The Millennial Burnout Conversation Also Applies to Gamers Me

New year, new you. I’m still me. 

Cameron Kunzelman beckoned in 2019 with a paean to all the games. Specifically, how it’s a strain to play so many of them, but he carries on because he gosh darn loves ‘em – and it’s his job. And I can sympathise with him, I really can. Whether it’s true or just my imagination, big games seem to keep getting bigger (and longer), and smaller games that are really, really good come out far more often. So where’s the time to play them all?

In my case, there isn’t. But over the last few years I’ve developed quite a canny strategy for dealing with this:
  1. Buy a game
  2. Play the game
  3. Become distracted by life events or another game
  4. Never play the game again

What’s that past the end of my nose? Nothing.

I like writing for a couple of very practical reasons. First, you can do it alone. Waiting around for other people is an inevitability of life, so I appreciate that I can splurge something out privately at the back of the bus should I choose to. Second, it’s quick. Short form writing doesn’t take too long — the clue is in the name. You can usually get a couple thousand words out on a topic of interest if you just put your mind to it. The words are already there, after all, the trick, as a wise man once said, is putting them in the right order.

This isn’t because I’m lazy. No, I like the quick turnaround because it gives me freedom. A failed experiment only holds you for a matter of hours, then it’s consigned to the festering research log. The penalty for failure, especially when the spotlight of the zeitgeist isn’t shining on you (me), is almost nonexistent. If I write something inflammatory and nobody reads it, did I actually ever say it?

But this is good, because if you’re lucky you’ll improve quickly. Like learning a guitar riff, do it enough and you’ll probably get better. You might never develop the skill to write one of those riffs yourself, but you can still make a decent living in a good cover band — there’s truly is no shame in that. After all, going to watch The Beattles (sic) can’t be any worse than seeing a septuagenarian Paul McCartney, can it?

So what does all this mean? I’d like to think it gives writers — columnists, reviewers, James Patterson, whatever — a degree of necessary distance from their work. I’m not suggesting people don’t care about what they write, simply that it helps us to not be too precious about it. A 1000 word bimonthly bit for The Guardian would be dream come true for me, but I’m sure that by the second year I’d remember my early pieces about as well as I do my own childhood. The constant forward motion of writing unshackles us from ugly defensiveness.

Once upon a time a game was released as an early access product — it was done, but changes were still being made and things were still being added. Shortly after that, reviews began to appear on the Internet. One of the people who made the game read some of the reviews and didn’t like them. So they verbalised their disdain for the words, the people and the outlets wot had talked about their game. It wasn’t pretty.

“Why do people read anything [Journalist X] writes? He’s a jaded game reviewer. My game is a brand new thing. [Journalist X] can’t handle games like that — read their other reviews and you’ll see — if it can’t be easily pigeonholed it’s cack.”

“Don’t mix up my difference of opinion and a personal thing. I don’t know [Journalist X] at all or their work.”

“It makes me dejected that five years’ work ends in a "4/10", I mean, that's a really, really ridiculous score. It rubbishes the unique and beautiful experience. Look at Metacritic. I don’t even understand how you’d get to 4/10. I mean, it’s an insult.”

“[Outlet Y] gave us a 3/10 lol. Looking forward to a 1/10 from someone now, it's almost funny. I mean, our analytics show players coming back again and again. Clearly we’ve made a game a load of people really like.”

(These quotes were rephrased, btw, but the content is pretty spot on; emphasis my own.)

I think the biggest standout for me is the mention of time. Five years is ages. It’s about as long as I’ve been writing, and I was atrocious when I started. This isn't to state that a game started years ago will pop out bad, that would be ridiculous. All I’m saying is that in the same timespan I’ve written well over 100 pieces, totalling something like 150,000–200,000 words. I’ve jumped around, experimented, failed, and hopefully improved. But that’s all by the by. The most important thing is that I've not had to look at any one of those bits of writing for more than a few days at the most.

When I’m drunk I go searching through my archives. I read back over my past exploits, things I was super proud of a couple of years ago, and I often cringe. Sometimes the ideas are there but the execution is terrible, sometimes it’s the inverse. Sometimes it’s actually quite good, but more often than not it really isn’t. Occasionally, when I’m writing something I already know its meagre worth but plough on regardless, just to excise it from me so I can move on. Most of the time, though, I think what I’m committing to public record is pretty great. It’s only later I can see its true worth, and it’s the distance that helps me look at things more objectively.

