Guilt, conflict and loathing: On being a 'passionate gamer'
Here is a secret: For the past couple of months, the only games I have felt interested in playing are games that waste my time, and games that I've already played.
The other day I was a guest on a podcast and they were like, "You must play a lot of video games, huh? What are you playing lately?" Um. Well, I re-played some Apple IIe games for my video series
I'm playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
again, but I'm kind of always playing that, a few hours here and there every couple of weeks for years. And then there's Puzzle Craft
on the iPad. I didn't really want to say that.
I give keynotes, I do interviews, I write editorial in urgent support of design innovators. I play interesting games so I can write interesting articles about interesting people. But honestly, the game I'm spending the most time on is a sort of farm game where you connect wheat in a field to produce chickens and then you connect up the chickens to produce pigs. I back things on Kickstarter because I want them to exist, not because I necessarily am slavering to play them myself. My inbox fills up with codes for DLC packs that I "star" for later but never use.
I procrastinate work and errands because my iPad is moo-ing at me. A soothing pastoral tune playing its same few bars at me over and over again while I connect up pigs to produce cows. "I need twenty Dirt" or "I am crafting five Fertilizer" is a thought I have while I'm playing this game and quietly hating myself.
Is this allowed? Isn't an irrepressible natural curiosity and voracious hunger for all of the latest and greatest the minimum obligation for people with my job? I'm supposed to have The Passion. Passion is a funny, bitter-tasting little fruit snack in our industry, isn't it?
You may be ostracized for not being passionate enough. "Casual" is also a bad word -- unless you have taken this entertainment medium and made a full-time and intense second-employment out of it, unless you "take it seriously," you might not be smart. You are not committed. You yourself are not taken seriously.
"I'm supposed to have The Passion. Passion is a funny, bitter-tasting little fruit snack in our industry, isn't it?"
I asked game devs and gamers on Twitter what they think of when they hear the word "passion"
in a gaming context. Some people said things like "commitment," and "the drive to work hard." Some people said it made them think of how they love what they do. But most people said they thought about exploitative hiring practices, crunch with no overtime pay, 2 a.m. bug fixes -- instances where "passion" is a vague quality that can be used to make people work "for love" rather than for pay. ("Passion seems to mean 'be young and work long hours on spec,'" Ian Bogost messaged me).
The "passionate" game developers work those long hours either thanks to studio policies or because they're indies living on a prayer don't actually get to play a lot of video games either, I've learned. When you write about games and someone isn't giving you a very interesting interview -- and people who work 15 hours a day are often not, you can imagine, very interesting interviewees -- a good question to ask them is "what games are you inspired by" or "what have you been playing lately."
Try it. Watch the stricken look, watch them struggle to remember the last time they liked playing a video game.
To some extent, when something becomes your job your relationship with it is going to change. I used to really resent the common question, "but do you play
them", that I get asked by everyone from strangers in bars to border control officers when I say that I write about video games.
Sarcastic reply: "Nah I don't, just like all those film critics that don't ever watch movies." Sincere reply: An over-eager "oh yes, absolutely," which intends to convey through the enthusiasm of my shining gaze that being neck-deep in video games is totally fun and useful for normal adult women like me and they should nod seriously and appreciatively.
I mean, I still don't like the question, but I've come to dislike the prompt to passionately deliver a litany of "what I'm playing lately" a little bit more. The "lately" is the cloying part. As if for participation in this field it's not just enough to enjoy games, to think critically about them, to play them sometimes. To spend all your time making them, as some do. It's that you also must devote yourself to clawing ever uphill, passionately, as a consumer. Like if you were all at a buffet, and you came back to the table with only what you liked on your plate and not everything
, you are merely a casual eater.
Casual! I am enjoying exploring familiar old design spaces. I really am excited to find the energy and motivation to revisit that Final Fantasy X
HD remaster. And I am playing a lot of Puzzle Craft
, an utterly inane but soothing and manageable "casual game." And that is it. I reckon I am not very "passionate" about games, in the way I feel I am supposed to be. I am that woman who likes farm games, who everyone brings up in every sexist article about "games for women." I feel pressured to apologize.
