Hobby Inertia

I listened to Episode 94 of the Gamers’ Lounge the other day.  I’ve listened to this podcast pretty much consistently since it started and it’s been a fascinating insight into the butterfly mentality of the dedicated hobby gamer.  Bill, the main host, is a miniatures game monogamist.  He yearns to play one game that grabs his imagination to the exclusion of all else.  Once upon a time, that was Wahammer 40,000; then it was Malifaux 1.0 and 1.5.  But he fell out of love with Malifaux 2.0 (“You’ve changed!  I don’t know you any more!”) and whilst he’s now playing a lot of Wild West Exodus and has even dipped his toe into X-Wing and Relic Knights.  But even though he’s waiting excitedly for CMON’s latest miniature offering, Wrath of Kings, these are all casual flings for Bill: none of them is the all-encompassing single game to which he longs to commit (oh, and by the way, he still has his Eldar army in his display case and a whole High Elf army still in its shrinkwrap – this guy finds it hard to let go of his exes).

In Episode 94, he interviewed Chandler on the topic of why Chandler and his gaming group doesn’t adopt certain games (mostly why it doesn’t adopt WWX).  And Chandler offered a rambling and not completely coherent explanation (I don’t blame him for this; it’s hard to pin down one’s reasons for not playing a game – if it doesn’t grab you, it doesn’t grab you).  But it all boiled down to one, big, glaring reason:

His people are too deeply invested in Warhammer 40,000 not to keep playing it.  I was put in mind of an addict who still gets a buzz from his addition but it never quite matches the incomparable excesses of that first high.  These guys plough more and more time and money into their hobby (a hobby which Chandler admitted was “a terrible game”*) in a desperate conviction that, at some point, it’s going to deliver the gaming experience for which they so desperately yearn.

Now, given that most of my readers are already enthusiasts for independent game designers (or why else would you be here?) I’m probably preaching to the choir here but:

…so should I stop rolling this dice in the hope of getting a natural 6, Albert?

Let me make this clear: I understand the sunk cost fallacy and its potent psychological weight.  If you’ve got £5,000+ invested in toy soldiers, playing games represents getting your money’s worth from those games.  But does it always have to be the same game?

It seems to me that one could use the same miniatures to play several – perhaps dozens – of different games that might actually be even more fun than the dead horse you’re still flogging.

The psychological investment in many games, though, goes deeper than just a financial one.  There’s an investment in the setting, too.  And a game with a compelling, deep and exciting setting is hard to break away from, no doubt.  When a game is so well designed that it provides a really compelling engagement with its setting, that’s a huge boon to overcoming the suspension of disbelief barrier when one is playing fantasy or science fiction games.  And it’s a huge bonus to historical games, which are a great way to really live and experience historical warfare.

But there are games with a compelling background – or historical setting – which don’t have rules that faithfully capture the experience of warfar in that time and place (*ahem*), yet they still command thousands of enthusiasts.  And this is, I think, the third component of gamer inertia and the hardest, in many ways, to argue against:

For a lot of gamers (not – I sincerely hope – most of them), the game is not the source of fun in itself.  The “fun” (and by that I really mean the pay-off that delivers the endorphin rush associated with fun, because these people rarely look or sound like they’re having actual fun) comes from seeing the game as a puzzle.  Within the rules of the game and the randomized experience of the tabletop there is, for these players, a perfect solution.  These players for the most part aren’t that emotionally invested in the hobby and may not have all that much of an interest in the setting.  Their interest is in reading, interpreting and applying the rules in such a way as to achieve a pre-determined outcome (usually, but not always, victory) that provides them with their endorphin rush (a.k.a. “fun”).

Sometimes, they are gits who will do anything (anything!) to win, but these beasts are rare.  Often they are among the most committed to a particular game, with vast collections and multiple armies.  They are early adopters of new editions, are frequently first with the latest news and rumours and often take part in their national tournament scene.  Their interest in games that don’t have a league or tournament scene is usually nil.

These aren’t bad people (mostly).  But the only way to persuade them to abandon a game and take up another is to get them to a place where they can achieve their desired outcome from any game every single time.

*I don’t actually agree with that assessment but I’d happily agree that WH40k isn’t exactly the paragon of game design.