Electron Dance
30Nov/2021

Discussion: They Hurt You

Welcome to the November newsletter (sign up if you want to read it):

What they’re trying to say - and good luck finding a headline that lays this out clearly - is that videogames aren’t hurting you.

Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.

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  1. Well. That was a thing I wrote.

  2. Your letter this week really struck me, Joel. I’m someone who often carves out several hours for gaming a day on certain weeks, but I do end up sacrificing that ‘sleep’ thing that’s apparently all the rage. I definitely think that controlling how much you game, no matter how much you enjoy it, is important–you gotta balance yourself, you need to CREATE.

    I’ve been doing National Novel Writing Month this month (two days left…counting today….), and writing 1667 words at least every day has been a bit killer on me. For a while in the middle I was just putting out total garbage because I felt like I had to, and I was on the verge of quitting my attempt overall. Then, I took a step back, and let myself work on something that wasn’t my novel. It was just…a little short piece, for fun, and suddenly I had 4000 words in a day, just because I let myself do something “unproductive” (of course, it’s still productive).

    I think a lot about how to cross the line between fun and work and dedication and adoration. I really appreciate reading the works that you bring, your articles, newsletters, and your films. I’m really inspired by the body of work you’ve made, and even though it’s difficult to create sometimes, just know that someone out there loves your stuff. I understand how hard it is to be creative, and I never want to rush you to create, but whenever I get a notification that you’ve posted, I sure do get excited!

    Good luck moving on, Joel. I’m with you every step of the way!

  3. “Damn, man, it’s nice to feel properly productive again, and I’m hoping to get back on the Electron Dance saddle soon.”

    I feel this right down to my core! I’ve been productive lately, but I know the valley you’ve been in and what it feels to be climbing out of it via whatever handholds are available.

    And I, too, like to talk a lot about videogames “hurting” people and usually I find it’s received badly. But I keep doing it. Maybe to hurt people. I don’t think they’re a negative way to spend time, but they are designed to feel like a good way to spend your time when they are often neutral in terms of value: the purgatory of the living.

  4. i’ve only been involved in the comments of ED on-and-off for the past couple years, so i genuinely want to know… why do you do this? i’m sure you’ve written about the purpose of this site at some point, but i dunno.

    the quake community mostly does speedmaps, where we have 3-or-so days to make a map with a theme. for the halloween jam, we had a month, and… i didn’t start until the last two days, even though i knew what i wanted to do. the thing is, i didn’t know how to get started and motivate myself. it just came down to too many self-expectations, and it turned out pretty crappy.

    i actually have a significant chunk done for the xmas jam, due in a fortnight, and that’s only because of my massive failure. i used my disappointment as a way to really think about my habits, and how i can change them. simply put, i give myself little goals: work on this section and don’t stop until this album is done! place the items in the next five minutes! my goal this weekend was to get the gameplay flow drafted for playtesting, and i succeeded. wow.

    i’ve never had a problem with games making me stay up late (other than knowing i’m at the end) until i started playing demon’s souls (for ps3, lol). three times in a row i stayed up 3 hours past my bedtime. the way that games forces you to learn is very stimulating in a way that i’ve never experienced. it makes me have patience and enjoy learning from my mistakes. i never like difficult games, and i’m not into RPGs, but man, i finally understand why people love it so much.

  5. Oof, did this piece hit close to home. I’m currently the thrall of one of those god-awful gacha games, and its colonisation of my time has definitely encroached on the bordering principalities of productivity and sleep.

    It’s a cruel thing, perfectly designed to induce a state I call ‘gacha brain’: by which the subconscious relentlessly insists to return to, and optimise, a series of intricately nested and fundamentally unoptimisable problems, systems and currencies. Your engagement is maxmised and your sanity is rinsed.

    Initially I gave myself over to it, hoping I could either sate myself or induce a state of burnout. That was a mistake. Investment has only begat investment; sunk cost fallacies abound. I hope one day to extricate myself from this cage of sinister architecture. In the meantime I might serve here as example and a warning to others. God knows the games media are doing the opposite of good in that regard; effusive praise for this hateful engine appears on the major websites daily.

