Breaking Up with Games That Never End

I seem to have quit Hearthstone.

Last month I traveled to visit family in New Jersey and my intentions were to be mindful and focus on quality time with my wife, son and extended family. Squeezing in Hearthstone games to knock out Daily or Weekly Quests did not seem aligned with the “quality family time” value so I took a break from opening up the app on my phone.

I have not opened Hearthstone in weeks and it feels – liberating.

Like more and more games in the past decade, Hearthstone is a game that never ends. One could say that Chess never ends either, though Chess does not have the allure of frequent expansions that promise new pieces and mechanics to revitalize the game. Hearthstone resides in a perpetual state of being…. there. I rarely played while sitting at a computer even though I dabbled here and there with streaming it. It’s been primarily a phone game for me – jamming games while on a walk, eating lunch, watching sports in the background, and likely between many other activities that I should have my full attention.

It’s fair to say Hearthstone became a habit (not an addiction), and that habit is now broken. Interfering with the behavioral chain has given me some space to decide if I want to return to the game. I still follow the same community of players and developers online and know a new expansion is on the horizon, which promises a new Tradeable mechanic that will introduce more deck-building strategy and in-game decision making. I find myself not terribly interested, and again that feels pretty good.

Similar to how I’m evaluating my relationship to tabletop roleplaying games, I’m examining what I get out of playing Hearthstone these days. There is a bit of fun to be had; it’s nice to win games and check off Quests. There has always been a nagging question with Hearthstone though, “To what end?” I had some fantasies about becoming a Hearthstone streaming personality and never seriously worked to make that happen. I’ve likely spent $1,000 or more on the game and my digital collection of cards is worthless; I cannot sell them or trade them in for anything else. That money did provide a good deal of entertainment over the years, though should I really devote so much time to playing the same game for a year – or five?

Or forever?

How and When to Cut Ties with a Game That Never Ends

My goal is not to decry Hearthstone; it remains a fine game and there are talented, dedicated people who are attempting to make it the best product it can be. After playing the game for years and achieving the goal of hitting Legend, the game feels stale TO ME. The repetition of expansion release, honing in on a deck or two to learn, absorbing changes to new and past cards, and hoping I had enough dust to field more than one competitive deck got increasingly expensive and frustrating. I stopped pre-ordering expansions over a year ago, and that also changed what I felt comfortable playing. Since I no longer had a collection that allowed me to field more than one competitive deck in Standard per expansion, I moved to Wild. It remained fun for some time though the returns were diminishing.

Hearthstone has moved away from the base competitive card game to more of a platform for a variety of game types. Years ago, Dungeon Run was introduced and I loved that concept. They brought it back as its own Mode to play, and I could never quite adjust to it; it felt like racing to unlock the most-broken combination you could find. I never excelled at Arena and Battlegrounds did not work well on mobile early and the games were too long of a commitment. Hearthstone was offering more for players and appealing to a variety of play styles – though the one I was most interested in became more tedious.

Card collecting ceased being fun a long time ago. I used to be energized by unlocking Card Backs, and the allure of that pursuit decreased. Collecting a full set for an expansion was never a meaningful, worthwhile or achievable endeavor. The majority of cards were often not competitive for Standard, and within a few weeks, the key Legendary cards that were important would come to light. It became a matter of collecting enough dust to craft those cards so a competitive deck could be created. Until recently, there were not any perks for collecting subsets of cards; the new point system increases the reward though it is mostly superficial.

Another element of the game that has changed is the competitive side seemed to take a major blow in terms of how strongly it was considered and promoted. Championships became difficult to find online and rankings, rules, and tournaments seem to go through a constant blender of change. I’m sure there are high-level, fascinating games between pro players taking place quite often though my attention is no longer there because I have less knowledge of the personalities and the cards/decks they are playing.

