Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Topic Du Jour: Game Burnout

Everyone is talking about game burnout: Mary, Alfred, Jason, Greg, Spielfrieks, and even The Dice Tower and Board Games to Go mentioned it.

What is burnout?

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines it as "Physical or emotional exhaustion, especially as a result of long-term stress or dissipation."

For our purposes, games burnout is a state where you feel less or no desire to play games for an indeterminate period.

Burnout implies that the state prior to burnout is tolerable as worst, or desirable at best. Before you were burned out, you were happily going about your life as you wanted to. On the way to burnout, you became more and more dissatisfied with something. Probably, you ignored these warning signs, continued doing just what you were doing, until something that used to be tolerable suddenly and very quickly became intolerable.

What causes burnout?

There are two possible seeds that lead to game burnout: the person or the games. In either case, the rewards you now gain from playing games has now diminished versus the effort involved.

When I speak of reward, I am referring to why you play games. When I speak of effort, I am referring to mental effort to think through the games, the social effort to tolerate your game companions, and physical effort to attend, set up and clean up after the games.

Burnout: the person

People burnout on games as a result of normal, healthy personal growth or due to leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

People who lead happy lives playing games may simply move on to other activities. They may move houses. They may feel that they once gained something from playing games but no longer feel that it represents a challenge to them or that it is helping them with their personal growth.

They may have found some new interest which is more absorbing, or simply be spending more time with a new group of friends or partner.

I'm not sure if this would be considered "burnout" per se. "Real Gamers" may disparage people for abandoning games to pursue other things, but, hopefully, most of us realize how silly that is.

Mind you, I believe that playing games even occasionally is an important and healthy part of everyone's life. When friends tell me that they don't play games at all, I think they are sadly missing out.

On the other hand, people who were "real gamers", and by this I mean devoted to the hobby of gaming as a whole, as opposed to simply willing to play a game as the occasion arises, may burnout for unhealthy reasons.

Often this will be as a result of realizing that they have spent a lot of money or a lot of time while ignoring other important aspects of their life: intellectual growth, emotional well-being, physical exercise, or connecting with real friends and family. Greg's article, to which I linked above, discusses that aspect of burnout.

Burnout: the games

For this I refer you first to an earlier article that I wrote on this blog: The Game Hordes.

Assuming a healthy lifestyle, and no particular changes in circumstances or dissatisfaction with the idea of playing games, I think that players who play less games to more depth are far less likely to burnout on games than those who buy and/or play new games continuously.

For one thing, there are simply too many bad games. Even good games, which you may rate 6 or 7 on the BGG scale, chip away at your enjoyment of games if you play continuously. You are constantly settling for inadequacy, an imperfection that you can feel on either a conscious or unconscious level, in order to participate in the gaming experience. Play after play, this feeling is going to build up into resentment. Why are you doing this?

I don't blame the game companies any more than I blame the movie industries for putting out vapid movies or the food companies for putting out colorful, expensive sub-nutritious food. That's what they do.

But take a long honest look at the games produced in the last five years, and even your favorite game companies. There are thousands of games produced for one reason, and one reason alone: to take your money. No one is putting out games for the benefit of the game players.

If you are buying a lot of these games, or playing a lot of these games, you are either a) a game reviewer; more power to 'em, or b) victim of the marketing industry that hypes every product as the next best thing.

Do you buy based on publisher? Game designer? Theme? Packaging? Play time? Cost? Don't. All of that is crap. Reiner Knizia's name on a box is just as much marketing smoke as the primary colors and pictures used on the cover of the box. It means nothing. It's a hook to get you to buy the game.

You don't need all of those games. And from the sound of all of you who are suffering burnout, you don't want all of those games. That's not what gaming is about.

You may whine and moan about how much fun it is to open a new box, look at all the pretty components, and learn new rules without having to play people who are already better than you are, but I just shake my head at you with pity. Oh, I believe you; that's what you like. You are addicted to candy, and a whole lot of people are happy to keep you addicted that way.

Playing games is about playing excellent games. Playing new games is about looking for new excellent games. Excellent games are the games that you can replay numerous times without getting bored of them; not ten times, but a hundred times or a thousand times. They have multiple levels of skill and give you a feeling of having accomplished something real after playing them. Or, they are passtimes whose entire purpose is not gaming but socializing, and the game play is irrelevant.

What can you do?

  • Stop denying that you have a problem. Start doing what you really want to do: connect with your family, get outside, play games that you like.
  • Stop spending all of your time with people who you would not ordinarily have conversations with.
  • Have alone time to read or meditate and get comfortable with yourself. Don't define yourself as only happy when you are a cog in a game.
  • Say no to bad games. Don't buy the hype.
  • Stop playing a lot of new games and start replaying the games that you really want to play.


