Johannes cum Grano Salis
"It's not hard to design a game that works, the real challenge is making one that people want to play again and again."--Martin Wallace
For whatever reason, people can engage with this hobby, and this site, intensely. Often extremely intensely. It could be the competitive element from the games themselves, it could be that the predilection for collecting surfaces because of the sheer number of titles available and the various ways of subcategorizing them all, it could be that the somewhat innocuous nature of the hobby causes people to let their guards down and treat it as an it's-healthy-for-me overdose of celery, or that the GeekMail and Subscription notifications icons are yet another way for us to get a targeted dopamine hit through technology.
But whatever the reasons, gaming seems to have much higher levels of engagement and burnout than many other hobbies I've been (in some cases, temporarily) obsessed by over the years: backpacking, flyfishing, reading, cooking, woodworking. There is genuine enjoyment to be had, for sure, but it very often comes packaged with bouts of binging and purging of new games, of mega "thin the herd" auctions, of buying the "Offline from BGG For a While" microbadge, of throwing one's hands up and saying "I can't keep up." By itself, "gaming" is no longer the whole hobby, because it requires the sub-hobby of "learning about what games to buy," and I'm convinced this takes a much larger toll on people than we might think. As Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, comparing George Orwell to Aldous Huxley:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
At this point most post-Essen reports have rolled in, Essen Watch GeekLists are being updated as people play their hauls, and the general vibe I'm getting is that there wasn't a single "must have" or "wow" game this year, not like there was in years past where something was hot or innovative, or innovatively hot, hotly innovative, or hot AND innovative. A lot of these reports are coming from people who have several years on me as Serious Gamers, who play more than I do, and who have more coherent thoughts about games and gaming than I do. In other words, if this group can't find many nice things to say, then there's a problem.
I don't recall the name of the theory, but there's a publishing theory that postulates that the quality of your output doesn't really matter if you're serving certain markets (young adult and teen in particular) because the audience replaces itself every 3-5 years; you simply do not have to worry about some kind of Collective Hobbyist Memory working against you causing people to eventually say "hey, wait a minute…" Frankly, I can't help but see parallels in gaming. I'm super-cynical about this stuff (Essen in particular), but I've just started to see a lot of hot Euro games as intended to be little more than pleasant time-killers for a family of four, to be played 3-4 times a year when Junior doesn't have soccer and Juniorette's violin lesson was canceled and, why, we haven't done anything as a family in ages! Pick a game, kids!
I've long since thought that a lot of gamers place demands on the hobby that it a.) cannot deliver, and b.) doesn't want to deliver anyway. I honestly think "replay value" is something few publishers generally care a whole lot about, largely because they have no reason to: the games will sell no matter what, and even if they develop the game with replayability in mind, the number of people who will play it more than just 2 or 3 times is likely tiny. Plus, games that wear out their welcome get replaced.
Anyway, I've been thinking about all this lately, post-Essen, in tandem with how, at any given moment, a large portion of the currently prominent BGG user base is beginning to recycle itself. We don't know it, but they are. Resurrect an old thread from the Settlers of Catan or Caylus forum from 2008 or 2009, click on the profiles from some users in the thread (how many avatars do you recognize?), and count how many are still active. It's usually very few. This is a hobby devoted to using a lot of mental energy (to research a new game, to learn a new game, to learn the strategy, to implement the strategy, to refine the strategy, to research a new game, to learn a new game…) and it just routinely burns people out. Myself included, and I'm not an opinion leader, influential reviewer, or dedicated follower/reporter/advocate of [insert gaming trend here].
I don't know a lot about gaming, I don't know a lot about psychology, and I don't know a lot about addiction. But I know about myself, and I know more than your average person about gaming, psychology, and addiction, enough to know that this hobby regularly eats people alive; there's a hesitancy in my involvement with gaming that is in anticipation of that perceived 3-5 year turnover rate; burnout after a few years? Not me. Not after the amount of money I've sunk into this Hobby Monster. Unfettered access to thousands of games and an enthusiastic user base (ever notice how we only call people "users" when referring to either computers or drugs?) isn't always a good thing. I don't even live in a large city or densely populated area, and two local folks recently decided to up and quit, putting their entire (large) collections up for sale or auction. Many games were never played. I know because I bought a few and had to punch the chits myself. For whatever reason, gamers don't seem to mind (until it's too late) that enthusiasm obviously outpaces the actual amount of free time to engage with the hobby proper.
But rather than be doom and gloom about the end of boardgaming as we know it based in part on a few GeekBuddies' dissatisfaction with Essen games (last year's Essen was pretty strong, what with Eclipse and Mage Knight [or so I'm told--I've never played them] so there's something cyclical at play here), I'd like to be a little speculative. Indulge me.
My father is a big classical/art music buff, and he stopped following new releases in the early 1970s; when I asked him why, he said that the effort to try and triage all the new stuff was overwhelming. And that was before the internet. When I was woodworking regularly, I'd go to farmer's markets and outdoor shows and talk to the guys selling furniture and cutting boards. Inevitably, one of the two major forums (Woodnet and Sawmill Creek) would come up during conversation. "I don't read them, man. I'd rather build," was the one reply I remember verbatim. My Uncle is a wonderful organ player, piano player, and harpsichord player (and builder!); he has been in the Van Cliburn competition, for those who care. But he long ago decided to only play Baroque music, because, as he put it, "otherwise I'm spending all my weekly piano time trying to maintain a single Chopin Nocturne, and I'm supposed to be enjoying myself."
One of the things that I think needs to happen is that we need to become much better at ignoring things without excuses and without fear of missing out. It is an innate skill that younger generations now possess, because they have spent their entire lives surrounded by noise. They are incredibly good at filtering out nonsense; older generations, I think, often mistake that for aloofness or apathy, but my hunch is that irony has developed, very slowly, as the most convenient way to navigate a world that is constantly sending messages (there are more than 300 signs on the 16-mile stretch of road that connects my house with my in-law's house) that compete for our attention, focus, money, and loyalty. We either have to get better at saying "No" to them, or else we need to get quite good at pretending that they don't exist. Because you can't consider them all. How you opt out is entirely up to you.
"But wait!" you say. "What about growing as a person through new experiences? You can't grow if you just stick with what you know! You'll get in a rut and stagnate!" True enough. Nothing wrong with that. But just be very, very careful that the new experience actually materializes; if you get no further in your New Experience Quest than "buying a new game," then the hobby you have and the hobby you tell people you have are not the same. There's a not-so-fine-line between the hobby you have and "dreaming."
Ultimately, I don't know what the cause of Hobby Burnout is. Maybe the outcome is unavoidable, and people do the 3-5 years of intensity because they know they'll never keep it up and need to get a load of research in while they still can. Maybe, as I've written about before, "BGG time" and "Table Time" both count as gaming time, and both eat into the same 21-hour-a-week cap on gaming's positive influence in your life; the less you BGG, the more you can game, therefore. Maybe there's no problem at all and every hobby has this to some degree; I've certainly gone hiking and passed people on the trail who are all decked out in brand-new North Face gear.
Whatever the reasons, people flame out, and, as I read about a prominent GCL struggling to stay active and a lot of "yeah, it was OK" about this year's Essen releases, all from people who are really smart and really dedicated and really engaged, then nobody's safe. Am I distant enough?