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On Losing Well May 25, 2012

Posted by Tim in General.

So I lost this week’s 40k game. It shouldn’t be a big deal – it’s just toy soldiers, after all – but losing does get to me a bit. I wouldn’t say I have the most robust psyche, and am sometimes prone to anxieties and depressions in general, but in the closer focus of the aftermath of an unsuccessful game, I do notice things in myself I’d prefer weren’t there.

It all depends on how seriously I take it. Consider a game, any game, of two players. My opponent plays better than me, or is luckier, and I lose. But losing the game can be phrased in four different ways:

  • I lost.
  • He won.
  • I didn’t win.
  • He didn’t lose.

They are all correct, but each implies subtly different meaning, different connotations.

“I lost,” is personal and brutal; I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t try hard enough. It carries undertones of personal shortcoming, fault, blame. Self flagellation. Very much taking it personally and probably not a healthy way to look at it all.
“He won,” makes it about the opponent; their skill and fortune are superior to my own, so they had the better result. There is a sense of acceptance, a feel of a match well played and a victory deserved.
“I didn’t win,” is personal again, but seems somewhat more hopeful than “I lost.” It carries a hinted silent “…this time!” and suggestions of resolve and improvement. It feels like something someone who thinks they will win next time, might say.
“He didn’t lose,” is curious, and suggests a kind of chagrin, an almost arrogant expectation that He should have lost, but didn’t, perhaps through imagined trickery or bad luck. It seems a faintly unsavoury way to view it all.


Perhaps I’m imagining all the above; it is all subjective, of course, and there are a further four matching statements concerning Winning which I’ll look at next time I win something! But can these statements be fitted into a neat grid?

One axis would be Optimism vs. Pessimism – the classic half full and half empty glass. The Pessimist will take defeat personally – an unfavourable judgement on themselves. “I lost” and “He didn’t lose” are probably both on that side. The Optimist is likely to be happy the better player won (“He won”) or glad of the opportunity to learn and do better next time (“I didn’t win”)

Is the other axis Competition vs. Cooperation? The two statements “I lost” and “I didn’t win” both suggest a focus on personal performance, on how well “I” did. “He won” and “He didn’t lose” both have a wider focus on the overall state of the game. Perhaps these viewpoints are more concerned with the overall game, the enjoyment (or otherwise) of all participants; the game itself becoming a thing which both participants build during play?

Where does the phrase “It’s the taking part that counts” fit in the above? Or the phrase “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing!” Both quite polarised approaches to game playing.

Speaking personally, I think I am a reasonably graceful loser, but with a lot of grudingness about I all. I can be prone to sudden sullen withdrawals of personality when I think that a game is slipping out form under me, and I have to do a fair bit of internal soothing to come out of those moments, trying to convince myself that ‘It doesn’t matter anyway’. I don’t like what that turns me into, so try not to ‘try too hard’ at games, as a means of pre-emptively defusing these brief spikes of internal bitterness. But if I let it, losing can hit me hard and make me unpleasant.

I believe that losing well takes practice, but the danger is that losing often can dissuade those of a more pessimistic bent to not try winning in the first place, to minimise the losses. Unfortunately, that can result in a player getting out of practice at losing gracefully. A strange paradoxical cycle which possibly only I suffer from!

A trite conclusion would be something along the lines of “getting back on the horse”, but I’m less certain. Learning to lose well is important, but there comes a point when it is sound to simply stop playing, to give up and play something else. The key is a clear and objective assessment of the game being played, and the potential for any future improvement, and at least the potential for decent amounts of enjoyment even if losing anyway.

I shall write more on ‘Winning’ when I’m in a more winning mood!

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1. Melmoth - May 25, 2012

To quote Richard Bach:
“That’s what learning is, after all; not whether we lose the game, but how we lose and how we’ve changed because of it and what we take away from it that we never had before, to apply to other games. Losing, in a curious way, is winning.”

Which is why I feel that the best one can do is to take a deep breath; accept that any frustration felt is a Good Thing, because it means you care for the competition; graciously congratulate one’s opponent, and step carefully back from the table.