Yehuda

12 comments:

Coldfoot said...

Stop playing a lot of new games and start replaying the games that you really want to play.

A witch! A Witch! Burn him!

Fraser said...

Yeah yeah Coldie, he turned you into a newt, but you got better.

...start replaying the games that you really want to play is excellent advice. You don't have to stop buying new games, but if they are getting in the way of playing the old ones you want to play, you could always slow down a little (at least until the WitchFinderGeneral is in town).

Dwayne "aka okiedokie" said...

I look in my closet and see the games I don't play. Now realize, the closet is the place where I keep the good games. I don't play Fortress America, Samurai Swords, Risk 2010(? I don't even remember the year on that one), Epic Duels, Puerto Rico, Rail Baron......

I have in caught up in playing new stuff and recently BUYING new stuff. I have been suffering a type of burnout as well.

The other burnout I have been experiencing is the "hunt", the searching of thrift stores. I have about 150 games in the garage that "I'm going to sell" HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA sigh Right. As if anybody would purchase some of the crap that I have collected. And the stuff that isn't crap I should probably play, but I have that closet that I don't play with. I have a packrat mentality and it is very hard for me to part with something without either seeing it used or turning a profit. But lately the thrift stores are bare (of what I want or don't have) so I am burned out on that.

But what HAS happened? I recently taught my sister Settlers of Catan. We ended up playing 6 games in a day and a half. She came to visit a few weeks ago and we played another half dozen games. This past weekend my Youngest son (21) asked to play SoC as did my wife. I'm enjoying this game quite a bit & have probably played MORE in the past month than I have in the past 3 years.

I think a lot of the burnout has to do with the fire hydrant of info that we are receiving from BGG and BGN as well as some of the great analysis I read here & at PDXgamers. It's almost sitting down and watching all 5 seasons of Dick Van Dyke in one weekend. After that, I would be scared to death of footstools. The same with games, I'm probably on sensory overload.

(I'm wondering if it's possible to turn this whole burnout/witch/newt thing into a game of some sort?)

Doug Orleans said...

I don't see how a game designer's name on a box is "marketing smoke". The designer of a game is the primary creative force behind the game. Knizia may be a brand, but his name doesn't just get slapped onto any old game that someone wants to sell (the way, say, Tolkein's name is used to sell a game with a Middle Earth theme). His name represents his authorship, and it's natural to think that a new game that he designed is likely to be of similar quality to past games that he has designed.

dave said...

"Stop playing a lot of new games and start replaying the games that you really want to play."

However, if you're in a gaming group where multiple people buy games, and the others are continuing to introduce new games, tie a plastic bag onto your head and breathe deeply.

Chris Farrell said...

Fascinating, as usual, but I think you may overstate the case. Reiner Knizia's name on the box is not irrelevant. Neither is Hans im Gluck, alea, or whatever your favorite brand is. To claim that this valuable information is crap is a jaw-dropping assertion.

Look, if you want my advice, people need to just figure out what they like. It's not easy to approach games the same way you would books, movies, or any other form of entertainment, because the field is smaller and more insular. Most people can't tell me coherently what they like about specific games, or why they like some games better than others (although they can tell me what's cool about the hobby in general). Not being able to answer that question is a recipie for burnout.

Figure out why you like games and go for those games. Don't play games just because that's what your hobby is; play good games because you find them superior to whatever else you might be doing, for whatever reason.

There is no magic bullet. Focussing on replayable games sounds nice, but is not necessarily the answer for everyone - and this is coming from someone who believe in replayability as a key metric in game quality. But we all crave diversity too, or we'd just play Chess or Go something. But buying new games is like playing Beowulf; it's all about risk, and there are good risks and really bad risks.

The important thing is to get a good handle on a managably-sized category of games that you like, what you don't like, to play the former, and to avoid the latter in general. Obviously, as Dave mentions, sometimes you play games you don't like as much to get games you do like on the table. Everything involving people is a compromise. But if your games are never hitting the table, maybe that should be telling you something.

Coldfoot said...

Playing lots of new games IS the draw of the hobby.

(And is it just me, or is the word verification string-of-letters getting crazy long?)

Jack said...

I've not actually played many of the new games - so I tend to stick to the ones I know and love, Settlers, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Twilight Imperium. I've several others which I play very rarely and many that I want to play but have neither the time or the money for.

Still I go through phases when I play games a lot, and others when I do something else a lot instead.