Now, imagine I didn't have that luxury. Imagine I was forced, through circumstance or choice, to sit on the same thing for five whole years. Reading and rereading; tweaking sentence structure, word choice and subtext, until everything was just perfect. In the end, I’d still have produced a short piece of prose The Guardian no longer wanted (“we thought you were dead”), but to my bleary eyes it would be the greatest piece of cultural commentary wot the world had, and would, ever see. The labour of love doesn’t validate the end product — it just makes it harder for us to judge it on its own merits.

I can’t begin to imagine how hard it is to hear that something you’ve worked on for a long time is, to some people, utter rubbish. I reckon it'd feel pretty bad, though. Still, the worst thing you can do in that situation is to just petulantly discount the critique in public. Shout and scream in private all you want; tell friends, colleagues and loved ones Journalist X is wrong about everything (even if you disingenuously purport to not know of him (srsly?)). Do it: you’ll feel better. But don’t stand on a roof calling out a critic's views as being wrong, ill-informed or simply bs just because you disagree. It’s a really bad look.

I think this is a symptom of a larger issue, however, rather than isolated put-upon developers having mini public breakdowns. Early access, with all its ‘behind the scenes access’ and ‘help decide the game’s direction’, has fundamentally changed the act of making games. I’m all for the money up front aspect of it (it’s expensive to make stuff, I geddit), it’s the allowing people to shove their fingers in your pie that I can’t understand. The letting armchair designers have a say in how you make your game. Why would anyone want that? (And no, I’m not confusing this with QA.)

Playing a game before it’s done attracts three types of people: those who want to see you fail, those who are curious, and those who are already sold on your concept. Group one will tire and leave quickly. Group two will also leave, or they’ll join group three. Group three will likely dwindle over time, calcifying into a contingent of diehards.

If, after a few years in early access development, there are early-adopters left with you upon your soft-release, they will have nothing useful left in them. They are far too emotionally invested in the project to say anything objectively useful. Too many hours spent playing a work in progress has rendered them incapable of rational thought. They will make do and mend; they’ve been doing so for months, if not years. You might get tidbits like “maybe you could let me carry more stuff, but, having said that, it might break the balance, so actually I’m happy to just walk backwards and forwards for 10 minutes, k thx”, but really, what’s that worth?

Early access throws open the doors to all the yes-men you’ll ever need. Those who don’t like your game left long, long ago and might, of you’re lucky, swing back around to watch your baby disintegrate — if, of course, they still remember who you are. Listening to your remaining early access audience is like listening to your initial pitch idea: great, but far from what you’ve ended up with. Don’t listen, it turns you into this guy:

I don’t really like sliding puzzles, especially lots of them and with a time limit.

The time limit is there to stop you getting in other players’ way. You’ve plenty of time to complete them, though.

Nope, not even going to acknowledge that concern. Nobody’s ever mentioned not liking the sliding puzzles before, so it can’t possibly be an issue.

And nobody really wants to end up this shortsighted, do they?

Also, sliding puzzles are the worst.  

I'd Rather Starve Than Eat Video Game Food


In its most superficial forms, video game food has its place. A giant ham, whether it’s consumed whole there and then, or tantalisingly rubbed over your sweaty, rippling musculature, will undoubtedly make you feel better—it just will. Likewise, a can of energy beverage will totally boost your reaction times and pain threshold upon its contents dripping down your gullet and into your churning stomach. Which is fortunate, because you’ll need the added spryness to avoid cracking your head on the kitchen counter when the inevitable heart attack arrives, as your innards evacuate your abused body through a series of slightly less painful hernias. Beyond these and a couple of other instances, video game food is rubbish.

It normally occupies the role of placater; constantly wrestling for control with a hunger mechanic. Like weapon degradation and encumbrance, hunger has no place in civilised society. All of these things seek to derail whatever fun is taking place and force you to stop and fanny about in menus. With the possible exception of sharpening your weapon (to maintain damage output) mid-battle in Monster Hunter, which I’ll admit does add to the tension, ‘depleting meter’ mechanics are just an annoyance. They offer nothing but a mild, momentary distraction from your current task.

