I bet you know the feeling, like the game is against you. You’re pulling all the wrong cards or rolling all the wrong numbers and you die. It’s like the game didn’t want you to win and you had no chance – what were you supposed to do? Maybe you were at a boss and now have to start all over again. Maybe you were about to win a tournament and didn’t. So sorry – it was just bad luck.
Argh god! It’s infuriating – at the time – especially if someone pulls the “oh bad luck” line on you as it happens. Wankers. But this notion of luck, it’s there in games and secretly – or not so secretly now I’m writing about it – I love it. I love bad luck.
It’s not that I like losing – as if! (You’ve never seen me at LaserZone – I’m embarrassingly competitive. I once went there with my son, who was about eight years old at the time. I told him we’d stick together. I promised him. “You and me, son.” But the minute we got in there, I was off, stalking the fake mist like a ghost. “Dad? Dad?!” I got the highest score that day. I gave my child something to aspire to. What?) So it’s not that I like losing, but I like the possibility of it.
“Luck is the cloudy uncertainty between playing and an outcome”
Luck is the cloudy uncertainty between playing and an outcome. It’s the uncomputable magical something you can’t plug into an equation – not easily, anyway. Ever noticed how role-playing games have a Luck statistic for characters? And have you ever really known what it does? I love it.
Luck is what makes the game exciting. The little dollop of unpredictable magic you keep coming back for. If you knew you were going to win, why would you play? If the outcome was a foregone conclusion, what’s the point? It’s like watching a recorded football game after the fact – if you know the result, the excitement isn’t there. The excitement is the unknown.
Bad luck wrongfoots me in games all the time. Recently, it’s been Slay the Spire. There I am, thundering along like an avalanche, amassing cards and relics, feeling stronger all the time, when suddenly I come unstuck. Could be a boss, could be a trash battle – doesn’t seem to matter. All my hard work undone in what feels like an instant (I drag it out by staring helplessly at my final hand of cards, hoping for a miracle). I didn’t pull the cards I needed in the order I needed and now I’m dead. “Oh bad luck.”
But not so long ago, it was Overwatch, and my evening’s enjoyment hinging on whether I was shuffled into a friendly and skillful group of players, and whether our opponents were any good. Then, whether we had the right heroes and tactics; then, whether my shots were landing and everyone was clustering so I could get Play of the Game (god, play for the team, Bertie!). And sometimes it wasn’t my night. Bad groups, bad fights, bad play. “Oh bad luck.”
But without it – without bad luck – we wouldn’t have the other side of the coin. We wouldn’t have good luck. And if we didn’t know what it was like to lose, it wouldn’t be as compelling to win. A run of gilded luck in Slay the Spire is all the more cherished for the bad luck which came before it, and an evening of wins and laughter in Overwatch is all the sweeter for the shit you’ve endured in the past. Good luck, really, is what we keep coming back for.
There’s a fine line, of course. Enforce too much bad luck and we’ll call foul play. ‘Was I allowed to win?’ – that’s how I think about it. If I was and I didn’t, I’ll try again. I don’t mind. Or if it was one of those early foreshadowing boss encounters you’re supposed to lose, so you can go away and train like Luke Skywalker on Dagobah for the final showdown later on, then fine, I’ll lap it up. But if the game is making me lose in order to reinforce some kind of lazy grind, or make some kind of grab for my money, then that’s not so fine.
Because what it boils down to, really, is a number generator. We know there’s some die clattering around behind the scenes, deciding the outcome, and if it’s loaded, it’ll aggravate us – it won’t be ignored. But if it’s what we consider fair, however brutal the numbers not landing for us might seem, we’ll go for it. Maybe it’s because we like to believe in the game’s exciting magical unknown. But, I think, it’s also because – as on a roulette table – the numbers could as easily go our way.
It’s like in life. I know, and you know, walking under a ladder, or breaking a mirror, or not greeting a magpie in the correct way, isn’t going to result in bad luck. Bad luck probably isn’t even a real thing, just a term we attribute to unfortunate coincidence. But how many times do we still observe and reinforce it?
No one wants bad luck – I get it. It’s not nice to have bad things happen to you, and as much as we learn from them – and we do, and I have, and I am – there’s often suffering to go through first, and no one would choose for it to happen to them. But I think we preserve our superstitions because we want to believe in good luck too. We like to think we may one day win the lottery, whatever that lottery is, and it gives us the jolt of hope we need sometimes to carry us through.