I might have found a pill that makes me not like video games anymore.

I might have found a pill that makes me not like video games anymore.

This is going to require some backstory.

It’s hard for me to know exactly how my brain differs from others. It’s the only one I’ve ever had and I have nothing to compare it to. But one thing that I do think is true is that I have what’s called sensory processing sensitivity or a low perceptual threshold. My brain is less aggressive about filtering out stimuli, so it’s easier for me to notice things. (My first inkling that this was the case was when I went and saw Memento with my friends and was the only one who noticed that during a particular scene one actor replaces another for a split second.)

This has been useful in detail-oriented work because I catch things that other folks don’t. But it also means that I spend more time and energy noticing and reacting to things, especially when they’re unfamiliar. So when I’m in complex or novel situations - doing complicated tasks, meeting new people, traveling, etc. - I get overwhelmed and exhausted easily. This has had a lot of effects on my life and feeds into my general introversion, dislike of large groups, preference for routine and planning, and so on. But only recently did I realize it’s probably also part of why I like video games.

See, when I’m playing a video game, everything I need to pay attention to is on the screen in front of me. Everything that matters is in one well-defined and unmoving area and it’s all specifically designed to be informative and relevant. Games that require engagement with visuals, sound, logical reasoning, and physical reactions create a strong enough attention magnet that I can actually tune out the rest of the world. In short, games make it really easy for me to focus which lets me relax in a way that’s otherwise very difficult.

Put like this, it’s no wonder that video games have been my recreational activity of choice for my entire adult life. They’re the perfect way to relax when I’m overwhelmed by the stimuli of the real world. I’ve written before about how brain differences can impact taste in games but it’s clear they can also affect how much we enjoy games in general.

A couple of months ago, I started taking L-theanine and caffeine. I was looking for ways to prevent my occasional bouts of mental fog and be more productive at work, and this combination is a safe and well-studied way to improve focus. It’s basically the intro-level cognitive enhancer.

And it has worked for me. My energy, focus, and productivity have improved. In particular, when I’m working on a task I’m much more likely to keep working on that task. I don’t get bored and distracted and switch to doing something else. It’s like my perceptual threshold has increased and I don’t notice the distractions the way I used to, so instead of spending mental energy reacting to them I can keep spending it on the thing I’m actually working on. It’s great!

But after a few weeks of taking L-theanine and caffeine every day, I realized something else had changed too. I didn’t really want to play video games anymore. For a little while I still made myself play at least every few days, because I thought of myself as someone who played games and I knew I needed material for Pixel Poppers and I was used to thinking of games as how I relaxed. But one day it occurred to me that it’d been a week since I sat down to play something and rather than feel guilty about it I just gave myself permission to not play games again until I actively wanted to.

That was three weeks ago. Apart from brief sessions of phone games to kill time here and there I haven’t played anything.

As unusual as this is for me, once I thought about it it basically made sense. If games are how I escape the sensory overload of the real world, and the real world is no longer overloading my senses due to L-theanine and caffeine, maybe I don’t need to escape anymore?

Here’s a sampling of what I have been doing with my free time instead of playing video games:

  1. Added genre labels to all the games (more than 2200 of them) in my personal game library database.
  2. Set up a personal media server with my mp3 collection, doing a ton of metadata cleanup along the way.
  3. Set up a new personal email address on a domain I control and moved all of my accounts to it so I won’t lose them if I get locked out of my Gmail account.

Each of these tasks took several days. In fact, they’re all things I first thought of doing years ago but either kept putting off or flat-out decided weren’t worth doing because of how much time and effort they’d take. But now? This kind of thing is all I want to do to relax. I’m actually sad to be done with these tasks because I’m running out of projects like this and scrambling to think of new ways to have fun, to the point where I’m jokingly-but-not-really asking my friends if they have large-scale data curation tasks they need help with.

