Vague Patch Notes: The specter of MMO burnout and what it means

    
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Burn.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about burnout. This is due in no small part to the fact that I am majorly burnt out in a few areas, most notably here.

Yes, I said here. Lately, I’ve been going through a phase where it’s harder to find the inspiration to write and find something new to say that doesn’t involve just repeating myself. To a certain extent some amount of repetition is inevitable – I’ve been writing about this genre for more than a decade now, so some things I’m just going to wind up hitting more than once – but there’s a difference between “some” and “I’m rewriting a column I already wrote without anything new to add.”

This is, of course, not something that most of you reading this have to deal with, since most of you reading don’t do this for a living. But it did get me thinking about how we frame the conversation around burnout and how we think about burnout with MMOs as a concept. It’s not that I think we’re necessarily all doing it wrong or anything like that; rather, I think we sort of conflate two different things under the same header of “burnout” when only one really fits.

Here’s the thing about genuine burnout: It’s not the same as not wanting to play.

We tend to kind of lump any experience of “I loved playing right up until I didn’t” under the overarching header of burnout, but the reality is that there’s a lot of places where you may not want to keep playing but you aren’t really going through proper burnout. Burnout is not the same as playing so much you get bored or to the point when the illusions wear thin and you don’t find the game fun any more.

That’s still a problem, but it’s one with a pretty straightforward solution. You don’t want to play any longer? Don’t play any longer. This is not the sort of thing that leads to you logging in, feeling frustrated, logging out, doing nothing for half an hour, then logging back in even though you still don’t actually want to do anything.

Because that’s what burnout looks like. It’s not the same as not wanting to play. Rather, it’s wanting to play at the same time you don’t want to play. It’s finding the thought of logging into the game as unpleasant as the thought of logging out.

What causes this? A lot of things. But usually it’s some combination of socialization and frustration.

And then, eventually, we go here.

Socialization, in this context, isn’t just as simple as talking to people. Rather, it’s the sense of having this game be your shared social space with other people, or just your preferred social experience with other people. But it also works the other way. It’s a game you enjoy, but in order to enjoy it you have to rely on other people you may not want to do things with, possibly even people you find particularly unpleasant to deal with or outright offensive.

Frustration, meanwhile, is more broad. It’s not as simple as, say, a run going bad or a drop not showing up or something like that. If that bothers you enough to stop, you just… well, stop. It’s pretty straightforward. Frustration, then, is more about the slow accumulation of things that leave you feeling as if various goals you would otherwise want to pursue aren’t worth it. Each thing you can do feels unpleasant to actually do.

In both cases, you wind up in the same basic place. You want to play the game, your instinct says to log in, but when you actually get into the game there’s nothing that sounds pleasant. Everything feels like a chore, an obligation, or a drag. You want to play, but you don’t actually want to play. You want something that you don’t seem able to get.

Bam. Burnout.

This is where I feel a lot of the ways we talk about burnout tend to miss the mark. We talk a lot about how to get back the zest for playing based on the idea that what’s happening is fundamentally about being bored, but the real problem is that your motivations are all over the map. You want to play the game and you also don’t want to play the game. You have two contradictory impulses that are hard to reconcile – maybe impossible.

You don’t need to do something different to rekindle your interest. What you need is to find some way to reconcile these two contradictory desires more or less at war in your mind, that need to keep playing coupled with a lack of desire to actually do anything once you start playing. And that… is kind of complicated! Because the one thing that might help is actually a matter of just not playing for a while, but the problem is that you actually do want to play! You just… want something you’re not getting when you do play.

So what’s the solution to all of this? Heck if I know. But I do know that we can be better about talking about this stuff and understanding what’s actually going on, and that at least helps open the door to understanding what actually goes into causing burnout.

Keep going.

I don’t think it’s as simple as just saying to take some time off. In some cases of burnout (a job, for example) it’s not really an option. In other cases (the one we’re actually discussing, for example), taking some time away might be an option in the strictest sense, but if that’s your shared social space with your friends you’re not going to want to take that time away. You have to find a way to navigate through that space of not doing things without actually giving yourself the space to do that.

Strangely, I think that this is the one way in which more robust networks like social media and Discord and the like actually help with burnout. You no longer feel as if you have to log in to a game to hang out with these people you want to connect with; that, at least, reduces some of the social pressure to log in and stay logged in when you’re otherwise tired of the game. It doesn’t eliminate it and it doesn’t help much with frustration, but it at least nudges sidelong toward fixing issues.

But one thing that also helps, at least for me, is understanding what’s actually going on. Once I realized my own burnout, it didn’t go away, but it at least gave me space to try my best to work around it. It taught me that I needed to shake up my working patterns because the ones I had weren’t working for me any longer, and that at least gave me the option of working around some of my boredom and my need for things to be different.