If you play games fanatically you'll burnout sooner or later, but you'll probably come back to it months (or years) later. If you play occasionally as a hobby you'll probably burnout slower - but you'll still move on to other things as time passes.

Play games while it's fun. If it's not fun - give it up (until it is fun again).

DWTripp said...

I'm not at all sure that "burn out" is a relevant term when it comes to a hobby or pastime.

I'm placing myself in the Coldie, Chris and Dave camp on this one Yehuda. On a personal level I've pursued games as one of my passions for over 40 years and I'm just as enthusiastic today as I was when I first played Risk as a lad.

The element that waxes and wanes over the years is, I believe, variety. Whether in the group or the actual games on the table, variety and the uncertainty of outcome are magnets that keep me coming back for more.

Coldie asserts that new games ARE the draw. Yes, they are at least a major factor that keeps me coming back for more. But even then, old standards like Poker and Backgammon have the same appeal to me today as they did thirty years ago.

If I had to commit to what sometimes happens to people that appears like "burn out" I'd commit to the idea that other aspects of life rise in significance and games become a backdrop, perhaps even a nuisance if life's demands require your full attention.

Every period of my life where my game playing dropped off was a period where other things, such as new children, new jobs, other exciting hobbies and the like rose in significance.

I suspect Mary will get the garden done, paint the house, do a few other Spring chores and find herself once again at the table, with the family, playing games.

Yehuda said...

Doug, Chris:

I don't see how a game designer's name on a box is "marketing smoke" ... Reiner Knizia's name on the box is not irrelevant.

The reason that the designer's name on a box is "marketing smoke" is because it is placed on the box as a hook to get you to buy the game.

I'm aware that the name provides real information; after all, isn't a Reiner Knizia game going to be better than a game by any old designer?

That's not really the point.

First of all, no, a game by Reiner Knizia is not necessarily going to be better than a game by any other designer. Reiner has designed hundreds of games, only a few of which most everyone really needs to have. At any particular moment, there may be other games that are better suited to your tastes than the first box you find in the store that says Reiner Knizia on it.

Second of all, if you are in the market for a new game, shouldn't you be getting more information other than the game designer? Like, how the game plays, several reviews, whether it fits your tastes (as Chris was saying), and so on?

The people who put Reiner Knizia's name on the box know that a large percentage of our type of game buyers are going to buy this game just because his name is on it.

I'm not saying that it's not true that Reiner designed the game; I'm saying that marketing knows that you're going to buy that game just because his name is on it.

Third of all, do you really need another game in the first place?

If you walk into a grocery store, the bread and milk is all the way in the back. They want you to walk through all of the aisles so that you'll see things that you don't need but want before you get to that bread and milk, which is all that you really need.

That's marketing smoke. You may not be in the market for a game, but if you pass by the big name Reiner Knizia, you have to buy it. After all, it's him. It must be at least decent. Suddenly you want it.

That's marketing for you. It's a brand. Reiner is a brand. Some brands are good, but really, do you need to own every Seaman's matress just because they make good matresses? Isn't one matress per person in your house enough? Do you need to see every Julia Roberts film just because her name is on it? If you buy a ticket to a movie just because her name is on it, you are either a film critic, doing a study on Julia Roberts films, or a victim of marketing. You may even enjoy the film, but you have to realize that you have been manipulated.

Do you really need to own every Reiner game? Isn't a few of them enough?

God bless Reiner, he is a good designer, and he sounds like a great guy, from all I've heard of him. But there is a limit to which you should let yourself be manipulated by the marketing forces of the game publishing world. That means recognizing that a name on a box, whether it's a publisher's name or a designer's name, is a marketing ploy.

Just consider before you turn yourself into an automatic consumer. Buying game after game is going to eventually make you resentful. There are just not enough good games to justify it, whoseever name is on the box.

Addendum:

I am overstating the case a little, to be sure.

If everyone only played only the games that they thought were excellent, people would have a hard time finding play partners, because none of us can agree on the excellent games. That's where we make compromises in a game group: I'll play your game if you play mine.

I also recognize that there is a different kind of game burnout, and that is burnout on a particular game. If you play only one game way too often, you can burnout on that game. Playing different games solves that problem.

That seems like a strong argument against my basic premise, but it is not necessarily an argument for a continuous stream of new games. Rather it is an argument against playing only one game or type of game. Someone who has a list of ten excellent games and rotates among them is not going to suffer that problem, generally.

Yehuda

BilboAtBagEnd said...

It is possible to make a point without going overboard.

Yehuda said...

Bilbo: Mia Culpa. Give me an editor and I promise to improve.

Yehuda