Then flip the table over and beat your opponent with the most immediately available scattered playing piece until they agree to let you win next time.

Hey, if it works for Wookies, why not for those of us who find that we tend to lose a lot?

2. Teppo - May 25, 2012

Losing is a tough thing. As a life-long player of strategy games and RPGs, where losing can be brutal and the summation of many hours of thought and action; losing gracefully can be very difficult sometimes. But it does get easier with practice.

Striking a balance between caring when you’re In/Alive/Playing – because this makes you a better player, less likely to sacrifice power needlessly or play recklessly; and recovering swiftly when you’re Out/Dead/Not-Player – because you need to just accept that the loss is a very transient thing, and if you can learn only ONE thing from that loss (like, don’t advance your Line Infantry without support from 2 other units or their morale will break on a good charge), then you are scoring positively on the great Akashic Records of Gaming ;)

It’s important to remember that, though you were very attached to your Level 11 Rogue/Shadowdancer that you had taken up from her humble beginnings as a level 1 pickpocket, your next character will be just as fun and is an opportunity to try something new.

In summary, dwell on the past only so long as it takes for you to identify a single specific error (if there are any – dice/luck can play a part), remember that you enjoyed the game while it lasted and then hop-skip-and-jump over the present and start looking forward to what you’re doing next.

At least, that works for me :)

3. xbevisx - May 27, 2012

I agree that losing graciously takes a lot of practice. And it that because of this, losing often helps in a way. It toughens you up. There are a few people at my club that could do with learning that winning isn’t everything.

I’ll admit that on the odd occasion I can be a bad loser. And if I become aware of it, I feel terrible.

Try to see an instance where you lose a game as an educational experience rather than a defeat. Your battle reports will be excellent for this because you analyze what you did wrong, with the intention of amending this error in a future game. If you look at them in this logical fashion, it should help take the sting out of the tail.

Another important thing is get your opponent to comment on the game. If they are a kind and gracious winner, they will be happy to tell you where you might have gone wrong, but also which tactics you employed that made it more difficult for them to win. As you have a regular opponent, he should be eager to help you improve and put up a good fight.

And if someone does lord it over you too much, just punch them in the balls.

4. Zoso - May 28, 2012

I find head-to-head games to be very unforgiving when confronting a loss; if there’s a choice online (or indeed in person) I’ll tend to favour team-based situations, or a many player free-for-all, as that can allow some counterbalance to a disparity of skill (or accentuate it, but still). Random elements can offer similar balancing, e.g. Backgammon with its dice rolls as opposed to Chess, though for each player there’s a point where things are too random (somewhere around Blood Bowl for me).

Thinking about it, both teams and randomness offer a similar cop-out in the case of a loss: “he didn’t lose” amplified “because the rest of the team sucked”, or “I was just unlucky”(/”my opponent was just lucky”). And that’s sometimes true, but it’s an easy refuge, easier than confronting your own weaknesses. I can’t entirely figure out why, but I’m still hooked in to World of Tanks despite the abundant opportunities it offers for losing (46% of the time, apparently, 1,399 defeats to date), and about the most common thing to see in chat is “noob team”, almost always typed by someone who’s just died, frequently stupidly (most ironic “noob team” I’ve seen came from an artillery player, whose SOLE CONTRIBUTION to the fight was killing ONE OF HIS OWN TEAM-MATES with a misplaced shell).

Actually, talking of World of Tanks, there is another avenue: “He didn’t lose because the game is specifically rigged against me”, and you can even conduct a hilariously flawed ‘experiment’ in a Marder II to ‘prove’ it. But that’s a pretty extreme case.

xbevisx - May 28, 2012

I need to get you to play Tabletop Blood Bowl with me. The videogame version is not the best introduction.

5. Killed in a Smiling Accident. » Blog Archive » Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal. - June 6, 2012

[...] over the past weekend than my gamer fortitude can rightfully endure, and so I fully empathise with others when they express their torment in dealing with gaming [...]

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