In 2016, I made a New Year's resolution and uninstalled every single game on my computer to focus on creative work. I honestly can't remember if I've ever kept another New Year's resolution, but this one stuck. With the two year anniversary of my games purge fast approaching, I wanted to talk about what happened.
It's not a novel idea of course. You've probably heard it before, but it's rarely discussed in a positive light; It usually comes up as part of a larger conversation about guilt, overwork, and self-care.
If you're an aspiring indie, quitting games cold turkey like I did* (at least for a few months), might actually help you take the next step in your creative development. I consider it a transitionary step away from my current career, and to that end it's helped my productivity immensely.
Keep in mind that this article is largely based on my own experience and was written for aspiring creative people who have a day job and are struggling with motivation. This should not be taken as a blanket prescription for everyone. Neither am I suggesting that game making and game playing are mutually exclusive. You may also find that you're not in a good position to try this on right now and that's OK too. Instead, think of this more as a technique for you to experiment with.
If you find that any of this resonates with you, try it out as a sort of one-month challenge and then tell me what you learn! I'm @lunoland on Twitter. You can read more about me and my game, Year In The Trees, at https://www.yearinthetrees.com
Preposterous, I know. Hear me out though. What if games are acting as a sort of proxy for the joy of your creative work? You know how you tend to reach for a game when you're itching to do something stimulating and you don't just want to be passive and watch TV or something? Yeah, that need is one that you would otherwise fulfill by doing creative work.
I hope it's not too controversial to suggest that your creative process will likely never be as fun as playing games. I mean, how could it be? Games are a designed experience and we should expect them to give us access to flow state faster. This is not to say that games are merely a cheap facsimile and that you can't have deep, meaningful experiences playing them. To the contrary, this is precisely why we love games and why so many gamers are enamored with the idea of making them: We want to give those kinds of experiences to other people.
The issue I discovered is that playing a lot of games gave me unrealistic expectations about self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is your idea of how successful you are at achieving goals and completing tasks. In the real world, even if you practice violin say, three hours every day for the next ten years, there's no guarantee that you will achieve any notoriety, pass an audition to join an orchestra, and so on**. Life doesn't really care about your success. Games on the other hand typically have some sort of reward schedule built-in and are designed with your success in mind. Games are a safer way to spend your free time in a sense, because you don't have to "gamble". They assure you that your time and effort will be appropriately rewarded, and it feels great!
Unfortunately, this is also why games can pose a problem for your creative life. The ease with which you can enter flow states and feel a strong sense of self-efficacy for comparatively little effort can really distort your real-world sense of what intrinsic motivation feels like. A friend of mine once described games as "focus porn", and I think that analogy actually holds up really well here.
I find that creative work is more subtle and that there are many more hardships involved. There are no guaranteed rewards. There's more friction. You're going to feel like an impostor. You will be disheartened. You will have to push through a block. The list goes on. Despite all this, you can find those same peak experiences in your creative work if you're willing to look.
Swearing off games completely for a while can help you jump-start your creative routine. Once I got over the initial period of boredom with non-game activities, my expectations began to recalibrate. As time went on I found that I was getting more and more of my flow state fix from my work.
In addition to all of this self-fulfillment stuff, my rate of improvement shot up. There are good reasons to be suspicious of the 10,000 hour rule***, but the basic premise is correct: the reliable way to get better at something is to put in the time.
Another way taking a break can help you is that you might not even realize how much time you're spending on games. Looking back on it now, I wasn't fully honest with myself about this either. Quitting games helped crystallize it for me, and I feel more prepared to practice moderation in the future.
There's also something to be said here about your identity and remembered self. When I think back on all the work I've put into my creative talents this past year, I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. Even though I'm still fairly unknown I feel closer to achieving my dreams. I feel like I control my own destiny just a little bit more or something (I don't). It's dope!
Now at this point you may be thinking, "Ok so just overwork yourself and not spend any time on self-care? Doesn't this fool know about burnout?" Remember that the only thing you're supposed to be taking a break from here is games. These issues of "focus porn" and self-efficacy distortion don't really apply to movies, music, literature, art, taking a walk, whatever. If you've been spending too much time playing games, you're probably neglecting some of this stuff anyway.
Speaking of self-care, there is a lot of advice on the internet that seems to contradict going cold turkey. I'm not saying the advice is bad! You should definitely seek it out and take it to heart. However, like all advice, it's not appropriate for everyone all the time.
Thing is, most self-care advice you read is written by and for people who are already highly motivated and often working a full-time job or the equivalent amount of freelance in their creative field.
You're always going to feel wiped out after work until you get your routine going. When you're in this state and you see a famous creative person talking about self-care on Twitter, it's easy to convince yourself to blow 12 hours on Destiny 2 this Saturday or whatever it is because maybe you just need to recharge your creative battery. Sometimes this really is the case, but sometimes you're engaging in some self-deception! I don't want you to crunch yourself to death. Just try your best to be honest.
Again, these people aren't wrong, it's just that they happen to be the exception and not the rule. The rest of us are in a different situation. This doesn't mean that life sucks until you become a creative professional and then it'll all be gravy. It just means that you have different problems to solve.
I used to do this myself all the time. I'd practice for an hour and then say, "Well, I did my good deed for the day, time to settle in for another six hours of DOTA to help me relax." I've found that this cold turkey thing lets me to sidestep this kind of self-deception entirely, and that's a huge help. If you haven't really done any serious creative work this month and that's making you unhappy, maybe try no games for a while.
If you do continue to improve your motivation and routine, you will eventually reach a place where you need to be deliberate about how you take breaks/recharge, and at that point the self-care advice will become more relevant. Until then, stay honest and be careful not to deceive yourself.
So that's it. I'm curious to know what you think of this. Am I totally out of touch? Have you tried something similar already?
Next time, I plan to discuss some other motivation and productivity tips that have helped me over the years and that don't require you to quit playing games!
* I'm well aware of the many problems with what we might call "12-step" thinking. I want to stress that this is not reasonable advice to help you fix a gaming addiction, it's about finding ways to develop your creative life alongside a day job.
** To be sure though, you will be better at violin. I don't want to suggest that there's no value in pursuing some creative discipline if you don't achieve your wildest dreams of recognition. This is just to illustrate an important difference between the real world and games. There's plenty of writing about realistic goal setting and related topics elsewhere and if you haven't spent any time with it, go seek it out right now!
*** There are reasons to believe that simply putting in the time won't necessarily get you all the way there; You can work on deliberate practice later though. To start, my suggestion is to focus on getting your routine going. Everything else flows from that.