Games are intended to entertain and provide relief from the drudgery of daily life. Whether you’re a teenager who needs a reprieve from school, an adult taking a break at work, or an elder who likes to play a few rounds of Candy Crush after a vigorous day at the book club, games are a surefire method to reduce stress. Except, of course, when those same games end up causing the stress you’re trying to escape. 

What is intended to be an escapist fantasy — slaying dragons, flying fighter jets, masterminding the exact placement of blocks — can instead turn into a nightmarishly boring slog of slaying one more dragon, unlocking one more aircraft, and placing one more block. Addiction, obligation, and other negative factors can turn a nostalgic pastime into a mind-numbing chore. 

When playing your favorite games feels like signing up for an extra shift at work, it’s hard to not make the comparison between the two. How do the stresses of overgaming compare to the stresses of overworking? Can we learn from what we know about “burnout” to avoid “game over?”

Long, Grueling Hours

One of the most common complaints in any workplace is the inflexibility of a demanding schedule. If you expect to be home by six to relax with your loved ones, being obligated to take an extra hour of mandatory overtime can instantly stress you out. Being asked to come in early due to the holiday crunch, or otherwise sacrifice your personal time to meet corporate goals, can feel thankless, inconsiderate, and borderline cruel.

Likewise, even your favorite games can be surprisingly inconsiderate of your time. Being asked to come in over the holidays if you want that unique seasonal skin can interfere with your other plans, and timed events are aplenty even in casual games. If you don’t click that cookie one million times before midnight, you lose a permanent buff to your progression, so no sleeping or relaxing or playing other games, keep going well past the stressing point.

Hostile Work and Play Place

Have you ever had a job where the boss was unapproachable and refused to take feedback? It can be hard to give your all when nobody higher up cares to notice, and yet despite that, many developers and game designers take the same “hands-off” approach to player interaction. If you get in on the ground floor, maybe the boss will favor you with special treatment, but if you’re a late adopter, good luck requesting changes or making suggestions to fix issues.

Knowing that your voice isn’t being heard despite your contributions is a known major source of stress in the workplace. Even when you make comparable offerings to your favorite game developers, lending them your time and expertise, you may find yourself in that same rut of “I like the culture here, but…” dissatisfaction and stress.

Job Security and Promotions

Let’s be real. When we work, it’s in exchange for opportunities — more money, more resources, more recognition, and growth. When we game, we want the same things — more loot, more equipment, more prestige, and levels. However, many games adopt a tactic straight out of HR 101, of stringing you along with empty promises to keep you invested, without ever giving you something to show for it. 

Where’s that 0.001% drop rate legendary sword you were promised when you first entered this zone? Over time, that “sunk cost” feeling can stress you out by making you feel “stuck” at a worksite or game. Furthermore, there is an existential element of not knowing how long any opportunity in a game will last, forcing you to push harder and harder to try and accomplish the goals before your window of time is gone. 

A new promotion opening up in September? Work harder from January to August and risk having nothing to show for it. A “limited time” zone or event with a very rare item drop? Keep grinding away every day, you never know when it’ll be gone and you’ll have nothing to show for it. Work and play stress are remarkably similar when you compare them side by side like this. 
If you feel like your favorite pastimes are quickly becoming an unpaid occupation, with countless restless hours sunk into the next milestone before you can relax, you may benefit from a sleep and stress test to help determine what’s causing your restless nights. Whether you’re just one more playlist away from the LASO Master achievement in Halo or five minutes away from the closing whistle at the factory, however, knowing how to manage your stress is key to maintaining peak performance.