The fall semester started for me a few weeks ago, and while I have plenty of feelings about it (for better or worse), I wanted to write a little about gaming and grad school, from my own personal experience and perspective.
Well, it’s not grad school as much as it is just college, really. I was mostly lazy and disengaged as a high school student, but in college I became incredibly focused and determined to do everything I could to succeed. And at first, it was easy. I wasn’t working while I was getting my associate’s degree, so I was able to play games occasionally and still get my work done. I actually had a system where I would reward myself with game time, only allowing myself to play when I was done with a particular assignment. During the last two years of my undergrad coursework, though, that became impossible.
Well, impossible isn’t the right word, and that’s the reason I’m writing this. I’m sure there are people who have taken five courses in a semester and been able to continue their gaming habit, at least in part. I was not one of them. I wanted to do well in my classes, and the courses I was taking demanded a lot of reading, research, and writing. My life revolved around my work. I didn’t think of “free time” as free, so much as time I had to read or prepare for my next class.
And it paid off, I suppose. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA and I got into the only grad school I applied to. At that point, I hardly felt like a ‘gamer’ anymore. I hadn’t played games regularly in a couple of years, and when I spent time on my winter or summer breaks playing games it was mostly catching up with titles I’d missed out on or squeezing quick sessions in between doing ‘normal’ things, like road trips and running outdoors. It was at this point, one year into graduate school, that I realized that I was losing my favorite hobby. Or, I should say, I had lost it.
There was a notion that maybe it was ‘about time.’ That maybe this was part of growing up. I’d read about professionals that had eventually had to give up gaming because of work or demanding family lives. Maybe it was my turn to become the guy who “used to play games.” I knew, though, that much of this way of thinking comes from cultural norms and expectations, and I’ve always tried to be aware of and fight against societal pressure. It’s my life and I shouldn’t have to lead it to please other people. So I began to get angry. I’ve played video games since I was a small child, I have owned and obsessed over numerous consoles, I have kept regular gaming blogs, I have tattoos of video game characters on my body… so why should I have to give it all up because a portion of my peers think it’s juvenile or wasteful?
But it wasn’t just about peer pressure. Rarely have I heard anyone openly criticize my hobby to my face, or question its value. Like many cultural norms, that stuff bleeds through our cultural output, though. How do you make a middle-aged man look like a ‘man child’ in a movie? Have him play video games with his friends. I was in grad school, so shouldn’t I be doing more important things? Shouldn’t I be networking or working ahead or trying to get published?
And I think that is a large part of the anxiety that comes with wanting to keep up with a hobby like video games in grad school. It feels to me like I should always be making good use of my time, because there is always something to be done. Reading a novel for next week’s literature class. Translating poetry from Middle English. Reading two chapters and an academic journal article for this week’s linguistics class. Lesson planning. Answering student emails. Teaching. Grading. Proposing, outlining, researching, and writing three 20-30 page term papers almost every semester. Coming up with proposals for conferences. And how about social commitments? Family events? Time to exercise?
Doing anything for pleasure becomes a torturous self-interrogation. If I mention reading to friends, I have to clarify whether I’m “reading for school” or “reading for fun.” During the semester, how can I read a book for pleasure when I have more reading than I can keep up with for my classes? And when that extends to video games, it’s even worse. Somehow, reading a book for pleasure feels more productive and less like you’re cheating on your diet of homework and more homework.
So for my first year in grad school, I resigned to waiting for the breaks between semesters to play games. I would “catch up,” though that was a lie because I would only get through a small fraction of the games I’d been wanting to play. I stopped following gaming news, too, because why tempt myself with games I can’t play?
Somewhere between my first and second year of grad school, I found what I thought was a perfect solution: I would study video games. I was taking film courses for my English degree, and I realized that studying video games as a form of literature was virtually the same (or it could be). Of course the crux of many film-lit courses is the adaptation, and video games don’t have the same history of adapting literature into a new form, but many scholars seemed to have been actively moving film study away from its adaptation focus for decades, trying to fully embrace studying film as a storytelling medium on its own, not exclusively tied to written works. So, if we can do it with film, why can’t we do it with video games? I was determined to try.
So in my second year, I began studying ways to bring video games into the classroom, and was able to use that to work gaming into my work. Kind of. I incorporated Minecraft into the composition classes that I taught, so I was able to play at least a few hours of that each week. It was fun, I admit, but not the same as choosing a game I want to immerse myself in, like an RPG, and spending some time getting lost in a virtual world. It was fun but not necessarily relaxing.
And then I started my third year of grad school, my first year as a PhD candidate. I told myself I would do more to carve time out to play games during the school year. Not only were they an important part of my identity, they were also a source of joy and relaxation in what can feel an oppressive blanket of stress. I felt like I was procrastinating too long at doing things like homework or lesson planning, and if I could just focus more and work harder, I’d have more free time to play games.
If only it were that simple. That year, last year, was tough for me. I ran into a serious conflict with my school’s housing office (and then, in the same dispute, the bursar’s office), which made me not only angry and bitter toward the school itself, but also unappreciated and taken advantage of. Couple that with my first encounter with a spiteful and unprofessional professor, among the aforementioned grad school stressors, and video games again became something that was just not in the cards for me.
I played a lot of games over the summer, which was nice. I was finally able to play some of the games I’d had my eye on during the school year. And I am again determined to fit games somewhere into my life while teaching and furthering my studies, but who knows how long it will last. I’ve been playing on weekends and some weeknights, but even now, before the semester really picks up speed, I feel guilty and somehow judged by a faceless audience. I can imagine their thoughts. “How can he afford to waste his time like that? Doesn’t he have better things to do? Doesn’t he want to be successful, like his peers? They probably get all of their work done before doing stuff like that.” Or I feel like they might think I’m being juvenile and selfish for even wanting to enjoy a hobby while going to grad school. It’s supposed to be tough, right? Why can’t I just wait until I’m done and graduated before getting back into gaming?
Maybe I should just wait, and maybe I am making a bigger deal out of this than it deserves, I don’t know. I just know that life is better with video games, and especially with video gaming free of anxiety phantoms hovering over me, making me feel guilt and shame for doing something that I get enjoyment out of. I don’t have a concrete solution, and I know all of the advice I might get (make a time budget, give myself one whole day a week to play games, reward study time with game time, etc.). I just wanted to write about it, since it’s always on my mind and will probably affect the frequency with which I update this blog. Maybe I’ll write up something more cohesive and less rambling later, when I’ve figured something out. Until then, I have some guilt-ridden No Man’s Sky to get back to.