I think of this sort of work as “gardening” - extended projects which have an overarching goal but are easily broken up into small-scale semi-repetitive tasks with largely-independent decision-making. But in looking at that pattern… it sure sounds a lot like side quests. The dynamics are similar to hunting collectibles or clearing map icons. It’s all about having a clearly-defined checklist of small-scope goals feeding into a large-scope goal. I’ve always liked work that follows that structure - I’ve pursued jobs that can be formulated that way and I prefer games with quest or mission systems as opposed to ones which are purely sandbox.

When it’s time to relax, I still want to do some “gardening.” But the attention-focusing power of video games is no longer such a strong advantage over the real world, so the trade-off has changed. If I’m deciding between doing side quests in Assassin’s Creed or porting one of my personal websites from PHP to Hugo, the video game is no longer the the more relaxing alternative. Instead, it’s the one that has no real-world impact.

Brains are complicated. I only have a couple months of experience with L-theanine, during which there have been plenty of other things going on in my life and in the world in general that could have had an impact and obscured true causes. But suppose the above speculation is basically correct. Suppose I can take an inexpensive over-the-counter dietary supplement in order to be less distractible but also be less into video games. Do I want that?

For most of my life, I’ve found video games to be a source of comfort and entertainment. I’ve put tons of time, money, thought, and effort into them over the decades. The first Pixel Poppers content went up on September 14, 2009 and of course I only started publishing that stuff because I already had a lot of experience with, knowledge of, and opinions about games. Even my coworkers come to me for game recommendations or to ask which console they should get.

In short, video games are part of my identity and have been for a long time. When I tell my friends I’m not gaming now, they make jokes about not knowing who I am. Do I even know?

Any significant change to one’s identity is scary, especially once you get into transhumanism-adjacent questions of self-modifying to change your own preferences. Right now, I don’t want to play video games, so I also don’t want to want to play them. But I didn’t consider this trade-off before I started taking L-theanine (for the simple reason that I didn’t even see it coming) so it’s possible I’d feel different if I looked at it from the other side. I could stop taking L-theanine for a week to see if my desire to play games comes back, just in case I’d decide to stay off the L-theanine… but I like who I am right now so I don’t want to decide to do that!

On top of this mess is Pixel Poppers, which despite various setbacks is my most successful personal project by a wide margin. If I’m not playing video games, then I’m not thinking about them, so I’m not writing about them - and it’s hard to imagine Pixel Poppers continuing in a meaningful way.

The idea of just dropping something that’s key both to my identity and to my biggest and most-enduring project, without having anything on-hand to replace it, is slightly terrifying. And what am I getting in exchange? It’d be one thing if I were using my time to build useful things, or create great art, or otherwise do high-value work. Instead I’m… doing slightly useful chores with my personal data. They technically have more real-world impact than knocking off side quests in a video game, but barely, and they don’t lend themselves to thoughts and articles worth publishing.

But, like. I’m just getting started. I’ve only just found myself with this gap to fill. Of course I’m going to start with the dregs from the bottom of my to-do list, because that’s what I’ve got sitting around. But as I get used to the idea of having room for real-world “gardening” work, I might well think of new and better ways to spend that time and energy. I might find better ways to fill that gap, ways that are more valuable and constructive and satisfying. Projects to build real-world things and learn real-world skills.

I feel like I owe it to myself to explore this space. So I’m going to keep taking L-theanine for now and keep telling myself it’s okay not to play video games if I don’t feel like it. And then I’ll just… see what I come up with. Maybe I’ll eventually build something I’m more proud of than Pixel Poppers. Maybe I won’t, and I’ll just have very well-curated personal data and minor projects. Maybe my current mood will pass and I’ll find myself playing games again and all of this hand-wringing will have been pointless. Time will tell.

What does this mean for Pixel Poppers? I don’t know yet. The recent posting drought will likely continue for at least a while, though I do have a half-finished article that I might still polish up and publish. Long-term, though, it’s hard to say. I’ll pause the Patreon for now but not outright disable it so I can reevaluate when I see where I am next month, and maybe each month after that for a bit.

But I’m still here if you want to talk.