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Guilt, conflict and loathing: On being a 'passionate gamer'
Guilt, conflict and loathing: On being a 'passionate gamer' Exclusive
May 15, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

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.

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Matthew Calderaz
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I don't think being a passionate gamer necessarily needs to equate to what specific content you're consuming nor how much time you spend playing; but *how* you are consuming it.

Recognizing what you loved about a classic game, and choosing it over another game simply because it's 'newer' doesn't imply a lack of passion at all in my opinion. It may, in fact, imply honoring the qualities that made that classic game such a treasure. (Whether it be mechanics that are rarely used in current-generation games, the story, etc...)

My wife and I took surfing lessons in Hawaii year before last, and something the instructor said seems relevant: "The best surfer out here is the one with the biggest smile on his/her face." I think that holds true here. Play what you enjoy, if you have genuine *fun* playing games, you're still exhibiting passion; and it doesn't need to be all-consuming. (Though it's nice when you do find that rare gem of a game, book, TV series etc that is engrossing enough to drive that behavior.)

Nicholas Lovell
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Marvellous post. But what you really draw out for me is that the people who denigrate "casual" gaming or monbie gaming are often caught up in exactly the same emotional relationship with the game as their dad playing Hay Day or their mom playing Candy Crush.

If only more people could see that people who play games are all part of the same huge disapora of gamers. And that's awesome.

Ian Richard
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"Passion" is overrated. I'd take professionalism and dedication any day of the week.

Despite my successes in working on both video game and board games, I barely PLAY games anymore. New games don't even come close to entertaining me anymore so I've turned to the outside world. I read books, I explore nature and study random topics such as the human brain.

It's sad how many people suddenly claim that I can't make games without playing them... despite my continued proof with each new release.

Michael Joseph
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We definitely use the word too much and perhaps inappropriately at times. Being passionate about food doesn't mean you have to be fat. It also doesn't mean you can't ever eat pizza or hamburgers from time to time. But maybe it does mean you are or are striving to be a connoisseur. It means you care more than average about the quality of the ingredients you're putting into your body, the history of various recipes, how the food has been prepared, how it's presented, and the nuances of tastes and textures. It also probably means you have an open mind about food and are willing to experiment and try new things.

"candidate must be passionate about games..."

probably not going to see that go away any time soon. People who spend too much time in front of a computer tend to be a bit OCD anyway and "passionate" has the effect of marketing that negative attribute into a positive reinforcing one.

Christian Nutt
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Passion is one of the most abused words right now -- not just in games.

As far as what it means to be a gamer and also work in the space, specifically as a journalist and (a bit!) as a writer FOR games, for me it has come to mean that I spend time and attention on what I really actually personally want to spend it on and don't make apologies about it. For me, that does tend to be a lot of console-style games (mainly on Nintendo's platforms, which apparently means I am not a "core gamer" anymore lol
e_gamer_population_is_dropping_in_the_US.php) but also indie stuff, with triple-A and 'casual' being quite distant 3rd and 4th. It's just what I want to do. I think more important is keeping one's ear to the ground and trying to pay attention to what people like and why they like it, rather than forcing oneself to stay up on whatever you're "supposed" to stay up on.

Oh, and I should add, I think WHAT or HOW MUCH you play is way, way less important than Having Thoughts about what you play.

Jana Sloan van Geest
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THANK YOU. I work on games for a living. I also read a lot of gaming journalism. When I hear about an interesting game, I desperately want to participate in the collective experience of that game. But when I come home from gaming about games, I usually don't want to game: I want to cook, have a clean house sometimes, see my friends, exercise... My PS3 and flatscreen TV have gone untouched for months.

I often slink around feeling guilty about this. I feel guilty that I abandoned Papers, Please after an hour. I feel like I can't be a legitimate contributor to the games community without having finished Dark Souls. Do you need to know what has gone before in order to create awesome games? I'm not sure. But if so, that time investment is definitely a barrier to entry. Ultimately, I hope we can make more room for people without a "gaming pedigree" to express their vision through games.