"People denigrate 'casual games' for being designed to build 'addiction,' but they also celebrate every time they find a game they can't put down."
I also asked Twitter what it thinks "casual" means
, and most people suggested it was a derogatory word, and that minimal commitment, accessibility, low barriers to entry, were derogatory concepts. Someone said "dumbed down." Casual is what you become when you are no longer passionate, maybe. When you don't have those extra 15 hours a week to sit in front of the TV as if you're still in high school. "Passionate" is people bemoaning their "gaming backlog." It's that joke people make about their gigantic Steam libraries and all the things they "still have to" play.
When was the last time I was like that? Teens, early twenties, I think. After I did everything that I had to do, I could do something I wanted to do, which was play video games. Mom passive-aggressively vacuuming the living room, endangering my controller cables, blocking the screen, because she was willing to vacuum on the weekends and I was not.
I remember playing marathons of Klax
on the Genesis til dawn. I remember spending all weekend playing some Final Fantasy
, grinding. In all of these cases I was performing a facsimile of organization and ambition which must have been pretty compelling for a child careening toward adulthood: Sort the colored tiles into neat lines. Earn money and buy equipment. Get stronger within a measured and attainable structure. Fight your dad, fight god. Sometimes your dad and God were the same person (a lot of people answered "of the Christ" when I asked about "passion"; you know, crucifixion, self-sacrifice).
It was a devotional, it was psychologically-soothing work. I think most games I've loved my whole life feel like that: You are discovering a space in order to control it. You are picking up everything that has been dropped. You are accumulating everything there is for you to have. That's why I like old games, and simple games -- re-entering that headspace, going back to those dark, confusing nights where a little square of cathode ray tube lit up my riveted little face as I sorted tiles into neat lines and time passed without the need to know or do or understand anything deeper than that. If I wanted a matrix to judge myself, there were numbers on the screen, completely objective and unsentimental measures of my progress.
This self-therapy seems important to gamers. Our desire to create and measure progress is easy to exploit by the marketing cycle and by employers: You need to make the time commitment. You need to want to do it for hours and hours. You need always to want the next thing. Keep up. Maybe people even like to "play" at gaming fandom the way they like to play a game with no win condition, only more to attain (read: to buy).
We have funny minds, we game people. People denigrate "casual games" for being designed to build "addiction," but they also celebrate every time they find a game they can't put down.
I suspect a lot of us play the "game" of Who Can Be The Most Passionate (play/buy the most new games) because we're hoping one of these new games will create the kind of self-soothing space we remember from the time we were young. Or we're hoping one of them will come along that makes everyone else understand why those hours and hours we've invested were not pointless, were not childish, were not indicative of some particular psychic flaw that can only be addressed by products people call "power fantasies."
"I feel a deep angst about what Passionate Gamers are going to think about how much Puzzle Craft I'm playing."
I am sorting tiny pictures of wheat and trees into neat lines. I feel a deep angst about what Passionate Gamers are going to think about how much Puzzle Craft
I'm playing, about instead of being up on things, ahead of the game, I'm playing games I've already played, redrawing and re-mastering familiar spaces. Once in a great while there's a Spelunky
or a Ridiculous Fishing
or something like that, a new game which arrives to join the permanent lexicon because it does that old feeling particularly well.
But mostly the barrage of retro aesthetics and lavish obeisance to the "core audience" that characterizes most acceptable efforts to make new games promises that people haven't given up trying, chasing the Old Feeling.
I feel a little guilty about that, or as if I'm supposed to feel a little guilty, about sometimes just wanting the Old Feeling, and not caring how I get it. But like any self-medication, guilt and self-consciousness have always been part of being a video game fan.
Like there's always something better you're supposed to be doing. Like there's always something more you're supposed to have.