Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Burnout revenge

The estimable L.B. Jeffries wrote an essay for PopMatters about gamer burnout. Among the people he talked to, a common theme was that games are great until they start to feel like work. This is undeniably true -- nothing saps the fun of something faster than obligation. Playing games on deadline is no fun, period, and being forced to stick with a crappy game is a special kind of hell.

On the other hand, all this misses the point that playing games is a form of work. Maybe it's a challenging action game that requires players to learn patterns and hone their reflexes. That takes practice. Maybe it's a 50+ hour RPG with a sweeping story and slow-paced, strategic combat. That takes commitment. Maybe it's a sim that is best enjoyed with hundreds of dollars of peripheral hardware. That takes investment. Fun or not, getting anything worthwhile out of most video games is going to take some work.*

(Case in point: Fallout 3. That game came at the perfect time for me. I had several weeks without anything else to play, plus holiday and vacation time that let me sink my teeth into it. I loved the game, but I don't see how you could call it anything but work. Not only was there a massive time commitment required, but the missions were the sort of endless, chasing-your-own tail tasks you do at an office if you have a capricious boss.)

So when I say that I get burned out on games because they're work, I mean that less because I'm playing them as a professional service, and more because playing them is freaking draining. The last thing I do is play games for fun. They stress me out. And that's a big part of the reason why I like them, strangely enough. When I get home after eight hours of sitting on my butt updating a spreadsheet, I need some excitement. That's something video games can provide.

The burnout, then, doesn't come from getting tired of the games. It comes from getting too much into them. It's a natural byproduct of the focus and concentration is takes to succeed. After all that work, it's nice to take a vacation sometimes.

*Hence casual games, but that's another post for another day.


feitclub said...

Are "fun" and "excitement" mutually exclusive? I know very few games are actually relaxing (even PixelJunk Eden can drive you nuts sometimes) but there are plenty of good games that get me worked up and put a smile on my face at the same time.

Gary A. Lucero said...

I have always maintained that the reason I really enjoy some games -- shooters, Japanese RPGs, adventure games, maybe even the odd puzzler -- is because I don't have anything else to play so I make room in my mind for something I don't always enjoy.

Even genres I've always loved, like car racing, are only fun when there's nothing else to play. But give me a good Western RPG and I'll ALWAYS pick it over those other experiences. New Fallout 3 DLC, like Point Lookout coming next week, is reason enough for me to put all else aside and to return to the wastelands.

As far as burnout goes, sure, it's definitely something that happens. But I think this is again dependent on what games are available and how many of a certain genre you've played recently. Variety helps to reduce burnout and if there are interesting games to play it makes it far more fun.

I play games year round but there are times when I take a day or sometimes even a week off because nothing intrigues me and I find something else to do. But those breaks are pretty rare.

Gary A. Lucero said...


Concerning your point about Fallout 3 being work, I did find it very stressful when I first started out.

Eventually I got to the point where I stopped feeling overwhelmed by it and although it can still be very punishing, at some point I figured out the game system and understood how to beat enemies and could see through the whole thing.

While that can take away some of the magic, it also lets me role play it the way I want to and removes some of the stress. And although I understand that gaming still involves work, all "fun" does. Even sex involves work, right?

Nothing's free.

Mr Durand Pierre said...

I think it's much as Gary said. I think it's less "work" though, and more "effort." I mean everything that's fun requires some degree of investment. Otherwise you're just sitting in bed all day. I'm not sure that a videogame requires any more effort than playing a sport, reading a book, going out to a movie, etc. I suppose it is more effort than just turning on the TV, but unless there's anything of particular interest you wish to watch, that won't be much fun.

On the other hand, maybe we do find the stress fun, because the loss conditions feel significant, but in reality aren't at all. Fuck up at your job and you could be fired. Fuck up in a game and you just get a game over. Burnout comes when we just don't give a rat's anymore and that loss condition fails to unnerve us. We then find ourselves merely going through the motions, much like you updating spreadsheets at work.

Jebus said...

I totally agree games are work. As of the beginning of 2008 I have made a conscience effort to clear out my backlog of games I want to play. I'm finding out quickly that this isn't possible because every time I beat a game I come up with two more I want to play, but that's beside the point. :)

I still think I've done fairly well with my goal, I beat over 50 games last year and played over 60 total. This year I'm on track to beat around 70, but there are definitely times that I just don't want to play games. Sometimes I force myself too, but since it's just a hobby I'll often choose to do something else.

It sounds silly that I force myself to play games sometimes, but if I want to experience these games I'm going to have to play them. It's no different than learning something. You aren't going to want to practice your instrument all the time, but if you don't you wont get anywhere. That may not be the best example because I won't have anything tangible to show for playing tons of games, but I think the analogy makes sense.

I of course still find it incredibly enjoyable or I wouldn't do it.

CBZ said...

Yeah, doing alternating shifts on a less-than-exciting McJob in market-research and Persona 4 (during the so-called recreation time, that is), I couldn't help descovering some very asia grinder-like aspects in my job...

As another aside:
Steven Poole of Trigger Happy-fame gave a speech on a topic pretty close to your suggestions, which you might find interesting:

Chris Hyde said...

This post details exactly why I played Fallout 3 for about 8 hours and then promptly sold it and to this day remain baffled why everyone loved it so much. I found it to be such drudgery I dreaded ever putting the disk back into my PS3.

sp said...

I think Gary, Durand, and a few others touched on this, but I think it's work reiterating.

Games can be work, but they also tend to have meaningful accomplishments and I think that's what makes the difference. Whether you liberate a town from super mutants, or you kill that boss to get your last piece of tier 8, there's a noticable reward there be it a new item, questline, or what have you.

I think the burnout aspect comes into play when the reward no longer satisfies as an incentive to play. Almost any activity (hobby, career, or anything in between) is the same in that regards.