January 19, 2015

On Game Obsessions, Disillusionments, and Finding Meaning

Alec Meer, over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, wrote an interesting personal piece looking back on 2014 and thinking ahead about 2015. In the article, he touched on both his expanding life role as a father – a demanding reality I can sympathize with – as well as how games fit within the broader context of life pursuits and bring (or fail to bring) memorable value. He also raises a concern over the mindless nature of some games, which seem to lure us in with a promise of freedom and a world of wonder but deliver something far less thrilling.

Alec Meer Wrote:
“I have a strong suspicion I spent too much time with too many games which use the Assassin’s Creed structure – the map full of icons, each pinpointing exactly where the next known quantity was, each one closing the door on having an experience which felt in any way personal. It’s a simulacrum of freedom – really, you’re in a theme park, repeating a sanitized and mechanical experience. You know exactly what’s where, exactly what’s going to happen, exactly how it’s going to feel.

The time passes pleasantly, maybe even thrillingly at times, but it means nothing, there’s no sense of achievement other than Achievements. Maybe it’s more compulsive masturbation than Disneyland (or maybe Disneyland is masturbation? Discuss) – make the itch go away, risk a faint sense of guilt and self-disgust afterwards, then do it again anyway.“

I’ve found myself in the same boat many times in the past – where I’m playing a game for dozens and dozens (or more) hours and suddenly the fog parts. And then I’m standing there all alone on the dock, wondering why it is exactly that I’m continuing to play a given game when it is clear that my mental image of what the game ‘could’ (or ‘should’) provide doesn’t match with what the game is, you know, actually providing – that the ship isn’t coming in. It’s a harsh moment that leaves one speculating whether or not they could’ve put their time to more productive use, or at least invested in a game that leaves you with something to show for it beyond a list of checked-off Achievements. 

“Achievements” deserve their own topic. But as a teaser, I have to admit that I find the idea of achievements rather repulsive, particularly when the quest to, ahem, “achieve” them becomes a motivation for continuing to playing a game. Shouldn’t the sheer enjoyment of playing the game and the desire to get better at it be the principle driver? It plays into some sense of community showoffs-man-ship that, at least, for me, doesn’t do anything. But to each their own.

A Menagerie of Disillusionment

In an earlier post, My Journey into Haunting Ambivalence, I highlight a bit of the same frustration I sense in Alec’s article – that so many games just leaves him (and me) feeling unsatisfied. I wrote that, for me, games had to have a compelling combination of narrative, immersion, and challenge to maintain any lasting interest. If there is just one - or maybe two - of those elements the game usually won’t make a lasting impression, and I often come away regretting the time I spent playing it.

Among the videogame critics (at least those that I read), I feel like there is a growing frustration with the direction most games are going (achievements, unlocks, gamification-of-games, IAP, game-on-rails, etc.) and a desire to break away from the genre-tropes that have defined the videogame landscape for the past 15-20 years. I think we’re starting to get there, as developers gain more and more means to pursue their own hair-brained projects out from under the auspice of big budget publishers – but this also means there is also an awful lot more chaff to sort through to find those few nuggets worth drooling over.

Kurt wrote a great article, Postcards from the Edge, recently about trends on the board gaming side of the fence, and noted a trend of decreasing fervor in kickstarter boardgame projects. At some level it’s a case of general burnout I think – that perhaps the paradise of kickstarter wasn’t as green as we thought. Or perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, of realizing that we shouldn’t convince ourselves that we need to play 20 or 50 or 100 new games each year to keep on top of things –that instead we can be more discerning in our gaming habitats. And that maybe, just maybe, the 20 or 50 or 100 games we already have on the shelf will do just fine, thank you very much.

Cycles of gaming enthusiasm/obsession

This a little tangential, but as I think back on my own gaming history, I can divide it into rough, mostly non-overlapping, eras of obsession. At any point, I tend to find myself interested in a particular game such that 90% or more of my available gaming attention and time is focused on it – like Sauron’s great eye. And the hallmark of a gaming obsession, for me, is that I will also get involved with the community: joining the forums, doing beta/patch testing, making mods, working on a wiki, etc. My most memorable moments in gaming are thus wrapped up this nexus of gameplay and community contribution.

Cherry picking some moments ….

With Quake (the original) I was heavily involved with the map/level making scene and had my own (and my first) website to review deathmatch levels. There was an intense stint with Magic the Gathering circa ’95 (?). With the Elder Scrolls, and by extension Fallout 3, I was heavily involved in modding and made one of the preeminent Fallout 3 gameplay mods. I’ve been involved in various Warhammer 40,000 communities in times and written my own codex’s (don’t tell GW!). I got back into hobby boardgaming circa 2010 and re-kindled a game design passion, which spawned both this blog and Hegemonic. I immersed myself thoroughly into Starbase Orion (iOS 4X game) and helped with patch development. My current obsession is, without a doubt, Age of Wonders 3, which has set the bar (very high) for what I’m looking for in a turn based strategy game – and I’ve been heavily involved in the community forums and patch testing there as well.

So unlike Alec, 2014 was a good year for me in that I did identify it largely with one outstanding game, Age of Wonders 3 (released in March ’14), which has kept me thoroughly enraptured. The frosting on this cupcake is that I’ve also been able to rope a good friend into playing AoW3, and the game is simply fantastic as a multiplayer turn-based game. Plus I get the friendly interaction/banter going with my friend.

Yet 2014 has also seen far less boardgaming than the past many years, a trend which leaves me a little disheartened. Yet it’s an understandable reality as both myself and many of my close gaming friends are all having young kids running about – which changes the opportunities and dynamics of social gatherings in a rather significant way. That said – my close friends did make a sort of informal New Year’s resolution to actively plan period game nights, to get the aging clan back together for an evening of in-person boardgaming or digital shenanigans online. We’ve had one gathering so far, and need to keep the ball rolling and make it a regular thing.

But back on topic - I will get burned out on a given game obsession. The fog parts on the current obsession and I’m compelled to move on and find the next hit. I’ll hang, perhaps months in a sort of limbo flitting from one game to the next in an attempt to land on a new one that feels right, that can drag me in with its tantalizing mix of narrative, immersion, and challenge. Is this healthy? I’m not sure.

Gaming and the Pathways to Meaning

If there is one thing that seems to unify gamers it is a desire to interact with some other reality and the system of rules by which it operates. Some people describe this as escapism, the desire to have agency or power or control in an instanced world that isn’t the normal one we occupy – to test and challenge ourselves and each other in ways that don’t (usually) have lasting consequences. But if the games themselves don’t have lasting consequences, I do wonder what the lasting consequences of being a “gamer” on the whole will prove to be.

Like Patrick Carroll, will I find myself regularly reflecting back on decades of gaming highs and lows but perhaps struggling to understand why or how it has enriched one’s life. It’s a struggle I think we both share. Then again – the same argument might be said of other forms of media entertainment. Why read a fiction book? Why watch a movie? Why submerse yourself in a never-ending TV series? Games may give us agency to act within their fictional realities, yet do (or can) they inspire us or challenge our world views in the ways that the most memorable movies or novels have countless times in the past?

I’m not sure if games, as a whole industry/body of work, yet provide the sort of cultural meaning that other media can. Yet for many of us, we seem to be on a quest to find that level of meaning within games. To both couple our desire for agency and being immersed in another reality with some sense of greater purpose and insight that might enrich our lives more broadly.

Or perhaps, games are just an excuse to get together over a case of beer and a big bowl of pretzels. Or a 2-litre of Mountain Dew and Doritos. I’ll let you decide.


  1. Relevant:


  2. Doritos over pretzels my friend.