I want to talk about a pivot happening in my side-projects as part of some larger changes in my life.
I stopped playing video games a few months ago. This would be fine—even admirable in some circles—if my job wasn’t to make video games. There are a few games I have sampled, a few minutes of something here and there, and I still mod, but I haven’t sat down to play a game in months.
Making video games in Georgia, I let work become my life. Where there were voids, I worked longer hours and spent my free time studying games. There was always more to do, always urgent, so I worked.
For my enthusiasm, my managers threw me at projects with the biggest amounts of work. In 2017 I moved my desk four times between three games. My weeks may have averaged 50 hours, but many exceeded 70. Several weekends disappeared.
There came a point I vowed I would not work another 16 hour day. Then I received a deadline where the choice was to either create something below my standard of quality (and I am not a perfectionist), or to break my vow. In the end, I did both. I remember a 74 hour week ran through Sunday into another 70 hours in a continuous 14 days, but I was still disappointed with the quality of the game. No amount of work could save it in time.
Once the deadline passed, I rationalized my unhappy results by saying “I am proud of the work I did, even if I am not proud of the product I made”. Months of recovery from that voluntary crunch, now more than a year ago, I wonder why I should be proud of the work at all.
Most people use the word “workaholic” as a humblebrag. I am a workaholic, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean when there is a void in my life, I fill it with work; this causes my friendships to fade; this expands the void further; and this invites me to work even more. My work was a malignant addiction.
To quote David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” about television, irony, and addiction:
something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes. A malignant addiction is also distinguished for spreading the problems of the addiction out and in in interference patterns, creating difficulties for relationships, communities, and the addict’s very sense of self and soul.
This is what I mean when I say I am a workaholic.
Somewhere in 2016, I stopped reading. I stopped writing. I did not date. The few, short books I did read were about business management. I scoured them for ideas to fix the politics and production problems at work, so I could move at an even faster pace. Through all of this, I had become a different person.
In autumn of 2015 when I considered the job offer in Georgia, I worried it would cost me my soul. From my rural hometown with no prospects, I needed the work, I needed the experience. But after I took the job, I slowly lost something of myself.
As I kept up my pace at work, I felt burnout approaching. I had burned out once before, in college, when I took more courses than I could handle. There was a long recovery then. This time, I knew I couldn’t recover while expected to keep the pace I had set.
Moving to Canada was an opportunity to restart. Outside of a 40 hour workweek, being a stranger in a new country has meant facing the voids in my life. I could fill these voids by playing video games, by doing research for my work, but I haven’t.
In October I entered into a relationship. On our second date, we went to the local poetry slam. This reminded me how I dabbled in poetry before my job in Georgia and reminded me of the person I had been. I mentioned this and my date teased me, asked if I would ever perform a poem here. I said “maybe”.
The relationship was short, but the reminders of my past-self stuck. I was left to reexamine my values: what I want from a relationship, yes, but also what kind of person I want to be. I have had to reckon with the costs I paid in my three years in Georgia because there were costs. I strengthened as a level designer at the expense of everything else. Now I am lopsided. I see my failure in this relationship linked to my addiction to work for the ways I chose not to develop myself.
Since that relationship ended, I am writing again. I have performed at the poetry slam twice. I am reading again too. These are ways for me to grow.
But I stopped playing video games because they can’t help me do this work of introspection and healing. Games can kill time, they can anaesthetize, and—when studied—they can fill the void with work. None of this is what I have needed.
In this view, a passage from Austin Grossman’s novel You comes to mind:
Let’s admit some things about video games. They are boring. They induce a state of focus that is totally absorbing but useless—like the ghost of work or creative play, but without engaging the world in any way. They are designed to focus attention but don’t train you to overcome the obstacles to being focused.
They are fun but don’t tend to make a person more interesting.
The rewards are false coin—they are rarely satisfying or moving. More often, they offer something like a hunger for the next game …
Against this cynicism, I see how video games can be a means of social connection across long distances. Increasingly, this is what I value about the medium. This is why I work in multiplayer. However, I see this role of video games as a supplement for social connection, not the replacement it too often becomes.
I’m not sure how much of this thinking is an indictment of the medium. Games may have a capacity as tools for introspection—Firewatch and Dear Esther come to mind—but this is not our medium’s strength. If I want to see the world in new ways, books remain the best tool.
Within these feelings about work, and within the catalyst of a failed relationship, my attitude as a designer is changing. When I am feeling pragmatic (and blunt), I say my job is to design toys for children. When I am feeling poetic, I say my job is to design architecture for imaginary cities. When I tell strangers about my job, these descriptions free me of the stigmas (and embarrassments) of video games without excusing the frivolity of my work. I don’t know the terminus of this thinking.
I will return to playing games at some point. To be good at my job, I must. There are still games I want to play and games I want to make, but there are debts I need to pay first.
I hope you read this as an explanation and a warning. If I had read a post like this in 2015, I might find myself now with a life in better balance.
Moving forward, I have some fun side-projects in the works and ideas I am exploring. They may not be what you would expect from a multiplayer level designer, but I am excited to show you all when they are ready.
Thanks for reading.
One thought on “My Changing Relationship to Games”
A very thoughtful piece (and well written, as I’d expect!): I might take issue only with one of your conclusions in your penultimate paragraph. I doubt you would necessarily have seen yourself in this post in 2015. We learn through experience, and it’s been my own observation that we seldom see ourselves in warnings *about* ourselves until after we have experienced the life we were warned about! Historical people were often warned about the consequences of a given act, but did not really understand that warning until after they had suffered those consequences!
Work–good or bad–brings a certain kind of maturity. I don’t mean to imply that you were not mature before. I always thought you were mature “before your time,” as it were, but the kind of maturity of self-reflection that your Georgia and Canada experiences have gifted you had, I think, to be lived, considered, and analyzed as you have done here. It seems to me that you are coming to a deeper understanding of Socrates’s dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living. No one ever said, alas, that the examination would not be occasionally painful and a bit time-consuming!! I don’t know if this will be depressing to you or not, but I still find myself, even at age 65, learning from life experience, examining it, and imagining myself doing “better”–or is it just differently??–.even if the time I have left to get better has gotten uncomfortably shorter!
I think when we stop examining our life and seeing what direction we want to go that we might as well give it up. And where would be the fun in that?!