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Your stack of shame is a lantern for your future, and a gift to the industry

We call it a few different things. The backlog. The stack of shame. Maybe you don't have a name for it, and you simply watch it grow while feeling guilty about your buying habits.

Many of us have experienced the odd sensation of seeing our time grow scarcer than our ability to purchase new games.

A recent infographic supports this feeling with hard data: 1,400 players were asked about their buying habits, and 40 percent of their games purchased in the past year have gone unplayed. The average person in this sample only purchases 20 percent of their games at full price. This hobby is filled with people who enjoy a bargain, and we'll take part in it even if we can't get to the content in a reasonable amount of time.

So should we be ashamed? Do we need better strategies when it comes to dealing with our backlog? Is it time to get our spending under control and try to play the games we own? Of course not. The system is working just fine, thank you, and it's time to stop pretending otherwise.

The power of a sale

A few changes in technology have made it simple to grow our backlog, and these changes have also made that backlog nearly invisible. Think of the roomy hard drive on your gaming PC as the second freezer you keep in the basement or garage. Those of you who came from families with many children or parents with a strong sense of a bargain may know what I'm talking about.

We don't have to see the boxes of games piled into a corner when it comes to PC games or Steam sales. Buying ten games you haven't played on sale is the gaming equivalent of stocking up on beef stock when the prices are low. The overage goes out to the deep freeze, safe until it's needed. Or maybe it will sit out there for years. It simply makes sense, when storage is a commodity, to double-down on things you want when the prices are lowest.

So we buy games when they're half off, or more. We stock up for a long winter that may never come, or the dreamed-of weekend where the only thing we'll have to do is play games. Or perhaps a weekday home from work due to illness, a blessed excuse to go swimming in your backlog in order to get your mind off the temporary weakness of your body.

We know that somewhere out there in the future there will be moments where we have more free time than normal, and we double down when the deals are good and the storage is ample. We're being rational actors, taking advantage of changes in the gaming environment. Nothing wrong there.

But of course the future is dark, and there are always less opportunities to game than we had assumed. So we may not get to these games for a long time. If this data is correct, nearly half of the games we buy may not be played in the next year.

The answer is simple: Stop caring about when you'll play a game.

Lanterns in our future, support for the present

We respect people with large libraries of books, but we tend to look down on people with shelves and shelves of games. But picking up The Novelist on sale isn't an act of an addicted person, or a player with more money than sense. We don't need to waggle our finger at people who buy Divekick without playing it.

Buying games on sale can feel like sending a message in a bottle to possible future versions of yourself.

These purchases are also a vote for that content. When a smaller game with a limited marketing budget goes on sale, sometimes steeply, people ask about it. That game becomes an impulse buy.

The Steam community sale of PixelJunk Eden earned Q Games the same amount the game had made in total since its launch. There's a reason developers are keen to be a part of these sales: In some cases they can provide a much-needed shot in the arm for revenue.

I once asked a well-known personality behind a well-known game for his thoughts about the theory that these frequent sales devalued indie games, and he began to laugh so hard he choked on his drink.

This is the sort of devaluing that most developers pray for: The only thing worse than paying less for a game on sale is to not pay anything, and even if you don't play the games you buy you can comfort yourself by saying you're helping to fund the creation of that company's next venture. Steam sales lead to revenue, and that revenue is often substantial.

Remember that the people who would have bought the game at full price have done so. Don't feel guilty about buying games you may or may not play on sale. The money you spend on the game, not to mention the mindshare gained if you play it or tell friends, has a large value to those people who worked on the title.

But let's throw out all the good things buying games on sale does for the industry, and focus instead on what it does for us. Many readers go to places like Half-Priced Books to stock up on all sorts of reading material, from trashy paperbacks to more highbrow literature. In fact, stores of used books make it easy and affordable to leave with piles of things to read, and many times those books go straight into someone's library instead of the nightstand. Readers are all too familiar with the stack of shame.

There's an old saying that goes something like this: When the pupil is ready, the master will appear. I've found that holds true for games and books as well. When I buy something that I know I won't read or play in the next few days, if not the next year, it feels like I'm lighting a lantern and gently pushing it into my own future. It's easy to imagine an evening, and perhaps it will take years, when I rediscover that I bought a book, or in this case a game, and will spend hours lost inside it.

Maybe you're not ready for the pace of a game like Gone Home today, but you can never tell when the game will satisfy an itch you don't know you had. Buying games on sale allows us to browse our own selections, be surprised at something we had forgotten we had bought, and find that finally, we're ready for that game.

I don't even remember when I picked up Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but I finally read it on a whim last month, and fell in love. This doesn't have to happen with highbrow games or books: I picked up some collections of Mad Magazine during a long-forgotten trip to a used book store, and my son only recently fell into them with abandon.

Buying games on sale can feel like sending a message in a bottle to possible future versions of yourself, but finding and opening those bottles, and having them enrich your life, is like nothing else. It's an investment in our own future, and it helps support the industry today.

There's nothing wrong with your backlog, as long as you're not going into debt to buy games you may not play in the near future. You shouldn't be ashamed of the stack of games that seem interesting but remain unplayed. They won't spoil. They will be there when you need them. And the people who made the games? They're more than happy to have your money and interest.

Your backlog isn't a source of shame, but a matter of pride; it's a well-stocked library from which you can take comfort, a pile of blankets waiting for a cold night.

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