Michael Joseph
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There's a lot of insecurity floating around the industry. There's the obvious "I'm an adult and still playing games" insecurity, but there's also the "am I doing enough?" insecurity that comes from a sense that games can be so much more yet are presently teetering on the edge of the cultural ghetto.

Chris Hecker has said
"I believe games will be the preeminent art and entertainment form of the 21st century -- if we don't screw it up."
"If we continue on our current path, we'll end up in the pop cultural ghetto where comics are"

If you believe as Mr. Hecker does, that games have a grand future but are currently at a precarious place then you'll feel pressure to become a video game activist of sorts. That's a lot of pressure and responsibility.

But maybe it's just not in the cards. Maybe our own insecurities are driving this desire to elevate games. Maybe games and interactive digital entertainment aren't destined to be much more than they are today. Maybe games will always be more hobby (model railroads) than pastime (film) and more product than art.

Ian Uniacke
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It's completely fine if you only spent an hour on Papers Please. Now I just have a call to the secret police I have to place, pay no thought to it. Probably may want to say good bye to your loved ones.

Daniel Pang
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"legitimate contributor to the games community"

If you bought it, you're contributing.

Money talks more than community does.

Andrew Haining
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The question helped inspire me to write this -

I think I was coming at it from a different perspective though lol. Although I agree with this in my blog too.

John Maurer
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Thank you for your article Leigh, cause I'm glad I'm not the only one. I've been playing a lot of older titles over the years myself. I'll jump into something newer (for me, cause I just got'em ;) ) like Ninja Gaiden Z, Strider, Child of Light, Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zero, Batman Origins, and they're fun, but I can't help but find myself digress into something older like Chrono Trigger, Shinobi, Metal Gear Solid, Golden Axe, Final Fantasy 6 or Final Fantasy Tactics, Lunar 1 & 2, stuff like that, and I probably play Dragon Age: Origins they way you play Castlevania.

Its not that I'm turning my nose up to newer games, and I can't say I'm playing any less, but its been a while since a new game got me hooked like some of the classics have.

I guess what I mean by all this, is I feel ya dowg.

Ian Uniacke
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There's so many good points in this article I think I want to reread it later. I feel a lot like what you're saying some times. I even have anxiety about multiplayer games (starcraft, dota etc) that I don't play them enough to be super leet.

Doom is one of my favourite games and I replay it usually around once a year but I definitely recognise that I've had that feeling you're talking about like I should be playing some other newer game.

Daniel Pang
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What the hell. I'm probably going to get some angry responses, but...

I think it's inherently childish to have this insecurity about playing games. I mean- you're playing games. When you're trying to do it for a specific goal, you're not playing according to the psychological/classical definition of play (voluntary, intrinsically motivated action - it's not intrinsic anymore as you're playing for some kind of external reward). Play is inherently pointless, and that's why I value it. I like games not having a point, or trying to teach me something, or trying to raise the perceived cultural or storytelling value as if that would give it 'more legitimacy'.

Playing to get a certain amount of "gamer cred"? I think that in itself is unbelievably insecure. The desire to be accepted is universal, but to believe being good at/knowing a lot about/participating in an inherently pointless activity defines your social standing...? Have we really not moved beyond kids playing freeze tag in the playground and laughing at the poor slow kid who's always picked to chase?

Are people's lives so empty that they define themselves/let themselves be defined by the amount and type of entertainment - entertainment! - they consume?

I think that's really sad.

So play Puzzlecraft. And do it openly. Better that than feeling embarrassed about how you want your play to have value beyond what you find in it.

Andreas Ahlborn
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For me the key lies in this sentence:
"To some extent, when something becomes your job your relationship with it is going to change."

Its similar to the complicated relationship stages developers/designers experience when their brainchildren finally comes alive. This article did a good job for me illustrating this:

Passion means constantly bending your heart to the utmost extreme without breaking it.

