Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
I first learned the word “burnout” as a noun. It’s a word for someone who blew their own mind a few too many times in the 1960s or smoked too much meth while the Iraq War was spinning up, a kind of identifier that’s used to point to someone who took maybe slightly too many drugs at some point over their lives and now they’re living in the wake of it. That understanding of the term appears to be a little bit different than our more common contemporary use of the term, which is back in the cultural conversation this week due to Anne Helen Peterson’s diagnosis of what she calls “Millennial burnout.”
These two uses of the term are different, sure, but they’re not all that different. They’re about having too much and being punished for it, of being put through the ringer by your social context and being unable to come out the other end unscathed. And I empathize with both kinds because I, like so many other people in and around video games, feel burned out.
I have a lot of sympathy for Peterson’s piece and how she weaves in economic crashes, social changes over the past couple decades, and her own story of her graduate career that ran into the rocky shores of a crashed job market. Our stories are similar in some ways, and so I have some sympathy for the big scaffolding she puts up to explain the experience of burnout, but I also have a nagging feeling that I’d still feel as if I’m being ripped to shreds by electricity 30% of my day even if I didn’t. And I think it might be that the particular burnout that I feel is closer to that noun, that person who had too much, than it is with whatever specific set of economic expectations Peterson is describing.
Gamer burnout. It’s worth giving it a name if we’re going to treat it as unique in some way, and I think it is. There are a lot of games, and there’s only so much time to play them, and the reward for completing them or even making a solid effort seems to diminish year after year. I keep hammering them into my mind and body, looking for the game that’s really going to make me feel something exciting and not like I’ve been running on a treadmill for the past few years. And when I can’t find it, I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams.
Most of this has to do with the job. As someone who writes about games, I have to play them. I think about them, I sample other games in the same genre, and I try to create the best mental map of the little genre or mechanical fiefdom that I can before I write out my column or review or what have you. This means that my time is pressed. The tension among completion, comprehension, and the complexity of the game and the ecosystem around it means that something is always going to fall through the cracks.
That’s the winnowing tool of aesthetic experience. The value of the perspective of a writer is that everyone catches different things. What doesn’t fall through the cracks for you is what gives you an identity. And I know that.
Yet the work of getting there, all of that time squeezed out of the finite number of hours of a day, takes a toll. There’s a lot of stuff to experience. There are amazing games coming out all the time, and obviously you need to play them to speak with expertise. And you need to play the games that you don’t really have any interest in so that you can talk about why the ones you enjoy are more interesting or getting at some feeling better than the ones you don’t care for. And if you want to write about independent games (that don’t have millions of dollars to drop on renting an apartment in everyone’s head via marketing), then you do need to play those advertised games so that you can paint a picture of why someone who likes the big games might also like the small ones.
I enjoy playing games. I like the vast majority of games that I play. I like what games do as aesthetic experiences, and if I’m really enjoying a game I’d definitely take it over any book or film in the running. But my specific form of gamer burnout—which I think I share with a lot of people who stay up-to-date with games for their job or simply because they feel obligated to as fans—emanates from the sheer amount of hours and kinds of experiences I am jamming into my life so that I can think holistically about games to the best of my ability.
I have to say that this all locked into perspective for me while listening to a recent episode of the Mega64 podcast in which Derrick Acosta speaks at length about having trouble finishing, and even enjoying, games. He begins by saying that he’s got a huge problem in his life because he can’t finish anything (an interesting echo of Millennial burnout), and a little into the discussion he says this:
“I just feel like I’m getting bored. I’m just losing new experiences. Like, I’m buying new games, but I’m feeling like it’s just too familiar. There’s nothing for me to learn here, I just feel like this is a new skin on a game I’ve already played.”
This is something that I feel, but I don’t think the problem is located where Acosta claims it is. I don’t think that it’s a lack of novelty or that games are somehow getting worse. I think that the firehose pace of interesting games, and the ecology of games that you need to be familiar with to talk about that firehose in a compelling way, creates a condition where most things just kind of come out looking like grey, undifferentiated mass. In playing so many games, and trying to map similarities or differences across them, you become burned out on the joy of play.
Of course, there’s no easy way out.
Too much of a pleasurable thing, ripped apart by the thing you enjoy. That’s the derogatory noun usage of burnout, the insult, and yet that’s the best way to describe the way I feel blown through when I think about games specifically. Sure, I experience all the Millennial symptoms that Peterson points to, but I also have something much more acute and specific that has to do with a hobby I love and a series of writing jobs that I feel incredibly lucky to have.
Of course, there’s no easy way out. One way might be to commit myself to a genre like fighting games or a single MOBA, to become responsible for one tiny corner of the big universe of games. Another might be to simply give it all up for a year, recharge, and then come back renewed. Frankly, neither of those options are economically in reach for me.
And worse, even if they were, I don’t know why I would stop. It’s good stuff, and I want to experience more, and so I keep on hammering on the buttons to find out what else is in store. There’s only so much time to play. I’ll have time to be burned out later.