Bored Games

Are you bored? Is it my turn? Are we still playing?

I've been playing Minecraft since the beta version. I still enjoy it even though it has turned into shopping and XP. (Its fear-of-the-dark made manifest is the best part of the game to me.) But I don't really enjoy playing for more than an hour or two, which surprised me for a long time. I'm nearly as reliable as a clock: after 60-75 minutes, I've probably added to my architecture, killed some spiders, planted something, explored somewhere—most of the actions you do in Minecraft. And I'm done.

Except at the beginning of a world; then I'll play for a while. But I've detected a pattern: given at least one awesome house, an enchantment table (and my kreeper-proof armor), some serious time killing mineshaft spiders, and a flock of chickens, once the terrain patchwork becomes uninteresting to explore, I'm ready to start over. And I've started over a lot.

But it took Kimi saying, about Skyrim, "This is not a game you 'finish', this is a game that you eventually grow bored of" to make me realize this was a class of games. Skyrim, Minecraft, Animal Crossing: things you play until you're bored.

But what a weird ending condition boredom is! It's not a state of satisfaction, it's not a state of closure, of success. It's not a positive state, it's uncomfortable and itchy, mind-numbing. It makes us dull when we could be witty. It's a rut in which we're stuck simultaneously knowing we'd rather be anywhere else but can't get there from here. Boredom is not worth achieving, better a shared win in Cosmic Encounter.

Boredom for an ending condition feels a bit too much to me like game over in first-world real life: keep working for the weekends, keep drinking to Fox News, until they come for you with a casket.

So why are we still playing? My mother wore out three Nintendo DS machines playing Animal Crossing and now has it for the Wii. Minecraft 1.3 just debuted with interactive NPCs. (I wonder if they'll get catchphrases eventually?) I don't hear the constant buzz that Skyrim discussion used to be but I have no doubt that it's just gone into a different room from this one.

Is it, in fact, the closeness to reality juxtaposed with the impossibility of real life (dragons, kreepers, talking tanuki) that keeps us changing the seed in

The whole experience has made me appreciate endings, whether I win or lose, not only the finality but the opportunity. That game's over and now we can play another, no more quasi-guilt from the number of saved world directories sitting on my hard drive. Who's in for Ohne Furcht Und Adel? Seven Wonders?

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5 Responses to Bored Games

  1. Paul Zagieboylo says:

    There was a question addressing something close to this issue a while ago on gamedev.stackexchange (to which I hold the accepted answer). Basically it was suggested that this concept of a defined ending is the difference between a game (something you play) and a toy (something you play with). The industry as a whole has moved much closer to electronic toys in recent years.

  2. matt w says:

    "Play until bored" can also describe games with a definite end but a lot of replayability, like Solitaire (to take an extreme case), or maybe on the other extreme nethack -- you can win it, play it again with a completely different feel, and do it until you feel you've plumbed what you can from the game. The end will leave you less satisfied than if you played to one triumph and quit. Are you getting more out of the game? Well, as you point out, it's nice to be left wanting more.

    Part of this is attitude; Desktop Dungeons could easily have been a "play until bored" game, but I beat the campaign mode (on the free version) and basically haven't played since.

    • It's interesting how the designers' definition of an end--even if it's fairly arbitrary--can signal an automatic stopping point. Like the Desktop Dungeons example, I sunk a lot of time into The Binding of Isaac, then turned it off for months after I finally completed it for the first time.

      I wonder if this is "cut-off point" is something videogames share with other forms of media, particularly the serial kind. In comic books, for example, I know people who read series that are, for all intents and purposes, endless, but the publisher decides to shake things up with a relaunch, and the reader decides that it's time to move on--not because they're suddenly bored, but because the publisher's declared ending has made them aware that they've been bored for quite some time.

  3. Rebecca says:

    It seems to me that MMOs fall into this category as well, particularly if one avoids the team-sport endgames.

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