    Don’t play gacha games. If confronted by one, turn 180 degrees and run for a mile.

    Also, I’m struggling to believe anyone could seriously bring themselves to play Animal Crossing for four hours in a single day. What are they doing? Walking in circles catching bugs? The game is like a vortex of content.

  6. Joel, if you were being productive till 2 or 3am in the morning with a 6am rise, then I’d still be tutting at you! :) Sleep is number one. You know my position on this because I’ve been imparting these words via email for the last decade! :) I just dug an email out from January 2011 where you said you’d had 15 hours sleep across Monday to Friday! Bloody hell.

    Buuut your output (and the quality of it) consistently impresses me, particularly with work and family commitments on top. Despite my abilities, I feel like my ‘creative’ day job alone leeches most of the energy I have to do creative stuff when I get home so my life is mostly consuming art these days. There was a time when this made me deeply anxious but I’ve somewhat come to terms with it now, thankfully.

    Your spreadsheet tale made me think of an incident at work where we had this really big job to print off and pack. It was way bigger than anything we would usually take on. I started the job going (because time was of the essence) and my boss, instead of helping (or indeed starting), sat there calculating how many documents the printer could print in an hour and how many hours were left in the day. Uh oh. It wasn’t possible he said. The thing is, we didn’t have a choice; we couldn’t let the client down and there were no other options. He just kept grumbling and marching around without helping keeping the process going. In the end, by just cracking on with the job, we got it finished, ahead of time, much to his bewilderment (and delight). Sometimes it’s better not knowing how much (or how little) runway you’ve got! (This is not advice btw, I only offer sleep advice. :P)

    RIP Flash. I knew that bit of software really well, animating and creating all kinds of stuff through uni. RIP Macromedia Freehand as well, which paired so nicely with it.

  7. Gwen

    Thank you, Gwen. Ah, I used to think about jumping into NaNoWriMo myself but I was pretty good driving myself to write a decade ago and didn’t feel like I needed it. These days, I’d probably fail on the first day! I do miss creative writing. Don’t put more on ideas on my plate, what are you doing!?! :) Good luck on the final run.

    I’ll probably get into the fun/work dichotomy below in reply to Daniel, because that’s a live wire, that one. I have to tiptoe around that one very careful or this blog might vamoosh into a puff of black smoke.

    I should say that Tametsi isn’t the “problem” here. I’m prone to compulsive behaviour when it comes to games and the Tametsi experience has warned me that I should step away from playing games right now. The only games I’ve played since Tametsi have been during family gaming evenings and some mobile Enyo.

    droqen

    I think if I hadn’t been playing late I probably wouldn’t have thought my Tametsi compulsion was unhealthy – but it still was. It wasn’t helping to build any bridges back to where I wanted to be, it was escapism but the bad kind. Tametsi wouldn’t have been finished for months.

    When you tend to do these things to yourself, it doesn’t seem like harm, but a personal choice. But is it really? I remember Cultist Simulator very clearly – that game was crawling around inside my skull and I did *not* like what it did to me. Penetrate the Night can seem like a light-hearted look at an addictive game, but that impact was real. I didn’t play it again for fear of what it might do. I did feel the game was harmful, even though I loved unravelling its systems.

    I don’t necessarily want to talk about the darker side of games, because that’s not really what I’m about, but when it comes to the games – I’m a parent, and it’s pretty obvious there are times when games have negative consequences and I’m not talking about griefing or in-game abuse. Games slip inside those young skulls as easy as knife into butter.

    Daniel

    “Why do you do this?”

    OMG YOU ASKED THE DANGER QUESTION

    I was doing a lot of creative writing back in 2010 and I’d tried my hand at a little blogging but those blogs didn’t really go anywhere. I planned one day to try a gaming blog (I’d purchased the domain name years earlier) and in the wake of RPS and other sites, I felt fired up to give it a go. Somehow I got a smidgen of attention, with a few blow-ups through Critical Distance and the RPS Sunday Papers. It was great writing practice and I felt I was doing something worthwhile.

