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This feels like a complete waste of time

by Pietro Polsinelli on 09/02/15 01:17:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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“Every animal is sad after coitus except
the human female and the rooster.”

None of what follows has any pretence of objective and not even relative truth. Just a romantic tangle of feelings from my love story with videogames and their design.

Why playing some videogames leaves you with a sour taste, with the feeling of having wasted time and even that you have somehow debased yourself?

Consider also the bizarre fact that some very well made games can give you this feeling, and some bad ones don’t. Why?

Getting this feeling is a subtle, highly personal experience that you can stop and find at the surface of your consciousness. I suspect that it is one of those indirect experiences that can reveal a hidden pattern interesting for game design.

The void feeling is not a binary property: there are degrees of malaise. But I feel it quite distinctively with some games and never with others. As one that wants to appear a gentleman says in such cases, I am aware that the reaction to specific games depends on personal tastes and has no degree of objectiveness, still … . Let’s consider some wildly different cases.

I can play Sunless Sea for a whole evening feeling fine and peachy about it.

Rocket League: playing solo against the AI leaves me a terribly bad feeling. Playing coop with humans instead is malaise immune — is it a form of sport with friends?

I get quickly bored by visual novels — but somehow they elicit no bad feelings.

Playing Go, whether with humans or against an AI, never ever gives me the bad feeling, though after a while it gets frustrating and even boring.

I’ve been recently playing a splendid managerial mobile game, for game and graphic design, UI and overall quality. But unfortunately playing this game leaves me the bad feeling, in a lighter form but it’s there. So it’s not about game graphic or user experience quality.

There is indeed a narrative experience also in this managerial game; and the eminently narrative Sunless Sea too has a managerial aspect, so the question is that in the first case I feel the narrative as being put together “artificially”, and in the Sunless Sea case instead I get inside the narrative, I live as my character between rats and ghosts.

This form of post coital tristesse could be handily academically baptised post play malaise & sadness syndrome (PPMASS), versus post play high five euphoria (PPHFE).

Are there structural properties of the gameplay context that generate PPMASS? And how to prevent that as game designers? As pointed out by my friend Daniele Giardini, the core difference seems to be in there being a story or other means of intimate involvement. I would elaborate on that in these forms: a game does not feel as a waste of time when either:

  • the game somehow leads you through a story in which your emotional self is involved
  • the game progressively trains you in a way that you learns skills and know how that you somehow consider useful beyond the gameplay
  • the game links to your social life, easing it somehow

In other words, its not causing PPMASS when Koster’s point “playing is learning” [2] is true in a specific sense:

playing is learning something beyond the world of gameplay and that is meaningful for your life

or something like it.

For an example out of videogames, with my kids we can watch the My Neighbor Totoro movie endlessly: why it never feels a waste of time? Probably because it is a movie that trains your capacity for graceful wonder and feelings.

Does one leaving a game play session with PPMASS simply has an over dimensioned super ego? I don’t know, I don’t care much; even if some get the feeling and some don’t, that some do reveals something.

[Gameplay] lacks the effortful self-monitoring and self-regulation of conduct and emotion typical for everyday life

(Erving Goffman quoted in [1]): but our debased feeling actually reveals that there is some form of self regulation in any kind of game play, and this confirms Deterding’s considerations in [1].

For game design, the considerations above are connected to: what is the aim of your games? You can design with different aims in mind. If your aim is or includes the well being of your players beyond the given gameplay experience, this could one way to examine your design.


[1] Sebastian Deterding The Joys of Absence: Emotion, Emotion Display, and Interaction Tension in Video Game Play, Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (FDG 2015), June 22–25, 2015, Pacific Grove, CA, USA. Get it here.

[2] Raph Koster (2004), A Theory of Fun For game Design, Paraglyph Press, Phoenix, Arizona. Book site:

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