It’s summer once again, and once again I feel that strange mix of emotions that comes with being between semesters of work. It’s summer: my favorite season when I was a kid. It meant playing baseball or basketball or football every day, swimming, sleeping as late as I wanted and, of course, no school. That warm glow has never left me, and I still consider it my favorite season, one that I look forward to during the school year when papers are piling up and final deadlines grow ever nearer. I can play video games, read for fun, catch up on movies, sleep as late as I want, I tell myself near the end of every spring semester. And yes, I can do some of those things. But when you’re a woefully underpaid grad student who doesn’t have the privilege to teach over the summer, there is a lot of stress that comes with this particular season. Having to save much of the previous semester’s financial aid because you don’t get paid is probably the biggest, and while I was lucky enough to snag a short-term job this summer, I also take my PhD comprehensive exams in August, so this summer has been far from the carefree break that I so miss from my childhood.
I have, however, allowed myself lots of time for video games. Gorging yourself on games over a break can sometimes come with its own sense of guilt, though. Should I really be spending so much time on this? Shouldn’t I be doing something, I dunno, more productive? Are people secretly judging me? Or would they, if they knew how much I was actually gaming? Sometimes these kinds of thoughts are active and present in my mind, but often they sort of sit beneath the surface, manifesting themselves as just an odd sense of sadness or anxiety. And, while these feelings have been popping up as I’ve recently been playing games like God of War and Undertale, I didn’t really feel them when I was playing State of Decay 2.
The reason this was so surprising to me is that I have a lot of problems with State of Decay 2. Or, I should say, State of Decay 2 has a lot of problems. I didn’t play the first game, but the premise sounded like lots of fun and a close friend was going to be buying and playing it, so I figured I’d give it a shot. It is a shockingly ugly game. I’m not just talking about the design elements, I mean the textures, lighting, modelling, almost everything is very rough, which makes the fact that the game has lots of issues with bugs, loading, and pop-in that much more frustrating. I would have thought they were trading detailed graphics for smooth loading, but that is not the case. Character movements are janky, combat is spotty, and driving is horrendous. These issues are compounded when playing online, even with just two people. I found myself being attacked by invisible zombies, crashing my car into invisible walls, and getting my character stuck in the road beneath a vehicle, all after the gigantic 20Gb patch that was supposed to fix many of those issues — a patch which broke the single player game for me, not allowing me to play at all unless I’m invited to a multiplayer session. The game also feels very game-y, with zombies constantly spawning so that it never feels like a real world with real consequence to your in-game actions. Conveniently enough for the game, there just happens to be a zombie every fifteen yards or so, robbing players of the fear that comes with exploring the unknown, because you always know what to expect after you recognize the obvious patterns.
Yet I played. And played. And played. I finished a single player campaign and despite my many, many complaints, I won’t deny that I had fun doing it. Why? Why did I even keep playing after the first handful of glaring bugs? If I am prone to feeling guilt when playing games that I love, like Civilization Revolution, during the summer, why would I spend so much time playing a game that frustrates the hell out of me, and why did it feel so rewarding doing it?
I think the answer lies in a sense of accomplishment, of working toward something systematically and being good at it. The rewarding sense of skillfully executing a carefully planned campaign. There was a lot to do when I started playing. I needed to make my people happier, collect specific resources to keep them happy enough to stick around, find a new base, clear out plague hearts, recruit new people with skills that would allow me to build new facilities that my new base needed, find and claim useful outposts, help outside factions when I could, and more. It was a lot, but the challenge gave my mind a multi-layered problem to solve. I didn’t have that when playing God of War, Undertale, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, or even Civilization Revolution. When I think back, I had a very similar feeling with Stardew Valley. I began playing that game right in the middle of the fall semester, which was not a smart time to start a game that is known to steal lots of hours of lots of days. And I did indeed play a lot of it. Like, just as much time as I spent playing Breath of the Wild. But it didn’t feel like a waste of time or a guilty pursuit, despite having lots of work to do around my play sessions.
I suspect these two games have that in common. On the surface, they certainly seem like games that would add to stress and anxiety, because you have to think carefully about the future and make lots of important decisions that will affect that future. But for some reason it has the opposite effect. I won’t say that playing State of Decay 2 was calming, but it certainly kept some familiar real-world feelings of guilt and anxiety at bay. So, as much as I hated it, it was an interesting, enlightening, and dare I say ‘fun’ experience.