    I flew to Copenhagen on my own money to interview Doug Wilson (with a quick sitdown with Nifflas!). I travelled to NY to attend Indie Game East and got drunk with Cart Life’s Richard Hofmeier. I had convinced myself I was doing something important which led on to aspirations for bigger plans – I ran a game academic reading link round-up hoping it would be a different kind of audience-grabbing linkfest but it was murder to organise and the interest did not seem to be there; I even ran a forum for awhile, but then the gaming scene sort of narrowed and blogs and their ilk became less important. Most of the internet became about shouting. And now we’re here. Ten years on, I’m… not entirely sure why I’m still doing it. And I’ll be honest, the fact that I have a busy family life & job with long hours is one of the reasons I don’t quit: I’ll probably do nothing but watch TV and play games with the spare time – I’ll just let the creativity go, whereas Electron Dance keeps driving me onward. Maybe. Who knows. I’m too scared to find out!

    I like the thrill of writing something about games which feels like it hasn’t been touched on. A game you’ve not heard of. A slant you might not consider. That thrill has been lacking somewhat in recent months, though, as it definitely feels far too much like work. But it’s always been “work”, right from the very beginning. I just tend to wax nostalgic about how fun it all was and I’ve always had problems shuffling Electron Dance into my everyday life as a parent.

    On the obsession front, these days I do find I play a lot of games when the shadow of depression is settling over me. It doesn’t really help, it just sort of passes the time until I can reach the next node, from which point I can rebuild. But Tametsi was eating into my sleep and that meant there would be no climbing out of that hole.

    CA

    I think these little compulsions are fine and dandy as long as they don’t take over for long. When they persist, your life has been overwritten by code, so it’s good to have the horrible warnings like yourself occasionally! I still remember that time I tried Cookie Clicker to see what all the fuss was about, laughed at how thin this “game” was, and then went to fucking bed at 2am after finally getting to the temple stage. OH WE’RE ALL SO, SO STRONNNG

    I just realised there’s a precursor to this article which pops up in the “highlights section” that I haven’t updated for years: Submergence. “It feels unhealthy but I can’t seem to shake it off.”

    I really hope you can get over your gacha curse. The comments require your attention.

    I think my daughter could easily spend four hours in Animal Crossing, catching some fish to make a little cash, using that cash to buy new bits, slowly remaking her island and then unmaking it so she can make it again.

    Gregg

    You bast, I was about to post these comment responses I’ve been writing on-and-off all day. Hit that send button? No, here comes Gregg with his new comment.

    That is like so shameful, January 2011. That’s months before I started to began to moan publicly about all this (and Christ, it has been embarassing looking over the archives and seeing “sorry I’m unwell, I don’t have any time blah blah blah” so many times). I still maintain it was Neptune’s Pride that broke my relatively more normal sleeping habits. Genuinely killed me that game. If we want to talk UNHEALTHY GAMES, well, there you go.

    On work leeching energy, this has been happening so much recently! I get this energy high around 3pm but but but shortly before I down tools around 5-6pm, I feel that energy suddenly drain out of my soul. And I say to myself, in that Basil Fawlty voice, you complete bastard. I sometimes suspect that my brain is acting up as a deliberate firebreak against doing the creative stuff I want to do. That lovely work you prepared for the film a few weeks back – I worked on it *so* *many* *hours* and it still wasn’t right. That was what kicked everything off, that suspicion that I couldn’t get the film done before the end of the year no matter how hard I worked. Toys out of the damn pram. And then Tametsi floated into view.

    I completely get your story! I’d put together the spreadsheet because it felt like there were too many days when I’d been, say, 60% of peak efficiency and I decided MEH NOT TODAY. And a whole week would be squandered without film work. I’m a lists person, Gregg. A real live lists person. But the spreadsheet just made it worse :(

    Right I suppose I should go to bed.

  8. Joel: I try my very best not to delve too deeply into the dark side either, but I can’t resist occasionally alluding to its darkly looming presence… I definitely am talking about the butter knives into soft human brains. Good luck with the parenting.

