In World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, I’m level 59 and 7/8ths, have completed three of the five new zones, and I still don’t think I’m enjoying myself. In Destiny 2, I’m stumbling around Europa while I clumsily figure out (sometimes embarrassingly late) what the hell all my warlock powers do. Other than a few, fleeting moments, I’m not smiling, giggling with glee, or sobbing at an emotional moment. I’m just sitting at my desk clicking and clicking as I watch the numbers go up, my body totally in neutral as though being piloted by an unseen hand like the one I’m using to pilot my in-game avatars. By just about every metric we have to evaluate games, I’m not having fun. And yet I’m not not having fun.
Every day I faithfully log in to both games wondering if this will be the day something significant happens. Will the lightbulb will miraculously pop on over my head? Will I finally have that eureka “Oh, I am having fun now” moment? But even after a long gaming session in which that moment inevitably doesn’t happen, I still look forward to chasing the feeling all over again.
It could be that mindless clicking is maybe just my twisted definition of “fun”. But in truth, I just think that I don’t mind when WoW and Destiny 2 swallow up huge swathes of my time while providing very little emotional pay off in return. In fact, I want them to waste my time. In World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, I spent most of yesterday completing every quest put in front of me. I completed the Maldraxxus and Ardenweald zones over the course of maybe five or six hours, with only half a handful of moments where I thought “This was cool.” The rest of that time was just my warlock slinging spells, me getting frustrated that my demon pet can’t tank as well as I remember, and getting even more frustrated when a dungeon quest needed more than one run to complete. It sounds absolutely joyless, it was joyless, but I’m strangely ok with that.
It can seem like a game not being “fun” can be a cardinal sin—the time and money we sacrifice to play them are finite and precious. Good games should maximize both, but that’s not to say WoW or Destiny 2 are bad games because, at least for me right now, they don’t do either. It’s just that sometimes I’m not looking for a video game to “spark joy.” Not every game can provide me with Hades or Paper Mario: Origami King levels of “fun” or emotional fulfillment. I’m a task-oriented person, at my most content when I’m given a simple job like killing an arbitrary number of boars or Eliksni.
Calling these games “comfort games” is about as close as I can get to describing my relationship with them, but even that doesn’t feel quite right. Doing these tasks feels something like maintenance or upkeep: something my body needs to do every now and again to maintain optimum functionality. It’s not a compulsion exactly, not a craving lighting up the lizard parts in my brain saying “Must. Play. WoW.” But I do know that sometimes, when given the choice between another enjoyable Hades run or squirrelling away the hours with a bunch of people I don’t know in Destiny 2, I somewhat irrationally choose the latter. That might sound uncomfortably close to describing myself as “addicted,” though thankfully without any of the maladaptive hallmarks of true video game addiction. Why is this good, you might ask? Truthfully, I don’t know that it is! It’s just something I do, not for any “good” reason, or because it’s my job or even because it makes me feel good, because it usually doesn’t. These games exist in this weird gray space where I neither wildly enjoy nor passionately hate them, but that feels ok. There’s something just ok about that.
Playing Shadowlands or Destiny 2 feel like being in Video Game Purgatory, waiting for the game to get good or unplayably bad and recognizing they’ll likely do neither. When I play these games, I feel consumed by an empty void and spat back out again after a couple of hours no worse for wear—which is, ironically, exactly what happens to a lot of planets in Destiny 2 and my own character in World of Warcraft.