For that matter, some amount of burnout is just a reality in a creative field. There are times when you’re feeling it and times when you aren’t. It doesn’t mean you stop caring or start phoning it in or burn it all down; I still love my job and do my best to be good at it. Recognizing the cycle is part of addressing it and doing your best to compensate for it. (Our inimitable editor-in-chief, for example, was probably more concerned about me in this particular case than I was.)

Burnout is complicated. And it might feel silly when you’re seriously worried about burnout when it comes to what is just, at the end of the day, a video game. But it’s also a real thing that can cause problems, and I think it does us all a disservice to treat it like it’s not a real issue we have to content with in the genre. And it does us fewer favors when we don’t seem to understand it all that clearly.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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Aldristavan
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Aldristavan

*reads article*
*looks at desktop screen*
*reads article again*

Yeah. I’ve got MMO burnout.

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Schmidt.Capela

This is why I often say that I won’t allow any player or group to ever depend on me in-game, going as far as vanishing from the game for a while if I can’t find some other way to break the dependency. It’s also a big part of the reason I refuse to ever depend on someone else. I want to be able to leave games at the drop of a hat, so I will prevent any in-game bond that could keep me playing after I don’t want to play anymore from even forming.

And why do I do this? Because I almost got burned with the whole genre, and I don’t want to risk it ever happening again. Yeah, it’s a bit drastic, but I fear anything less would result in me leaving the whole MMO genre behind sooner rather than later.

The corollary to this is that any in-game relationship I want to keep, I will try to transpose to some other media, a place where I can still find and talk to those people without having to play the game.

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Ray O'Brien

Well your writing is amazing and insightful as always Elliot. Kind of off topic but I notice you mention doing reviews of games on WRUP sometimes and when I clicked on your link to your blog it is very old posts. Where can I find your new stuff outside this site? I’m assuming you are posting these reviews you mention somewhere anyway!

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Java Jawa

I’ll offer some insight from my own experiences here. I’ve definitely experienced this in the mmo-sphere. Nothing new, everything seems the same, it’s just a reskin of xyz and the list goes on and on.

What really helped me move past this as I’ve gotten older is one word — moderation. There is totally such a thing as having too much of something, doing it too many times, ultimately having boundaries is what got me to never experience burn out again.

I came to realize an understanding of what I’m willing to do, in the time I’m willing to commit in the game or genre I’m interested and under no way do I want or need it to feel like an obligation or commitment. Because as people we are all wired similarly in certain ways our brains work, when we begin to treat a hobby or activity like it’s an obligation, we have to do it no matter what reason, be that monetary, a sub, or a ‘battle pass’ then our perception of the game changes.

There’s a tipping point where things go from fun to chores, or from new adventures to tasks.

It’s okay to take a break, it’s okay to look for other opportunities, it’s okay to disconnect. We all need a palette cleanser from time to time. Sometimes too, when you’ve played a game for over a decade or more (looking at you EQ and UO) you take longer breaks, or have shorter play sessions.

As always, my two credits . . . .

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camelotcrusade

Burnout or languishing? Check this out if you haven’t seen it (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html) and if you don’t have a free read then Google the term. It helped me to discover that since I felt in between.

An excerpt: “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

RE burnout specifically, I recommend this article for some tips and help: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pressure-proof/201510/5-myths-about-burnout-and-the-truth-we-need-understand

I do learning curation at work among other things so that’s why I have these handy. Worth sharing in context, I hoped@ 😄

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Java Jawa

Good reads — thanks for sharing.

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psytic

In terms of burnout and my enjoyment of the MMO genre I never run into issues because I generally have a single player back catalog I balance along with it. Right now I got Kingdom Hearts 3, Yakuza Like A Dragon (under rated RPG) and Cyber Punk to rip through. for MMOs I just rotate as I get bored. The minute I get bored im onto another game as there isnt really many barriers to exit any more ( guildies you can keep up with on Discord these days).

I rotate BDO, GW2, WoW, Swtor, FFXIV, Albion, ESO and even try out new things like SOLO. I never really get too deep into end game in any one game but then I never hit the repetitious gear treadmill either that leads to burn out in these types of games. This of course isn’t mentioning real life activities that I do since im 30 min from the mountains after work as well.

It always amazes me though that theres people (not pointing at anyone in particular) that just play the same game for yrs and nothing else. I couldnt imagine sitting and playing COD, or Valorant, or Dota or WoW for 10 yrs straight every night.

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Ozzie

I’m just here enjoying the irony of Eliot starting with finding it hard to talk about something new, then goes on to write a totally insightful, original, and thoroughly reflective piece on personal burnout. It’s not really just about a niche aspect of gaming either, but breaking down how we engage (or don’t) with things we’re passionate about at large.

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Aldristavan

Indeed. Kudos to Eliot!

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Vanquesse V

Necessity is the mother of invention.
That was an amazing read.
Thank you Eliot