    <3.

  9. I’ve been having some sleep issues sometimes too. Rough classification of the causes, in increasing order of severity of resulting sleep loss:
    1. pottering around too long before going to bed (occasionally with games, more often internet)
    2. pottering around too long before doing the slightly niggling chore I have to do before going to bed (e.g., take the garbage about)
    3. pottering around putting off all the various things that I have to be doing and didn’t really get started on till after the kids went to bed, until I finally admit that I’m too wrecked to do more than one or zero of them
    4. something that I need to do so desperately that I have to stay up to do it (this often includes a bit of pottering, as I can’t possibly work straight through this sort of thing, even when I realize my pottering time is directly going to be subtracted from my sleep time)

    Currently rebounding a bit from the Stage 4 that happened at the end of the Thanksgiving break, where I had to do all the grading before I came back,* which also created a couple of stage 3s earlier in the week though then at least I could sleep in. But as Gregg says sleep is number one, I have to work on that too and recognize that.

    I had a mini experience akin to the spreadsheet, my therapist suggested that I get a sheet of paper and write down what I thought my schedule for the day should be to help me get through my tasks and not feel overwhelmed so I did that, accomplished the first couple things on the list, went downstairs, and lost the list. It was exactly like that story from Frog and Toad.

    I always feel bad when you talk about the site causing you stress because I enjoy the site so much. I feel like the cats from The Little Dirty Girl crying “Dependency! Dependency!” (That is the best ghost story ever, btw.) Though all you really need to do is post five words about something and I will happily leave a comment about roguelikes!

    OK, this comment is too long already, I shall defer my adventures in the Guardian crossword.

    *In some sense, since the students have all been booted off campus and the last week of classes/finals are being done remotely, and did I mention the thing where I had a cold and thought I should teach from home that day and then they said that I needed to be cleared by a doctor before I came back and the doctor said I should get a test and quarantine till I got the result and since the Russians had destroyed the hospital’s computer system so it took the better part of two weeks for my test results to come through and I was shut up in the guest room getting my meals on a tray. Still teaching though! Then even when I was allowed back on campus for the last couple days of in person teaching the number of cases had started climbing here and almost all of my few in-person students were patching in remotely.

  10. Matt, I don’t know how you missed it, but you clearly have a problem with pottering and you should deal with it like a responsible adult. But seriously, I have a real pottering problem with diversions like Twitter and sometimes news sites – you know, I don’t really need to know what some celebrity I barely know thought about Brexit. I’LL READ IT JUST IN CASE. Can I also mention we were supposed to rebuild our garage as a spare room three years ago? That’s on my list, right here, so I never, ever forget about it.

    I had cognitive behavioural therapy once and it was fantastic, really helpful as I said NO to all these stupid distractions and went to bed to read at 10pm every night. After a few weeks, I felt so good I then continued work on a film called The Unbearable Now and that was the end of the last time I felt human-shaped. (Having said that, I still carry some of the CBT lessons with me.)

    Now I wonder if your roguelike comments are flights of fancy that are stopping you go to bed. Are we doing this to each other Matt? Are we?

  11. Joel: very relate. I’m relating verily.

    You don’t need any more words from me to read or respond to, and I have not the brain juice to produce them today.

    “Good enough” is a very useful phrase at times like these.

  12. MrBehemo, it’s true – brain juice is in short supply. It’s expected to be rationed once the UK leaves the EU.

  13. I can relate to much of what has been said here (newsletter & subsequent discussion). It’s a while since I had a ‘project’, and I have to say that without something to cohere around I found it difficult to really commit to something creative.

    However. I’ve also had a difficult time recently, and I’ve been making efforts to purge the logic of ‘productivity’ from my brain. Fuck productivity. I’m a lists person too. I made lists. Many lists. Lists for days of the week, with specific times for certain tasks. Weekday lists. Weekend lists. Recurring tasks and chores. “Establishing habits”, I told myself. “Making sure shit gets done.”

