Burnout, The Hobby, and the Hustle

Introduction

I often struggle with the work I do for this site. Not… doing the work. But rather, the deeper motivation of why this work and why in this form. Before Meeple Like Us I was happy with academic publishing as being my main venue for getting thoughts, results and ideas out there. Success with an academic paper looks very different to success anywhere else in the real world. There’s an old joke that contains within it an uncomfortable truth. The average paper is read twice. Once by its author, and once by one of its three peer reviewers.

That’s hyperbole of course, but it’s hyperbole with a sting of believability. Most academic papers never get cited, many never get read by more than a handful of people. That’s sort of okay – the actual audience for academic writing is intensely specialised. By its very nature, academic writing works on the periphery of things. The often stated (but sometimes not honoured) expectation is that a paper makes ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ and you only really find those by venturing on the boundaries where you find few fellow travellers.

When I started the site, I experienced something different. Actual impact. The origin of Meeple Like Us was in self-justification. I had bought lots of games. Had shelves full of them. And I felt, as I often do, a need to find a reason for that indulgence. Nobody was seriously talking about board game accessibility at the time, and even those that had raised the topic did so only occasionally and incidentally. There I was, with a PhD in accessibility and a growing publishing track record into games, and I thought… ‘well, here’s a neat way to combine work and pleasure into one neat package’.

And then, two years later I started up a Patreon for the site and achieved some modest success with it.

That was the point my hobby became my hustle.

Time to Start Winding It All Up?

I didn’t realise that would happen at the time I started the site. Meeple Like Us was, and is, a research scratchpad. A place that is more about me making notes on my own interests than it is an intentional part of the media landscape. That’s why you often find our reviews are part evaluation of a game and part meditation on game design. The site’s style is forever tilted as a series of impromptu written lectures because of that initial direction of travel.

I suspected at the start that I’d look at a half dozen games or so, write a paper on the topic, and then never think about the accessibility of board games ever again. That’s obviously not what happened. Instead, I found a rich and fascinating new research topic that I spent the next (almost) four years diligently excavating.

At the end of two years, I said that the dig site was getting a little thin. That I’d gotten all I really needed out of it, but that I was prepared to keep on digging if others were getting value out of the finds. I set a goal – $500 p.m income from the site was enough, as far as I was concerned, to justify the extraordinary amount of effort that went into sustaining it. I gave myself a two-year deadline to reach that point – April 6th, 2020. That’s the fourth anniversary of the site and it’s not far away now.

Well, we haven’t hit that target, but we missed it by less than I expected. If a couple of consultancy queries had turned into consultancy requests over the past couple of years, we might well have managed it. If I included the value of review copies into the total, we’d be closer still. And if i’d asked for more review copies under that accounting I could have easily bridged the gap. And, of course, if I hadn’t alienated quite so many patrons with the stances we have taken on certain ethical and professional issues, we likewise would have ended in a stronger positionn We came closer to the goal than I expected though if I’m honest about myself. I honestly thought our trajectory would just be into a big ol’ crater. But by the deadline I publicly set for the site, it’s time to start winding it all up.

A picture of an almost deserted game cafe

But things have changed in the intervening period. I got a new job. An amazing new job. A job I love. I moved from being an academic that was interested in games to being a proper ‘games academic’. There are a lot of people hoping to go full-time and professional in the games industry, but that’s never been me. It’s not where my interests lie. What I’ve always wanted is… well, this job that I have now. What game development and game design I do, and I’ve done it for decades, is only something I am prepared to do on my terms. To be honest, I’ve always found people actually playing the games I have created to be an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Some people build ships in a bottle. I have spent years building digital apocalypses in text form. None of them included anything like the Coronavirus though.

This new job puts a different complexion on the site. I’m not being paid to do Meeple Like Us (and thus it doesn’t actually change the fact that this site has cost in person-hours that is paid from my own free time). However, this site is now ‘real life adjacent’ and a resource I can leverage for research bids. Two of those are already away to the first stage of evaluation. Another four or so are due to follow over the next twelve months.

