Burn Out: Perspective from a Wargamer

Burn out. The feeling of not wanting anything to do with playing the tabletop war game. It’s a difficult experience to describe, but is likened to the sensation of apathy, of not wanting to go into work on a Monday morning. Fortunately, I’ve learned through experience and discussions within my local community that it’s a passing phase and we eventually regain that fun/anticipatory buzz of hitting the tables again. Here are my thoughts on phases of the ubiquitous burn out experience.

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It’s agonizing

Pre-Burn Out

The cause of burn out is not firmly understood. It is generally believed that we as human beings seek out pleasurable activities. In this case, our motivation to war game is driven by two major factors: 1) social interaction with other fleshly beings, and 2) the need to feel successful. In the human brain, according to a vast database of neuroscience research, there is a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine has many purposes, but one of it’s primary purposes (in layman’s terms) is to control the sense of pleasure/well-being/security. People who are clinically depressed oftentimes require drugs that may modify their chemical make-up of dopamine (and other related neuro-chemical) activity.

To prevent this post from entering wikipedia territory, I will say that the absence or presence of these “pleasure-chemicals” alters the way we perceive certain external experiences, such as playing a game of Warmachine/Hordes.

Thus, the wargamer (you and me) know the buzz-like feeling that seeps into us just prior to a game. Some have called this the “adrenaline-rush”, but in essence it’s more subtle than the flight-or-fight mode we’ve heard about. On the designated game night, we know that there is this sense of fun on it’s way. We look forward to it because there is an internal, brain-released reward that is released before the actual game day is played.

Naturally, because we know that there is game to be played, we carefully build our lists, research our stat-lines, read our fluff, and of course spy on the competition by trying to understand how the opposing factions work. The effort that goes into pre-game study varies between players, of course; whether you’re a veteran competitor or a casual hobby-gamer, this pre-game experience is a part of our World of wargaming.

The pre-tabletop game study time (online forum reading, etc.), this is the meta-game that you play alone. It satisfies your internal motivation to receive that subtle buzz-feeling, that positive-emotional anticipation you feel before you actually play the game.

Interestingly, your brain cannot tell whether your mental research, tactical scenarios, and the games you replay in your head are different from an actual game. The virtual imagination you use to study the war-game uses the same neuronal circuits as the ones you engage when you actually hit the tabletop with models. This is a process of rehearsal, a form of learning. But, as you may realize now (or have already known), that imagining an activity is also associated with all the memories you’ve attached with it. For the wargamer, we experience the buzz….so mentally strategizing also produces the buzz.

Now with all the neuroscience in it’s blatant form tells us that like a heroin addict who needs more and more drug to experience the same elation, the wargamer who thinks too much about the game (see that lonely meta-game description above) will lose the ability to experience the same internal buzz over time. Wonky. You’ve exhausted your nervous system’s ability to reward itself.

In a nutshell, playing too much, or even thinking too much about the game is most likely the cause for game burn out.

Burn out

You don’t feel or experience anything emotionally or intellectually rewarding about the game. Meh. You’ve eaten too much pizza and you’re full. But it’s actually worse than a full stomach. There is a sense of revulsion, because the punishing side of playing a wargame still persists. You never liked the stress of playing a game, the pressure to win, or the negative self-flagelattion you’ve given yourself for forgetting to pop your feat or allowing your opponent to execute that alpha strike on your heavy warjacks. These negative emotions are memories that haven’t erased themselves, and now in your burned-out state with no pleasurable buzz to balance out the thoughtful experience of the wargame, all you’re left with is a negative depression about even pulling models out of your bag. This is your common burn-out, more than full, it is almost painful.

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Burn out happens….

In this state, you’d rather do something else. You don’t read the forums, you don’t do anything related to gaming. For some, I think, even talking about the game sucks. Well, now you know you’ve done and hurt yourself. As a side note, I’d say that this state of burn-out could occur for any activity you’ve previously enjoyed, and importantly, you’ve now experienced (temporarily) something that millions who suffer from chronic depression suffer with everyday regarding every of life’s activity. So, the war gamer who has experienced burn out can say on a small scale that they can sympathize with some of the symptoms of depression.

Finally, when you know you’ve burned-out it is important to step back, away from the table edge. People who burn-out and force themselves to play may be doing so to reinforce their self-esteem (which they’ve locked into the game) or maintain their value as a person. Such an individual often becomes bitter/cynical or even angry for playing this “stupid game”. For people who force themselves to play while there’s no internal enjoyment other than winning (which may be a short-lived thrill) become automatons.

Don’t be a robotic player. It sucks. Take a step back….

Surviving Burn Out

There is hope. At least that is what we say to people who suffer from depression. For the wargamer, burn out is temporary and all it takes is some time away from the table. Don’t play. Don’t study the game. Don’t even paint the models. Just for a little while. Person-to-person that rest time would vary. Obviously, I know that it is possible to start a new faction or army to restart the “fire”, but even this isn’t the best remedy. Take a step back and do something else. Things you could do include going to the gym…. most of us need it.

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Matches die fast

Preventing Burn Out

If we can name the problem, then we can better solve it.

The problem is pleasure. Pleasure is a problem, because it dies a fast death. The buzz-thrill is like a match that lights up, flares bright, then burns out (pun intended). It’s a magical thing, pleasure. It can’t be caught, and we liken it to happiness which we are all tasked to pursue. A carrot on a stick. A dance that ends too quickly. How do we hold on to something we enjoy, take pride in, and love (philia, in the Greek)? It’s easy and hard.

I think CS Lewis said it best:

“It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go — let it die away — go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow — and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time.”

Bottom line

Don’t let the pleasure of wargaming drive you to play. Don’t let the pleasure of playing, thinking about, or imagining any portion of the game drive your enjoyment of the game. Don’t even let the rewarding feelings that go along with hanging out with people who support your gaming activity drive you to play when you don’t want to actually play. Instead, I think it is better and more enjoyable to play the game because you can choose. More specifically, you can choose where to place your emotion, heart as it were, and even your intellect and skills. You can choose to plant it firmly onto something else, more solid than that buzz-like sensation. It is deeply philosophical, but wargaming is a thinking person’s game: so, what is the foundation for who you are?

My two cents….

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Yeah, literally.

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6 thoughts on “Burn Out: Perspective from a Wargamer

  1. I just came back from a more than 5 years burnout….well, that was a big burnout not only about miniatures!!! But now the passion is back again and i am happily sharing this in my blog 🙂

  2. The same can be said for modeling and painting. Take a break as long as you need to before you try making any more of your favorite table top units. it’s supposed to be a fun hobby, not work (at least for most of us).

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