    It became unhealthy. Now I try to do without lists as much as I can. And I let myself engage in creativity when I want to. I don’t beat myself up for not wanting to.

    (My current creative outlet is painting miniatures, and I appreciate that this is something very much for myself, and very different to a decade-spanning PC gaming blog… I’m just sharing my recent experience, I guess. Life can be hard. We don’t need to make it harder for ourselves by internalising the neoliberal logic of individual economic productivity, even if we’re wrapping that logic around passion projects and not income or hustling.)

  14. @Shaun:
    On the topic of lists:
    When it comes to more complex projects, I’ve found list-/plan-making to be really valuable, but I have to take a certain approach to it! Lists that try to force me to get shit done are awful, mostly because I already have the creative drive, I don’t need to be told to do it. But lists that are more akin to excellent prompts, lists of structures that I know will inspire me and get me moving in the right direction / funnelling my motivation into the right areas… Ah, those are the good ones.

    Takes a while to master the art, though.

  15. Honestly, one of the things on my mind is that once the children up and leave – and probably earlier, really – time will free up. I’ll be more carefree and be able to shift between work and play at whim instead of eking out the fragments of free time that are often inaccessible if your tired or sick.

    But there are quite a few years between now and then and I find it difficult to stomach the idea that I could just switch off, creatively speaking, for that period. That’s one of the drivers that keeps pushing me.

    I fail my lists everywhere, they’re never finished! The ones at work include headline items and inevitably they keep being superseded! I think I should keep my film spreadsheet around so I can see progress to 100% but pay no attention to “deadlines”. My time is far too vulnerable to be counted on for any Electron Dance task.

    My current lists are domestic ones, focused on Christmas preparations and maybe getting the house fixed…

  16. I have two lists on my desktop, and five more in the folder on it named ‘sort’ (itself a one-item, studiously-ignored list), which contains a selection of files that had been littering my desktop that I once tried to purge, but have since grown back like ivy, or mold.

    The oldest of the lists is over three years old.

  17. oh god CA, your lists are as bad as mine

  18. Oh I never did explain my adventures with the Guardian crossword. Basically I started doing them to procrastinate, and sometimes I feel that although I realize it is British there is no need for it to be so British, and there was one clue whose answer was “Worthing” which appears to be the second-largest town in the fifteenth-largest conurbation in the UK, so I left a comment in the crossword-solving blog with a clue for the second-largest city in the fifteenth-largest metropolitan statistical area in the US which is Tacoma, and they were quite nice about it and got into a big discussion of how they’d heard about it because of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Really the crossword explanation blog is one of the friendliest communities online.

    I started doing a remote group piano class and it was driving me absolutely over the edge until I realized that the thing for me to do is to watch the videos later, like once I’m done for the semester, and do some practice then. The home reorganization has gotten to the stage where the chair in front of the piano has been taken away and the piano bench has not been built yet so that settles things a bit.

    Of all the things I do to be productive, the most is having two hours a week to sit somewhere and work on writing papers as opposed to various teaching-related stuff. Back in the Before Time I got to sit in a room with other faculty and eat dried fruit and work, and then there were a few months where I didn’t do anything at all, but eventually they set up something where a bunch of us could get on a video call and then all turn off our cameras and microphones and write. That’s just ended but maybe I will keep up the carve-out over winter break. Also when I said I didn’t do anything at all, I spent a lot of the summer (which, besides having to stay inside all the time, was too damn hot) fretting about how I was writing absolutely nothing, and eventually just added a few bits to a paper that I’ve been shopping around unsuccessfully for over ten years and had just got an absolutely demoralizing referee report on and sent it off and that was all I accomplished for the summer, and then the paper GOT ACCEPTED without even any requests for revision. So there may be some moral about the relation between how much you feel you’re getting done during the sloggiest parts of your life, and how much you actually are getting done.

