How I (Gradually) Became Less Obsessive About Playing Video Games
There are little mentions all through this site of how I used to play video games a little too obsessively when I was younger. A few people have asked me how I managed to cut down, so I'll talk about it here. I'll be clear about what this article is and isn't:
- This is one of those 'personal reflections' articles, it's not meant to be universal advice that will apply to everyone.
- This article won't lay out a plan to cut down on your gaming. There was never a time where my life was in tatters, I had hit rock bottom, and decided I had to make drastic changes to my gaming habits. The amount I played went down gradually and a large reason for this was due to my interests and lifestyle changing, rather than my consciously trying to play less. That's not to say it doesn't have any useful ideas in it though, it's just in a more indirect form than, "Do x,y,z'."
- I have nothing against games themselves, they're super fun. In moderation they're great. The problem is when you play them to the exclusion of everything and miss out on other opportunities.
- I definitely over did it a lot when I was younger, but I was never a hopeless addict of the kind you read about in articles referring to EverQuest or World of Warcraft. I also never did hardcore challenges like trying to beat a game with the least amount of items or keeping all my characters at level 1. I was more of a run-of-the-mill, moderately obsessive completist/level gainer type who had little outside life.
- I mainly played console RPGs, action games, and adventure games.
- I didn't play many games on a PC, since I never had particularly fast computers growing up.
- I've never really played much online either.
- I've never played an MMORPG (God help me if they were around when I was 15)
- Like I said, this can't be some one-size-fits-all thing. I have an idea, but I'll never totally get what it's like to be hooked on an online game. What I have to say may not apply to your situation.
- I still love video games, I'm just more of a casual gamer now. I follow game related news fairly regularly, and I get a kick out of watching speed runs, but I'll have periods of not actually playing anything for months at a time. Then a great game will come along that I'll just have to play. I'll get it, binge on it for three days straight, beat it, then not pick up the controller for another long while.
So here's how I cut down:
I graduated from high school and went away to college
This incorporates a lot of things, which I'll go into more detail later. I think high school is particularly conducive to playing games too obsessively:
- Someone else is paying for the games, or you can buy them yourself with all your disposable income.
- You have lots of free time.
- You may be more obsessive when you're younger.
- You haven't been playing games long enough to grow out of them yet.
- You don't have to worry about food, rent, a 'real job' or any of those problems.
I still played more than my fair share of games once I started college, but it's not the same as being in a little bubble where the rest of your needs are taken care of and you can just sit in the basement in front of the TV all day with no real concerns.
I didn't have a ton of money in college
I had my own place and paid my own expenses in university, so I didn't have a ton of spare cash. That meant that I didn't buy games very often, and I only ever bought a new system when it had been out for a few years and the price had come way down. Forget buying a computer able to play the newest games either. Mine was always a few years behind and only really suited for writing papers and browsing the internet.
My tastes matured and I starting seeing a lot of video game elements as cheesy
I remember when I used to think RPGs had really profound, well-written stories. Over time I came to see them as cliched and comic bookish. Plot twists that used to make me drop my jaw in amazement now made me roll my eyes. Over-the-top cut scenes make me groan. If I was younger I'd have thought they were awesome. I'll still play a game in spite of these things if it's good enough, but it's one small way they stopped having such a central role in my life.
I outgrew my youthful obsessiveness somewhat
I've got this amateur pet theory, and I may be totally wrong about it; The teenage brain isn't fully developed yet, and it may be that when you're younger something about the way you're wired just makes you more prone to obsessive, repetitive playing. There could be other explanations, but whatever the reason, I found as I got older I lost my enjoyment of doing things like killing the same monsters for hours on end to level up my characters or acquire items. When I was in high school I almost liked mindless grinding. It was strangely relaxing and comforting in a way. Now I can't grind unless there's really something good in it for me (e.g., the challenging bosses capturing all those monsters in Final Fantasy X unlocks), and even then I'll probably only half be paying attention.
I started being satisfied just playing a game through once
When I was younger I'd often play through the same lengthy game two or three times. I enjoyed replaying and re-experiencing everything again, or going through a second time and really getting it all right that time. Now I find that once I've played through a game a single time I have little desire to do it all again.
I started renting games more often*
*(Since I first wrote this article this point has become a bit outdated, since there aren't as many places to rent games as there used to be.)
This jives with the point above. At some point I realized most games could easily be beaten in a week or less, so what was the point of buying them? If a game was shorter, I'd just rent it, beat it, then never touch it again. I'd occasionally buy a game if I really thought I'd play it a lot, or I wanted to support the company, but mostly I was content to go through once and return it to the store.
Also, when I owned a game and had nothing to do all day, it was only natural that I tried to get every last ounce of value out of it to pass the time. Maybe I'd have accomplished all the main quests and the only things remaining were lengthy, grinding, largely pointless goals (e.g., getting all 100 of some item hidden all over the world, going after rare weapons that required tons of tedious farming to attain, maxing out all your character's stats just because, etc). When you're just renting a game you never get time to do this stuff.
