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.
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.
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.
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.