  19. It is a nefarious problem. Gaming for me is my primary hobby and vegetational time, used for restorative purposes in the between times after work and pre-rest. At its best it gives me something for my higher-functioning cognition to whittle at while at work or doing menial tasks – something to look forward to or disseminate. In this state, say, after a major release when I’m deep in the flow of counting the clock to clock *off* time, it is to the point where I don’t contemplate the uselessness of it or the vanity of it. But in the large stretches where it’s not all-encompassing, when I’ve nothing to play… Like now, as I’m browsing electrondance looking for a cool puzzle game I’ve never heard of, the futility of computer games qua existence comes to the fore. But then I’m always reminded that this is an old god, one of existentialism itself, and to be taken – ridden – by the loa of cyber-gaming is actually close to as far up the hierarchy of needs that if Maslow was a gamer he might have considered transcendence and computer gaming to be pretty similar.

    Doesn’t it all boil down to legacy and answering to the future self? If I could talk to myself, far future the ventilators whirling; would I say ‘just do it dude, have fun, why not’ or would I be full of sadness at half-written sonnets or rough-cut sculptures? I just don’t know. As a teacher I’m about to head into a month off, with clearing my head first on the agenda but a promise to write something in there, too. I don’t even have kids, yet, but let me tell you any kind of gas fills the volume it’s in, any kind of procrastination can be shaped to eat the times pretty well.

    Apologies sir, I may have dribbled a bit, above. Your blog is one of the few pure and well-written torches into the puzzle gaming world, and I look forward to each update, regardless of time-frame.

  20. Not sure if this will meaningfully add to the discussion but since I was talking about lists and their value or lack thereof, I had a moment of clarity that I’ll try to share here in brief:

    Lists of demands for my future self (“must-do” lists) suck, and have never worked out for me. I always fall short and feel bad, or I do what my past self demanded and feel okay.

    Lists of predictions about my future self (“will-do” lists) are wonderful, and feel good to write and fulfill. If I fall short I can blame my past self instead of my present self, and work on making better predictions, work on knowing myself better, for next time — rather than working on how to better live up to my flawed expectations.

    Not aspiring to increase productivity, but aspiring to better see my future.

  21. I thought I’d explain how the last couple of weeks have gone. With demands on many fronts – Christmas prep, Brexit intensity at work and domestic stuff like a water leak and setting up a new family PC – I just dropped Electron Dance from the list. The reason being, all of those other demands have endpoints but writing for a web site doesn’t, it doesn’t conjure a cathartic buzz because, hey, Electron Dance is still there and next week is meant to be another writing. Whereas when I’m done with present shopping or the new PC, those things are locked down, finished quests. It’s nice to just simply Get Things Done.

    That is to say, I’m very busy but it’s not infected with self-pitying angst and while I’m not going to bed as early as I should, there have been no Late Nights™. I’m mostly saying NO to starting anything after 9.30pm. Think this is a good habit to forge but not sure if it’s a bridge to somewhere better… But I’m also confident this concentration of tasks is a temporary state of affairs. Unfortunately, the thing that has been the most maddening: you schedule in a few hours to do something cool – but then you get sick. I am intermittently unwell with what seems like a heavy cold: 2 weeks ago I was suffering, last week was better, this week is bad again?!?!?! I was doing an hour walk daily or some exercise at home, but it’s put all that good stuff on the back burner :(

    Matt: Love your little story about “The Guardian crossword community”! Sounds like an old-skool proto-Internet newsgroup. (Oh, I guess there’d be flame wars.)

    Zholistic: I don’t know what to say myself! I was a creative powerhouse when I was younger but parenthood really pushed it to the side. There’s a sense in which a part of me says “yo, look, just happy yourself out, life be hard”… but even now, my head continues to tick over ideas. I was even thinking of the Weapons of Progress book and some of the directions it should go in. I don’t know if my creative soul wants me to be happy in the same way…! But thank you for those kind words.

    droqen: I’ve just realised most of my lists are not really driving at productivity, but acting as a backup to memory and making sure a few key tasks don’t get forgotten. This week, for example, neighbour’s Christmas cards and wrapping presents. I’m sorting one task out right now which is “comments” :) I have to admit I don’t think a list for productivity has ever really worked for me, the most recent example being the film to-do list which dated everything!


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