This is the point where I start to reap the reward of all this work I’ve done. Ideas I’ve outlined, statistics I’ve gathered, special features I’ve written… they’ve all been sketching out, in public, an aggressively ambitious platform of ‘board games for good’ to go alongside the topic of ‘game accessibility as a fundamental cultural right’. This site is a treasure-trove of thoughts, musings and other assorted research insights. And now that treasure has started to act as real currency.

The site has done what I wanted it to do, in other words. And were that the full picture, I’d be saying here ‘And so the site is closing in April’.

It’s not the full picture though, is it?

It’s not the full picture because, well, there are all of you!

Meeple Like Us is unlikely to become meaningfully more popular. That’s due to the specificity of its focus and, let’s be honest, the personality of its editor. However, when I started doing this work I didn’t expect to be getting an average of six hundred people a day checking out our content. That’s where we have averaged over our fourth year of operation. It’s probably not going to be quite enough to take us to a million views by our birthday, but close enough that it’s clear MLU has become a useful resource regardless of what our failure to reach our funding goal says.

We have a substantial number of wonderful patrons that have kept this site going over the past couple of years, and I think that the site represents value for money in that regard. So, the situation is considerably more… fluid that ‘time to close up shop’.

But that doesn’t mean things can go on the way they have.

Auditing the Work

Here are the stats as they currently stand for sheer throughput of content.

  • More than 1.86 million words
  • 613 posts
  • 216 games reviewed and analysed

I was mystified by the games number though I dug into it. One game a week for four years is 52*4. That’s 208 games. So why the hell are there 216 published by our fourth birthday? Was there a point where I was publishing two a week? And it turns out – yes! In the first couple of months of the site I published two reviews and two teardowns a week. Jesus.

Anyway.

Over the past two years we have published an average of just under three posts a week. In a four week period we do four reviews, four teardowns, two special features and three patron exclusive posts. That’s thirteen posts, and our average post length is a bit over 3000 words. That’s about 1275 words a day. As in… every day.  The actual logistics of it are not quite that simple. Normally I write a review and a teardown in a single day, and all the Patron features on another day. That’s because, unlike Stephen King (2000 words a day on average), this isn’t my actual job. I need to fit this in around a demanding academic role with its own pressures and responsibilities. And, over the past six months, also an international move and acclimatisation to a new country where I didn’t know anyone.

If I had invested this time in fiction, then I’d have written anything between 25 and 36 novels, taking the average novel size as being between 50,000 and 70,000 words. I have written a novel before though so I can assure you that the world has lost nothing of value by my investing my time instead in the blog.

But holy shit. This level of output is like producing a full academic paper (5000-6000 words) every four days. If I had invested that time into my career I’d have added well over 300 articles to my profile in the past four years. And while the reviews that we’ve written are too whimsical to be credible fodder for that, I’m prepared to say that the accessibility analyses we do are academic grade. Similarly for a number of special features – they could, with suitable referencing and rephrasing, pass muster for academic publishing. I didn’t invest this time into publishing the thoughts in academia though. I spent it on the blog where it could hopefully reach a wider audience that would find the work helpful. I don’t regret it at all.

But it has all come at a cost.

I’m Completely Burnt Out On This Site

I’ll be honest with you. I’m burnt out. Not with everything – my job, as I say, is a new and exciting delight. But I’m burnt out with Meeple Like Us and I probably have been for quite some time. And it bleeds out. I feel the stresses of the site reaching out in ever greater waves into my ‘real life’. It’s grown to the point where mere denial won’t work to cover up its power.

Here’s where I realised it.

One of the things I now have to do at my new university is register ‘sideline activity’. Anything that you’re doing outside the job that has the potential to count as a conflict of interest. I registered Imaginary Realities (the company that Mrs Meeple and I own, and the company which in turn owns Meeple Like Us). I didn’t think it was going to be a problem, but my divisional leader had every right to say ‘Sorry, you have to stop doing this’. That wouldn’t be possible in a world where I was ‘an academic interested in games’, which is to say in my last lectureship position. It would be perfectly reasonable to say it now though because you could credibly say that this blog overlaps to an inappropriate degree with my professional responsibilities. It’s not a conflict of interest, in my view, but it could be and so the university has a right to terminate my involvement if I want to keep my actual job.

