When you write about games for a living but don’t feel like playing videogames, there’s one question you really don’t want to hear. “So, what are you playing right now?” And no one, not your friends and definitely not your editor, wants to hear you say, “nothing.” To keep up with videogames is an endless task that takes up most of your time and energy. Resting for even a moment can be devastating both to your bank account and to the pool of expertise that flimsily justifies your career. To have an “off day” or to lose your desire to play yet another game can have consequences. And admitting you’d rather not play is boring when someone’s just trying to start a friendly conversation.
But recently, after I announced that my editing position at the magazine was being reduced, someone asked me if I’d be using the time to “catch up on my backlog,” And the question felt like the straw that broke the camel’s back. If anything, after months of overexerting myself and constant worry over my productivity, I need a break, not a suffocating reminder of all my other game obligations. But more than that, it was the timing. Right now, the world is falling apart. The shaky house of American capitalism is about to fall, thousands of people are dying, and there is no end in sight. Every day I’m worried that I or my loved ones will die without a chance to say goodbye. I have a lot more things to be worried about right now. Maybe what I actually don’t need is videogames.
Obviously this is a very personal sentiment, and I don’t mean this as a slight at those who are taking comfort in games right now. Most of my career has been spent following the thread between entertainment, cognitive development, and trauma recovery. That path and story are my own. The first several years of my career were in response to my videogame addiction, a way to turn all those hours into something I could use, spinning straw into gold.
But I don’t want the distraction right now. I hate the distraction. I hate the compartmentalization. I’ve been in cognitive behavioral therapy for years now, learning how to establish better emotional filters so I can get through my day. I was just starting to get to a place where I wasn’t angry about that coached complacency, where I wasn’t in a rage about being asked to let things go. Then the pandemic hit. And now my survival skills are being challenged more than ever.
To be honest, this listlessness goes far beyond current events; before this pandemic happened, I was already finding it difficult to focus on games anymore. Where did the motivation go? I suppose when you’re no longer afraid of being alone in your thoughts, the white noise becomes less appealing. It’s easier to pay attention to a game when you’re trying to ignore everything else. When you’re finally trying to pluck your own thoughts out of a mess of competing internal voices, it feels like chaos.
I’ve also been burnt out. Games are little problem-solving machines, and they are exhausting. My brain doesn’t respond well to the overlap between leisure and labor. It turns your hobbies into homework, and who can focus on work right now? Games haven’t been leisure for me in a long time.
But even with a recent reduction in my workload, I can’t turn that off. Playing a game “just for me” or “just because I want to” feels like I’m actively ignoring all the suffering around me. And I know that isn’t true—people can still care about things without thinking about them all the time. But I’m sick of feeling powerless. And I’m even sicker of being placated with fantasies about it. I want to smash windows, burn down buildings, march on the front lawns of Senators. I want to scream. I want the tremble that erupts out of my howling body to shake the earth until mountains fall and the sky turns black. I want to stand in front of a moving train and stop the derailment with my bare hands. I’m angry. My energy is pent up. I want to organize.
I’m happy for my friends that have the distraction of games right now. As a coping mechanism, it’s a pretty good one. Most people don’t have the same lifestyle factors that would make them as exhausted with games as I am. And we all deserve a little relief. But I have no outlet for ignoring or working out my frustrations, and the despair is making me restless. I would give anything for a distraction to not feel like a crutch or an indulgence. While my inability to let myself cope is punitive and self-hating, hypervigilance is also the only defense mechanism I have, and I’m too scared to move forward without it. Those healthy emotional filters I’m learning are still a work in progress. I’m so afraid the pandemic will destroy what little framework and structure I’ve managed to build.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. I don’t know what to do with myself. In this pandemic. With my life. There’s only so much that can be achieved behind glass. Maybe games feel self-indulgent to me, but defeatism and helplessness are even more so. The only answer is to wait it out. Which I guess is gonna be a lot harder because I just don’t feel like playing videogames.
Holly Green is the editor-at-large of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.