Voices at the Door: “Hard Fun,” Mental Fatigue, and Why I Play

Just a few days ago John Pavlus published an article in Scientific American entitled, “Why We Love the Games that Enrage Us the Most”, which, if you are a gamer, you should definitely read. Pavlus explores the concept of “hard fun,” which is another way of saying that some of us are wired to return to difficult problems again and again in an effort to overcome them. This happens both in games and in real life, but particularly in games. This might be because games often clearly signal to us when we have overcome a challenge, whereas life is not always so clear cut!

As a long-time LOTR:LCG player, I would definitely put our beloved game in the category of “hard fun”. I fondly remember the eight times my wife and I played Fog on the Barrow Downs and the jubilation we experienced when we finally. won. And yet I am not always motivated to sit down and play. My job often involves completing many different tasks throughout the day in a highly-distracting environment. Every few months I contract with a different client, work in their office space where that organization’s staff and their clients are going about their daily business. I, on the other hand, as a consultant, am engaging in an entirely different set of tasks in the midst of their work space. After a busy day, I can be mentally fatigued (specifically, directed attention fatigue sets in), and the absolute last thing I want to do is break out my cards and get my face smashed in by a quest. But on other busy days, I still want to play even though I’ve been doing nothing but making lots of tough choices at work. Why is this?

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The following paragraph in Pavlus’ article helped me understand when and why I want to play:

According to self-determination theory, these principles boil down to three domains in which humans experience universal psychological needs: autonomy (the urge to be the cause of one’s own behavior or choices); relatedness (the urge to connect with others and identify with a group); and competence (the desire to control or influence the outcomes of one’s behavior). The basic interactivity of most video games confers significant autonomy on a player, and the modern integration of many video games with social media easily satisfies the need for relatedness.

This is really astounding. We have all had days  where we don’t feel autonomous, but at the mercy of other people or external circumstances. Latching on to a game for an hour or two gives a gamer a space where he or she can find the autonomy we all crave. Also, playing a game like LOTR:LCG makes me feel competent. Even when I’m losing badly, I’m still building up a body of knowledge about a game I love. And…here is the true revelation for me: since our beloved card game is cooperative, it helps me feel a sense of relatedness. I really enjoy competitive tabletop games, but not in the way that I adore LOTR:LCG. A big factor in that is that it is a way of connecting to fellow players.

This is why, after a hard day at work, when I am weary with mental fatigue, I might still break out my cards. I may want a bit of freedom or feel connected to fellow players. And for that, I’m thankful; this Living Card Game is nothing more than a hobby, and yet it continues to provide me with some really valuable experiences.

It was fun taking the time to reflect on this. Until next time, mára mesta: good journeys!

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