Laura Bularca
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Leigh, I hope you realise the power your articles have. Thank you for this one, and for others you have written, but this one strikes a very nice chord :)

I dedicated my career to games because I thought gamers and game developers are wiser people who strive to Be Happy. I think you can be happy by doing something meaningful to you, which is kinda how I define passion - the continuous, relentless fight to put yourself in a position to do something meaningful that makes you truly happy. Makes you smile every day. Makes you always feel alive. The willingness to not go easy, not go with the crowd, to not have the life everyone tells you to have, not have a job that you dislike, which leaves you little spare time to live your life happily.

I don't think passion is related to metrics, its more of an inner feeling that you can clearly see on someone's face. For example I think I am very passionate when I talk about Minecraft, or about the dev story behind Goat Simulator, or about your articles. That is what I always thought, and then I kept my surprise quiet when I saw how Passion is defined in this industry: How Much, How Many. How many games and hours, how much crunch - numbers. A competitive game that sometimes takes lives away. That is not passion. That is not what we should ever accept as the definition of passion.

And it is our duty to fight the enforcing of this definition. You fight it, Leigh, so - Thank you!

Amir Ebrahimi
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Leigh, thank you for continuing to be vulnerable with your heart and mind. I enjoy reading your articles. You have articulated what I think most of us (at least me) have felt at one time or another, but could not put into words.

Iain Howe
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I'm sorry that some of you are terribly adult and no longer have the time to game that you used to - the truth is that as we get older the commitments on our time change and we find that we have less or more available time for certain pastimes.

Playing casual games or older games or familiar games is certainly nothing that someone should categorise as 'wrong'. Games are essentially concerned with entertainment, so if an older game entertains you then playing it is, per definition, the 'right' thing to do. With that said, if you are a games 'academic' then your authority is seriously undermined if you aren't aware of trends and changes within the genres that you write about, isn't it?

I don't see how this is even a contentious point. If you haven't played an FPS in the last five years, then your ability to discuss the state of the art in that genre is extremely limited!

Ian Richard
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I disagree. The majority of games haven't changed all that much in a long time... and everything is growing closer together. In the old days, two shooters may play very differently... but not so much anymore.

Game's have developed "Standards". The controls are the same, rule systems are the same, your character moves the same way, and you are limited to variations of the "Pistol", "Sniper", "Shotgun" and "Assault Rifle". 9/10 games don't deviate from the standards.

I don't need to play every modern shooter to stay up to date with the trends. I can read a review, watch a video, and talk to people to stay reasonably up-to-date. From there I can learn whether something is unique enough to demand a deeper exploration.

Even then... very few games offer enough variation that it was worth the wasted time.

Playing games isn't the same as knowing games. This flawed viewpoint is one of the many reasons that our industry is in such a rut.

Greg Scheel
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I like the sarcastic answer best. :)

For the most part, I like making games more than playing them. I get to use my skills in programming, network architecture, database theory and its practice, to put the design sensibility I developed studying sail boats toward some useful end.

Passion is misnomer, doing complex work is fun.

Great article!

Ara Shirinian
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Awareness of psychology does not impart immunity to it.

Outside of situations that psychologically exploit your engagement, you have no personal or professional obligation to titrate your media consumption by any pattern other than your own motivational whimsy.

The benefits of spending your time in one activity versus another are highly personal and idiosyncratic and cannot be known by people who aren't you, or even yourself until you see what you have accomplished upon reaching the other side.

Colm Deery
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Thanks Leigh,a very enjoyable and relatable article. I would consider myself a passionate gamer because I sometimes discover a game that makes me want to share it with the world (read: my gamer friends). I would also consider myself a passionate reader but there are times that all I can handle are '60's sci fi short stories or stuff that I've read before. I think that even when the "passionate consumer"(a horrible term, sounds like a Dark Souls boss) tires they will still gravitate towards thesubject of their passion, albeit an easier (less time consuming or whatever) aspect of it. In response to one comment above you don't need to have read War and Peace to write a good novel but if the novel you're writing is Russian and historical it would probably help.