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Playing with boredom

December 03, 2020 ・ Blog

Illustration by Ollie Hoff of an orange desert with a small bus driving along a road cutting through the centre of the image
Illustration by Ollie Hoff

I wrote a feature for the latest issue of Edge (E353) about boredom, which was a far easier pitch than I thought it’d be. (Thanks, Jen!) It’s about our psychological experience of boredom, and how game designers understand and work with it.

The whole thing was inspired by an episode of 99% Invisible which featured an interview with an American psychologist called Erin Westgate. As she explained the modern psychological understanding of the human experience of boredom, I saw lots of connections with games, which walk a tight line between excitement and boredom. They eke out excitement from what it’s organisationally and economically viable to create, wringing as much time out of as little content as they can.

But more than that, games seemed to reflect Westgate’s insights into the different kinds of boredom we experience. Turns out, boredom is nuanced and fickle, and it takes different forms. We feel bored when something isn’t grabbing our attention, whether because it’s too easy or too hard. But we also feel bored when something lacks meaning for us: when the cost it imposes on us doesn’t seem to outweigh what we get in return. These ways of seeing boredom seem extremely videogames.

So I talked to Westgate, and also several game designers and theorists, including Frank Lantz, Soren Johnson, Raph Koster and David Brevik, about how they design around and for boredom. The special thing about all this for me was that I was asking them about things they’d either not been aware of, or which no one had really asked them about before.

Photograph of a page from the article in Edge

Oh, and there was another special thing. The feature looks amazing, courtesy of Edge designer Andrew Hind’s usual eye for perfection and a fantastic set of illustrations by Ollie Hoff which riff off my opening lines, which talk about Desert Bus and Desert Golfing. They’re perfect. That’s his photo of the article above, by the way. Ollie has also worked on the UI and other bits of artwork for the lovely I am Dead, among many other things around games.

Illustration by Ollie Hoff

Illustration by Ollie Hoff
Illustrations by Ollie Hoff