Celeste and the denial of perfectionism

What’s the difference between greatness and perfection?

In theory, being perfect sounds great. But in practice, it means avoiding all mistakes, and that can be limiting. The easiest way to be perfect is to avoid everything outside your comfort zone, which means you’ll never grow and improve. In this way, perfectionism can be a malicious force that atrophies your growth, pushing you away from any pursuit where it will be necessary to fail before you can succeed.

Another way of saying this: perfection is, ironically, not the highest thing you can strive for. I’ve observed in my own life that the more I embrace failure and abandon perfectionism, the more I succeed. It seems strange, but it actually makes sense. Being perfect means that you’re done, that there’s no room left for growth. But there’s always room for growth. So when you decide there isn’t, you’re artificially cutting yourself off, and not realizing your full potential.

Perfectionism can also divert energy away from other tasks that are more important. In math education, it’s not important to be able to do multiplication problems without ever making a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. The point is to drill things until the main idea is solid, and then to develop it by moving on to more challenging or clever variations of the idea. Staying in one place and drilling for too long is asking for perfection when it isn’t necessary. It’s also super boring.

So how can we reinforce this attitude of growth, and push back against perfectionism?

Early in this blog I wrote about how games are social systems, conditioning us to understand the world and to express our intentions in a language that is particular to that game. Just as the structure of natural language affects our cognition and the way we interpret the world, so too does playing a certain type of game, or playing a game in a particular way. The games we play change the way we think about ourselves and the world.

I recently played through the platformer Celeste, and I love the way that the game’s design wears away at your attachment to perfection and your fear of failure. The game is very difficult and you die a lot. But every time you die, you come back instantly and get to try again very close to where you died. In other words, the game is ultra-difficult but the cost of failure is ultra-low. (It’s not the only game with this sort of mechanic, another notable example is Super Meat Boy.)

This is a great social environment for cleansing perfectionism from your mind. You fail all the time, but you don’t care, because that’s the way you work toward success. The game’s difficulty creates a constant reminder of how crap you are at it, and the forgiving respawn makes it irresistible to keep trying until you succeed. It’s the “hardest game that anyone can beat.” (I would love if we could make math classes feel this way. Math should be the hardest subject that anyone can learn.)

Unfortunately, there are some hidden challenges for the hardest of hardcore players that push back against this idea. The last two “C-side” levels are built around longer, more tedious segments where the respawn is very far from the hard part, and there are “golden strawberries” that you can collect by beating a level without dying once. When going for these goals, every little mistake starts to hurt again. You have to be perfect.

So while I loved the main part of the game, it was precisely at this point that Celeste stopped being fun. The magic that made the game so alluring, despite its difficulty, vanished as soon as the respawn points moved farther away from the hard part.

In other words, maybe what I like most about this game is that it doesn’t want me to be perfect. That it wants me to be someone who’s always failing some percentage of the time. Because that’s who I am.

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