I had other things to do
In high school I pretty much had no life and wasn't very well-rounded so I devoted a lot of my time to gaming. Like I mentioned above, when I had tons of free time I ended up doing lots of time-intensive completist tasks because it made the hours go by. After high school other demands started creeping in: jobs, school assignments, other hobbies, some semblance of a social life, and eventually a steady girlfriend. Again, I still had lots of obsessive moments in college, but they gradually diminished in frequency.
I started doing things that were just as fun as gaming, or better
Okay, gaming will always be fun, but when I started to get some other hobbies going on, those started to compete for my attention. Hunkering down in front of a screen didn't have the monopoly over me it used to. Making a cartoony character collect lots of knick knacks across various quirky 3D levels lost some of its luster. It became, "What would I rather do?!? Go meet my friends at a restaurant or sit at home?" Gaming became more of something to fill my down time.
I got to a point where I had played enough games of a genre that they all started seeming the same
I've played most of the good SNES RPGs, on cartridges when I was in high school, and from fan-translated ROMs in college. I've also played a lot of the good PlayStation RPGs, but had to skip just as many because of money or time issues. By the time the PlayStation 2 came around I couldn't be bothered to play anything other than the stuff with the best reputation.
It's not that I think the older games were more worth playing, it's just that underneath the new graphics, RPGs haven't changed all that much. There was a time when I started getting bored with the whole formula. I'd start up a new game and wearily think, "Oh man, now I have to play through five hours of opening story, walking around my home town, and short, basic dungeons before things start picking up." Another way my interest levels dropped a bit.
I started getting more picky about what I'd play. I'd rather play one great, original game on occasion than play new mediocre stuff every day
Like with anything, once you've been around for a while, you start getting more choosy. When I was a kid I'd play anything you'd put in front of me. Now I'm more selective. I'll happily play an instant-classic, highly-rated, groundbreaking game, but if something gets those 7.0's upon review, or seems like more of the same, I won't bother with it. I'd rather do something else. I'm sure I turn down some genuinely good stuff because of my skepticism towards new things, but I can live with it if it means I've cut down my playing hours on the whole.
I realized that I have obsessive tendencies and tried to hold off on playing until I had lots of free time
If the next Dark Souls game magically appeared in my apartment right now, I would without a doubt play it non-stop until I'd beaten it. I'd sleep for 5-6 hours a night, but otherwise it would mostly be staring at the TV with burning eyes. I wouldn't be able to help it. I'd realize I was playing too much at the time, and I'd feel sketched out when it was all over, but I'd still be compelled to play for 'half an hour more...'.
I know that's what I'm like, so I'll keep away from games when I don't have the time for them. Honestly, I envy the types of people who only like pick-up-and-play sports or racing games and would never get sucked into lengthy RPGs the way I do. On the other hand, if I have a few days off and my friends aren't really around, I have no problem with picking up a rental and binging a bit.
I stopped playing when other people were around
Before, if I was in the middle of a new game and there were people around, I'd go to my room and play anyway, or use that thin excuse of, "This game is awesome, watch me play it." Now, I've set a rule in my mind that I'll give it rest if other people are around. A lot of this is just accepting that the game isn't going anywhere. It's easy to say, but it takes a while for it to really sink in. Sometimes it's hard to spend seven hours with people when you're dying to get back to where you left off at the last save point, but...yeah, it's not going anywhere.
I started preferring shorter games
As fun as some games are, they really can be time sinks. Even if the experience was promised to be awesome throughout, I started becoming more reluctant to commit 50+ hours of my life to anything. I knew I was the 'play until it's done' type, so 50 hours really means 'dropping off the planet for a week straight'. I started gravitating more towards the 10-hour, or shorter, games. I'll still play longer games, but I find they take a lot out of me. Even when I try my best to spread them out, my tendency to play them through in one go often gets the upper hand.
If I just want to see something neat in the game, I'll watch a video
Sometimes I'll want to play a game not so much to really play it as to see a small amount of relatively interesting content. Nowadays I can just go to YouTube or Speed Demos Archive and watch a video of it.
Also, sometimes if I'm really jonesing to play a certain game, but I don't feel like having my life disappear into a blur for the next week, I'll watch some videos and spoil everything for myself. Once I've seen all the good stuff my urge to play usually goes away. Sometimes this backfires on me though and makes me want to play more. That's fine though, because it means it'll probably be worth my time.
And that's largely why I play fewer games today. Like I said in the intro, I'm still into gaming in general, I just don't spend all my free time doing it. A large part of this was slowly evolving different tastes. This may apply to you as well. You may just need a little while to get your current gaming enthusiasm out of your system. Maybe one day you'll get tired of playing so much. Otherwise, what I think helped me the most was:
- Being aware of my obsessive tendencies and trying to work around them (e.g., renting over buying, not having access to new consoles or an upgraded computer, binging occasionally instead of playing constantly, avoiding games I think I may lose large chunks of my life to, spoiling games for myself to reduce my need to play them).
- Just having something better to do than play games, or having other equally fun interests vying for my time.
- Saying to myself that it was fine to play games, but only when I didn't have other priorities to take care of first.