So I had to consider, ‘what will I do if this sideline activity is deemed inappropriate and I’m asked to stop?’

The answer I had for myself was… ‘You know, I’d be absolutely okay with that’.

And… ouch. That was quite the epiphany.

It reminded me when I first started to mentally prepare myself for the site shuttering for our fourth anniversary and how it actually made me feel… kinda relieved. I’d get my life back. I’d get time back. I’d be able to take this hustle and turn it back into a hobby. Oh my god I’d get to play games for the fun of it and not for the need of it.

For reference, here are some of the symptoms of burn out. Check yourself against them every so often:

  • Finding previously enjoyable work to be stressful and unfulfilling.
  • Falling into cynical modes of thinking
  • Head aches, stomach aches, difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling emotionally exhausted, unable to care.
  • Feeling tired even when you’re sleeping well
  • Reduced performance
  • Difficulties in finding motivation
  • Feeling a lack of creativity

Yeah. I tick a lot of those boxes.

The simple fact is that people have a certain amount of energy they can freely spend, and when it runs out you have to replace it with grind. And I feel like I’m there with Meeple Like Us right now.

The thing is – I know it’s not linked to the work because I find the topic as interesting as I ever did. It’s the constant pressure of production linked to the site. We have never, as best I can recall, missed publishing reviews and teardowns on a rigid schedule. But the writing of these… it’s gone from ‘I get to spend a day writing for the site!’ to ‘I have to spend a day writing for the site’. I’m exceptionally proud of the ambitious schedule I set for the Meeple Like Us and the reliability with which it has been met. But… it’s getting harder and harder and harder.

And it’s obvious what needs to happen.

I Need To Take A Break…

I need to take some time away from the site. A few months where I don’t need to worry about writing anything or playing anything that doesn’t need to be played. A few months where I get to play just for fun.  It sounds like such a luxury that it’s almost alien. I have done the work for this site for four years without a break and I think I’ve earned the right to sit down and catch a breath.

But remember when I said that my hobby had become my hustle?

Every day I’m not doing something on this site is a day I feel like I’m falling behind. Our Patrons have been exceptionally generous over the past couple of years and they have been directly responsible for what this site has done. But also… nobody is pledging for me to sit around with my thumb up my arse. And that by itself has been one of the things urging me ever forwards into burn-out territory. I don’t believe, intellectually, that our patrons want me to work myself into a depressive funk. Absolutely none of them have ever given the slightest indication that they are not in support of the site. That requires a site editor that is as willing to give himself the time to recuperate that he insists everyone else should take. But also… hustle, hustle, hustle. Grind, grind, grind. If you’re not pulling forwards you’re falling behind.

My local game shop

The crowd-funding system is wonderful in that it has opened up an avenue that wouldn’t exist for a lot of people in more traditional circumstances. But also it has created a financial structure where self-care is not part of the pitch. It does not have room for sick days, holidays, or even simple lack of motivation. We can see the fragility in the hustle economy now that Corona has us all in its little viral grip. Room to breathe with Patreon comes out of the indulgence of your backers, and in many ways your backers are your bosses.

So I guess I’m asking my many bosses – do you mind if I take some time off, chief(s)? I’ve got all these leave days saved up after all.

I hope you don’t mind, but I obviously completely understand if you do. The fact is though, permission or not, I need to take time away from this constant grind of work so that it becomes, once again, something I love doing rather than something I increasingly dread doing. To help this be properly restorative, I’ll also be cutting myself off from Twitter and… importantly… the site stats. That’ll occur at the point our hiatus begins.

I will say though that, break or not, I will continue doing the patron exclusive content because I actually still really enjoy doing that. Largely because it’s different to the stuff I’m otherwise having to write on a constant schedule.

My plan is for a three month period of decompression, during which I can re-centre myself and regain the affection I had for the hobby. I do though reserve the right to extend it if necessary. I absolutely will be returning – I have review copy obligations at the very least that I have to discharge, but I believe that this time out by itself will be sufficient to get me motivated again. This isn’t the first time I’ve had project specific burn-out. I tend to work myself to the point of being sick of something, but time and distance usually rectifies the situation.

