Looking back at The Simpsons Arcade Game, it amazes me how many times I would spend as many hours as possible stubbornly trying to get a little farther than the last time, only ever beating it once from what I remember. Yet these days, I don’t quite notice that with games I play – most games I’ll finish if I devote enough time to them, regardless of how incompetent I am. Part of me thinks I’m just getting better at gamer instincts, but I also notice some recent games have fewer loss conditions overtime; for example, Banjo-Tooie kept the life meter from Banjo-Kazooie, but took out life count and game overs from dying too many times. Occasionally I’ll suspect, with largely baseless conjecture as my source, that those harder games with game over conditions were what made me handle other projects that required a lot of failure before accomplishing – most notably, being any sort of a writer. But lately pop psychology seems to agree with that sentiment; more rejection is better.
Before I get into this, I should explain what I’m talking about when I say that this game was frustratingly difficult. You have a mere seven stages, but a plethora of similar looking bad guys who can attack and gang up on you from any direction, along with a limited set of controls, occasionally unfair recovery frames, and a small hitbox from your attacks. Not to mention not all bosses received adequate knockback to let you recover from attacks before getting punished. Even the one time I beat it, I had to devote a serious number of quarters to make it happen; I never truly believed this game could be beaten without a game over. But the failures always made that bit of progress, and that feeling of getting farther the next time, all the more worth it.
As for the recent pop psychology I mentioned in my introduction, my relationship with this game (and many others from the arcade era), many are starting to suspect that repeated failures numb you to the fear of rejection, making you a more powerful asset to the workforce or any other place. Take Jia Jiang for example, who is trying to face a rejection a day for a hundred days. Others have completely coined similar strategies as “rejection therapy.”
While a lot of this is still in testing, it’s not hard to imagine there’s at least some merit to the belief that repeated failures make someone strong. The mere concept of semantic satiation, which states a word or phrase loses its meaning after repetition, can be argued to be a smaller version of this, and aside from that most grow up hearing heartwarming Cinderella stories that talk about people overcoming difficult situations to become better than people born into something. Failing works.
Compared to games these days, The Simpsons Arcade Game was rare. Even though the game was brutally difficult, it was also easy to pick up and full of easter eggs and new things to try to keep yourself alive a little bit longer. For example, whacking kiosks and trees would occasionally give food healing items, and combining any two of the four characters using a friend would create a unique combo attack for different ways of inflicting damage (which, compared to other beat ‘em ups that followed the Final Fight bandwagon, made them really innovative for their time). The game didn’t make it easy, but it made it fun to keep trying.
Jiang and The Simpsons Arcade Game also have another thing in common: the science of what Jane McGonigal called in Reality is Broken “Fun failure.” You try, and fail, and something happens. In the Simpson’s case, it was more of a comical image of some cartoon character getting hurt and suffering hilariously rather than gorily. In Jiang’s case, it’s whatever the adventure of the day’s end result. But in both cases, the brain actively attributes “if this, then that” to failure, making failure an active experience rather than a passive one, which makes a big difference. In one sense, the brain tells us that we do something and we make something else happen. In another, the brain tells us that we do something and something happens to us.
I never realized it until a much older age, but when my parents said “You could accomplish something great if you just applied yourself,” games like The Simpsons Arcade Game were a prime example of me actually applying myself. From there, winning at life just became a matter of recreating the conditions of winning in a video game: valuing progress over the end result, and finding silly ways to entertain myself along the long road of failure. Oh, and having a ton of quarters and plenty of time on my hands didn’t hurt either.