my general 'most likely' still though. :(

Rik: thanks for sharing your issues here! It is the problem with the poll as a tool that it is a very crude instrument. I think we may have to accept some of these problems in order to get any information!

I plan to put the new poll up on Thursday or Friday this week, so any last minute suggestions for rewording is appreciated!

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