It’s been a spiral out of the hobby for over a year and it feels really good to reclaim the time. The spiral went something like this:

  • Too expensive to maintain multiple competitive decks
  • Lowering my financial investment in the game
  • Adjusting play style to accommodate the weaker card collection
  • Lack of time and/or interest in new play modes
  • Loss of interest in spectating the competitive scene
  • Less interaction with high-level play
  • Increased middling play as my financial and time investment decreased
  • Questioning why I continue to play

Which brings us full circle to deciding to take a break while in New Jersey last month. I am not advocating that everyone should quit Hearthstone. By no means! If you enjoy it, then continue to have a blast. I follow folks on social media that devote a staggering amount of time to Hearthstone as a hobby; they play, record podcasts, post videos, stream, and create spreadsheets with data. Keep doing your things!

Whether it is Hearthstone or another game that never ends (i.e, Warcraft, Overwatch, Rocket League, Magic: The Gathering, and so on), it is good to monitor what you are putting into the game (money, time) and what you are getting out of the game (community, mastery, joy). One relatively simple exercise that I would suggest is to consider an EXPERIMENT to hit pause on the chain of behaviors that reinforces playing.

Developers are becoming increasingly savvy about grabbing the attention of a player. Hearthstone has Daily Quests; a simple yet elegant reinforcement strategy that has likely kept me attached to the game for years more than I needed to be. Hearthstone does not reward you for signing in each day; it encourages you to play through a variety of objectives that should not take too much time. Complete the Daily Quest, and you are rewarded with a small bit of gold to use for purchasing new packs or other items.

That is it; that’s the hook.

Hearthstone captures your DAILY attention. It’s no longer a game you play when you have time or something you pull up only on weekends with buddies – it’s a routine. It’s like brushing your teeth, or if you’re me, it’s something you did WHILE brushing your teeth. Refusing to knock out those Daily (and now Weekly) Quests feels like you are LOSING something. By not completing the Quests, which requires playing the game, the player is in theory forfeiting gold that could be spent on new packs and other goodies.

The convenience of Hearthstone is massive to its popularity, and the Daily Quests encourage players to participate in the game at least once a day. It can become a strong habit, and there can be a good deal of resistance to breaking that chain of behaviors once it gets established.

As a result, saying, “I’m quitting Hearthstone” or any specific game that never ends is a bold and challenging task. Instead, create a goal that is much smaller and attainable such as, “I’m going to see what it’s like to take a break from Hearthstone for a week.”

Treat it like it’s an experiment, and be open to the possibilities. Maybe the game that’s been in your pocket for years is a must-have experience that provides comfort and joy. And maybe that game is sucking up time and attention that could be used eslewhere.

Maybe a bit of both!

You’ll never know until you stop the behavior chain in games that are viscously fighting for your attention with rewards, time-limited events, seasons, rankings, expansions, cosmetics, and whatever marketing and psychological gimmicks/strategies they can muster.

Might you have a problematic relationship with a game? Press PAUSE and find out.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

6 thoughts on “Breaking Up with Games That Never End”

  1. My addiction was World of Tanks. I was in the top 5% but could never get any higher.

    Video games offer an instant gratification and sense of accomplishment. You want to feel that feeling you are really good over and over. It’s a cheap way to feel good in the moment but it’s also addictive.

    1. I have spoken with some people that play World of Tanks. I’ve cycled through a few mobile games that pull at your attention; I’ve been able to extract myself from most of them rather quickly. The games that combine some collecting elements stick around a bit longer; or if the actual gameplay is fun. I stuck around with Marvel Puzzle Quest for way longer than I needed thought!

  2. I have played Hearthstone for several years, and though I’ve occasionally considered taking a break or putting it down, I’ve never taken that step. I usually enjoy the game quite a lot, but I agree that I’m in that mindset that I have to log in every couple of days to clear quests, and I feel antsy if I don’t hit Legend in at least one format.

    I recently enrolled in an MFA program and my wife and I are adopting kids, so as I look at how I am spending my time, I am forced to admit that pressing ‘Pause’ on my Hearthstone habit is very likely a necessity, so that I can have time for more important activities. I won’t eliminate all personal entertainment from my life, but stepping off the treadmill of chasing the latest shiny thing in Hearthstone will reclaim a lot of time that I can spend more meaningfully.

    1. It might, and probably worth exploring. I like the “experiment” approach because you give yourself an opportunity to find out one way or the other.

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