…And then I need to slow down

Three posts a week is ludicrous. It’s too much to write and honestly, when I think about it, it’s almost certainly too much to read. My favourite blogs often have a weekly schedule and even then I don’t always have time to keep up with them. Who the hell wants to hear from me three times a week?

So, what I would like to do once this break is over is investigate more sustainable ways to keep this site going. There will be 216 games on the site by the time our break comes around and that’s more than enough for people to be getting on with. I know for a fact, because I have access to the stats, that there are posts on here that almost nobody has read and we have pretty robust indexing available.

Oh yes, I haven’t even added the time cost of any of our software or tools into the content audit above. God, it never ends. Anyway, all those reviews and teardowns are also all accessible through some pretty comprehensive indexing tools so it’s not like recency of the posts really matters as far as that goes.

A random black and white ceiling

I think a review one week and a teardown the next would be a much more sustainable approach to the site. It would shave perhaps a third off the work I need to do to keep the site running and I think that’s probably where the balance needs to be. I’d also drop down to one special feature a month. It would be enough of a relaxation of duties that I’d be able to ensure a comfortable buffer and also replenish it without excessive sacrifice of other things. I can’t guarantee this will be the schedule, but this is what I’ve been pondering for a while.

Maybe the ‘take a break’ model is preferable? Maybe Meeple Like Us should run in seasons and a long break between seasons is how I rebuild my enthusiasm. Season five of Meeple Like Us, only on Clomper! Maybe it needs to become an irregular schedule. Whatever way it works, that’s what needs to be decided when we come back.

The site’s hiatus will begin when we publish our fourth anniversary round up post, and end in July assuming that MLU hasn’t lost all momentum in the intervening period. If it does, I’ll finish up with the review copies I have on the todo list (some cool stuff there!) and then the site can just quietly go into maintenance mode where I only publish when I have something I specifically want to say.

I Need to Get My Hobby Back

All of this really comes back to the point I made earlier. My hobby has become my hustle, and when that happens you not only lose your ability to enjoy it, you also have to accept you can’t even stop not enjoying it without negotiating a range of other complexities.

Imagine a world in which you spent your time traveling on a super-fast train searching for great games. And imagine when you found them, all you could do was throw the box out of the window at whoever happened to be on the platform you just passed. You never get to go back to those games because the train never stops. I’ve thrown a lot of games out of the window.

I have so many wonderful games that I simply don’t play because game-night is a work-night. It’s a night for the hustle. Gotta generate content. Gotta keep moving. Gotta keep the word mill grinding. Over the past few weeks though I’ve had a chance to play some games just for fun and it’s been revelatory. It’s like cleaning a dusty window in your head to find the light shining in once more.

The hustle of Meeple Like Us is worthwhile I think, because there’s no other site like this for board gamers. The funding that our patrons provide mean that we have the opportunity to pick up games for analysis without being dependant on publishers. That just can’t be allowed to come at the expense of my hobby. I need to get these things back into alignment. I need to be able to enjoy games again. I need to work on recentering myself.

I ask for your indulgence as I do.

Conclusion

Meeple Like Us will be going on hiatus from April 1st, 2020 to July 1st, 2020. I need time to relax without the crushing schedule of content production that I have laboured beneath for the past four years.

I appreciate that means that I risk alienating patrons and supporters of the site, because crowdfunding comes with no spaces for self-care built into its model. However, I have to work under the assumption that nobody wants the husk of a burnt-out editor typing listless obligations into WordPress. I have to believe that support for the site is provided with an eye to its long term sustainability.

Assuming that our patrons are willing to grant us the room to refresh ourselves and come back feeling bright and enthusiastic, Meeple Like Us will reappear with a different schedule that gives me room to balance my hobby and my hustle. If not, we’ll be finishing up with whatever review copies for which we have obligations to cover, and then we’ll turn the site into an occasional platform for occasional thoughts.

I want to find the joy in board gaming again, and I think this is the form that the search has to take for now.

 

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