Food, or whetstones, or whatever else we choose to call them, all do the same thing. They refill a little hourglass that then immediately starts ticking down again. In a game with lots of stuff going on—i.e. a fabulous diversity of moving parts—we just end up hoarding the item we need to keep the sand topped up. In those survival games that are inexplicably super popular nowadays, hourglass flipping is the whole thing. In both cases I cannot abide it. Either as a minor roadblock to progression or the core of an experience, I just don’t see the point in expending my genuine energy to refill and maintain my computer self’s pretend energy. Chopping down trees to make a fire, to cook a pig, to eat a ham, to allow me to do it all again isn’t my idea of a good time. As might be clear already: I like my pork treats to arrive fully-formed, that way I can spend all my time dreaming up increasingly greasy ways of introducing them into my body.

My annoyance runs deeper, though. Beyond them being tragic wastes of time, depleting meters and their effects, and hunger in particular, are just plain inaccurate. Take that most blindingly of-the-moment game, The Sims, as a perfect example—though this applies for pretty much any food mechanic going. Little digital Leigh becomes really, really whiney if he’s so much as a tad peckish. He throws strops worthy of legitimising infanticide as he gurgles all over his anachronistically multi-storey home, moaning to anyone who’ll listen that he hasn’t been allowed to make a hoagie in the last ten minutes. If I do the right thing as his legal custodian and leave him to tire himself out, he’ll soon dramatically throw himself through a wall and drop dead. Digital Leigh is a stunted, entitled little brat and I’m glad he more often than not expires from neglect and starvation. One day I’m certain I'll produce one made of sterner stuff, and he’ll certainly thank me when he’s an older, wonderfully well-rounded member of society—just like I’ve finally been able to do with my own parents.

The little Leighs shouldn't drop dead from an afternoon without food, and they shouldn’t start feeling hungry again the moment they wipe the spittle from their collective chins with that final morsel of omelette. That isn’t how big Leigh works. He is perfectly happy not eating for about 18 hours as long as there are better things to do, which there normally are. He’s like this because the human body is riddled with a nuance that no amount of steadily decreasing meters on a screen can ever hope to replicate. Yeah, maybe my ability to work a bar decreases towards the end of a 15 hour shift, but I don’t collapse into a puddle and frolic with all the other liquids down there on the floor. No. I run over the road for my 20 minute break, drink two pints and smoke four, maybe five cigarettes, chew some gum, use the bathroom and get back at it.

All these things have, in descending order of importance, proved useful in the past for a little pep-up. But none is vital, and it’s this that video games never choose to convey. The illicit beers and the cigarettes weren’t necessary because I was a puckish problem drinker who’d die without them—the way a depleting meter would portray it—they were a hard-earned moment of respite from a crushingly mundane job. They were me thumbing my nose at a management hierarchy I had no respect for, and a means of holding onto some semblance of self-determinism. These are the sorts of reasons most of us eat, drink, smoke—consume. Not to avoid some near-death exhaustion and follow it up with a sudden and complete resurrection.

If you’re playing a video game you haven’t a clue what starvation feels like. But then that’s maybe why so many of us are thrilled by a simplification of a fairly nuanced, painful process. ‘Look: my video game is adding depth and challenge!’ When really we should be saying ‘this is a massive waste of time and actually fairly disrespectful to the many people who, right this second, are genuinely starving to death around the world. God, I, along with this video game exploitation of human suffering, am terrible.’ And while you’re at it with epiphanies: you should probably let ‘the boy’ out of the basement, if he’s not already dead from ‘learning to be a man’, that is. I guarantee he’ll thank you when he’s older.


The above prose is proud to be associated with Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table, an initiative which seeks to bring the diverse voices of video game criticism together about the person of a monthly topic. I think it's dead good, and so do these lovely individuals:

Channel 5's Poor People


For the longest time I was unaware of Channel 5’s generous policy of not showing ads on its Demand 5 streaming service. Because of this, it has now usurped Channel 4 as my go-to source for trashy shit aimed at simultaneously shaming the working class subjects of its scrutiny and the working class me wot watches it all.