I just wrapped up writing my dissertation (thesis for those anywhere but the UK). My big, final project, the anxiety-fuelled attempt to prove to the world the last three years of my life haven’t been a total waste of time, my way of giving back to an academic area that’s kept me interested and constantly busy. It’s also the source of more than a few sleepless nights and quiet crying sessions, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s done, it’s over, it’s out the way, I can now get on with the mountain of other assignments I need to get done.
However, as I was hammering out the last few hundred words, it struck me that the few games I’ve had time to play for pleasure changed as I hit different milestones in the project. In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious my dissertation impacted my leisure time in substantial ways that I wasn’t expecting or even noticed earlier.
The first bit of any soul-rending academic work is initial research. Staring down endless journal articles, book chapters, and maybe the odd lecture video if you’re lucky. While it’s intended to be an interesting time of knowledge-seeking, what it quickly turns into is doggy-paddling above an ocean of maybe-potentially relevant information written in the most unapproachable way possible: in academic-ese. Overwhelming when things are going smoothly and frustrating when you can’t find a copy of the article you need; initial research is enough to fry even the most balanced student’s brain.
During this time, I was big on The Division. Every time I took a break I’d boot it up, run a few missions, maybe faff around in the Dark Zone for a bit, and decompress. Having played the game for almost 200 hours before starting on my wonderful academic adventure, I know the ins and outs of the game: every room, corridor, mission and enemy is etched into my brain far more than any critical analysis of some bollocky theory I’d never heard of before.
It had a calming effect. Going through the motions of the Lexington mission or zoning out in front of a vendor menu was almost zen-like to me. Zero brain power was needed, and more importantly there was nothing new or unexpected, which after six hours of poring over what felt like hundreds of articles was hugely appreciated.
After I’d stuffed my brain full of dates, names and theories came the planning. Getting all the information I’d collected and shuffling it around until I had the skeleton of a report. Unexpectedly this was the most difficult bit of the entire dissertation – making sure I understood vague outlines and assignment briefs, being willing to throw out ideas after hours of working on it, and constantly reassuring myself that I was on the right track and this waking hell would end one day.
It was mentally exhausting, but in a different way to initial research: initial research was information overload, planning was self-esteem destroying. It’s a process of second-guessing, triple checking and moving on from half-baked ideas that would easily put me off had it not been something I needed to do to, you know, graduate.
This is where Fallout Shelter comes in. A game about planning and organising a vault doesn’t sound like the best downtime from planning and organising a dissertation, but the interactivity helped keep me going and occupied long enough to subconsciously mull over my work. Fallout Shelter constantly gives you assurance and feedback as to how you’re doing in a way a word document cannot – you’re producing enough electricity, don’t worry. Yeah that dweller died, but no biggie, he had shit charisma anyway. At the end of each day I’d be ranked on my vault’s happiness, but there wouldn’t be much in the way of punishment if it was down from the day before.
For a game about the destruction of civilisation as we know it, Fallout Shelter is endlessly positive and assuring in your management skills, and that’s something I really needed after nine hours of trying to work out the ins and outs of an academic assignment.
Then came the big one – the writing. All the hard work had already been done, the information was meticulously planned, just waiting for me to but some meat on them bones. The word count was intimidatingly high, but that’s fine. I’m a writer, if there’s one thing I can do well, it’s pad out word counts.
The problem I had with putting the words on paper was how mindless it was. I’m a planning sort of guy, and everything, right down to word counts and which academics were being referenced in which section had already been set down, waiting for the words to be put on top of them. The time for thinking, learning and analysing had come and gone, now all I had to do was expand my plans into prose. When everything has already been set out that rigidly, writing can be really, really, astonishingly boring.
Thankfully I had Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 HD ReMIX to help with the monotony. While I’m technically supposed to be playing it for review and so shouldn’t be classing it as “leisure” (don’t tell Vikki and Laura), I found the constantly changing settings and characters engaging enough after a day of mindlessly typing. Sora and the gang never stay in one place for longer than an hour or two, before it’s off to a new world with an entirely different aesthetic direction and challenges to face. It’s not exactly mentally taxing, especially with its button-mashing combat, but it was the right pace of ever-changing sights and sounds to keep my brain from turning to mush.
If I’d had a particularly boring day of writing, I dipped my toe into a few adventure and strategy games. The likes of Loom and Total War: Shogun 2 were just what I needed after a day of slowly blinking and thinking about nothing but what my plan told me to write. They weren’t as consistently useful to me as Kingdom Hearts was – after all, writing can still be exhausting, and sometimes fighting off Japanese armies was a bit too much – but I appreciated the extra kicks of stimulation they provided.
Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, I’m not entirely sure what I want to play. I’ve still got another Kingdom Hearts game to plough through, but that feels much more for work than before. I’ve played some horror games to try and remember what emotions and excitement feel like, but otherwise I feel like I’m drifting through my games library, at a loss for what I need right now. Maybe I should just get started on my next assignment?