When I was young I received, on average, two games per year. One was given to me for Christmas. The second for my birthday. Outside of a few rentals and games I was able to borrow from friends and family, that was it.
It was the best time of my gaming life.
Every game was finished, and finishing the game didn't happen when the credits rolled. It happened when every level could be beaten nearly by memory, and as many secrets as possible were found. It was mastery by way of necessity, because I was obsessed with games and the supply was handily outstripped by my enthusiasm.
A bad decision about which games to ask for would make for an interesting wait until the next milestone holiday and, with a July birthday, the year was neatly bifurcated by these presents. I still have the timing and movement needed to catch every fly with the chopsticks in the Karate Kid NES game burned into my brain. I played that minigame so many times it was more muscle memory than skill.
One year my grandmother decided to buy me Taboo, which was a Tarot card simulator. This was something close to a minor tragedy in my very young life, but that didn't stop me from giving myself reading after reading. I never developed a taste for divination, but if someone were to have given me a cooking game during this time in my life I have no doubt I would have turned into a miniature Jiro simply due to repetition of the game's instructions.
Fast forward to today
Like many adults I find that the budgetary limitation of how many games to buy has been at least partially relaxed, but the amount of time I have in which to play games has never been more limited. The situation is only exacerbated by my choice of career, which means some games are provided by the developer or publisher, and even games paid for out of my personal budget are tax deductible.
I realize, writing this, that I sound insufferable. I have too many games, and the pile is only growing. This should not be a "problem." But it is. Or at least it feels that way.
It's not a measure of gaming less, but of playing fewer games
But it's not like this is a situation limited to those of us who play games professionally. Free-to-play games make it easy to get a big group of your friends together to play a new release, and Steam sales and rapidly falling prices on new releases mean that, on average, we're paying much less per game. I've put a dangerous amount of time into Rocket League this year, for instance, and that game came free with my PlayStation Plus subscription. My second most-played game of 2015 is likely Heroes of the Storm, a game that is simply free if you don't mind grinding for heroes.
"Take my younger son to an ice cream parlor or restaurant if you really want to torture him," a New York Times article about choice stated. "He has to make a choice, and that’s one thing he hates. Would chocolate chip or coffee chunk ice cream be better? The cheeseburger or the turkey wrap? His fear, he says, is that whatever he selects, the other option would have been better."
Comedian Aziz Ansari's book Modern Romance is a fascinating meditation on how nearly unlimited, not to mention frictionless, opportunities for connection due to dating apps and social media may be driving us a bit nutty. The Paradox of Choice is a much-discussed book about how more consumer choice leads to indecision and unhappiness, not happiness. We're beset on all sides by choices in modern life, and the choice of what to play is no different.
An evening tracking down all the optional tombs in Rise of the Tomb Raider should be a satisfying evening, but instead I'm keenly aware that I'm not finishing Assassin's Creed Syndicate. Finishing Undertale means that I'm neglecting my friends who are playing Counter-Strike in the evening. Every decision feels impossible, as if one were turning down an unlimited number of games rather than picking one to play.
The one hour or less I may have to play games in the evening has turned into a source of stress, not relief.
It's not a measure of gaming less, as the volume of time spent playing games will hopefully stay the same, if not increase a bit as the babies in the house get older. It's more about spending more time per game, making sure to finish what I start while also going back to fully explore each game even if the game's story has concluded.
I may have seen the "ending" to Just Cause 3, for example, but I'd love to find the time to go back and finish upgrading all my abilities while exploring what little of the map remains unseen.
But instead I've moved onto not just another game, but a few different games. This seems nearly gluttonous in a year where one could happily buy Bloodborne and Fallout 4 and likely never need to buy another game for at least a few months. Instead many of us rush onto the next in some silly attempt to avoid missing out on the next big thing.
I don't think I'll be able to recreate a world in which I only play two games a year, but there's no doubt that I was more content with my gaming time with less choice in those days. There has to be a happy medium. By giving myself fewer choices of what to play, rather than more, I hope to find it. I want to spend more time mastering games and enjoying my time within them rather than watching the clock, anxious to move onto the next thing. This means I may never get to some games in 2016.
I think that will be a good thing.