One of the beautiful things about studying foreign languages is that you discover a lot of phrases built to concisely convey concepts that English doesn’t have a translation for. Japanese is a gold mine in this regard. Boketto describes the act of gazing listlessly into the distance without thinking. Koi No Yokan is the feeling that you will eventually fall in love with someone that you just met. One of my favourites though, is Tsundoku. A contraction of tsunde-oku, meaning to pile things up and leave them for later, and dokusho, the act of reading books, it describes a person who buys books to read later but they end up in piles around their house. As silly as it sounds, when its put into a concise form like this it takes on a kind of romantic imagery for me. It makes me visualise a really comfy home, or a preloved second-hand bookstore, with mahogany everywhere and thin windy staircases crowded with stacks of leather volumes. But the idea behind Tsundoku can also easily be applied to the medium of video games. What about the dreaded gaming pile of shame? What about digital Tsundoku?
At the time of me writing this, there are currently 498 games in my Steam library. A few are stand-alone DLCs, or HD remakes of games which I also own, but even taking those into account that’s a lot of software. I’ve been collecting physical games for almost 10 years, to the point where my consoles and games have taken up the majority of useable space in my bedroom, and I still don’t think there would be 500 unique games there. The PC is such a robust and friendly platform for developers, and games are so varied and accessible to the average consumer, that it’s impossible to imagine any other platform matching it for output.
But ok, I’ve got a lot of games. What’s the issue? A cursory glance through my library reveals that I’ve played approximately 75 of those games, and completed even fewer. That’s roughly 15%. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that Australian families waste about 14% of their food purchased per year, and that constitutes a mild national crisis, so clearly me wasting 75% of my digital gaming software is a problem worth at least dissecting. Of course, food generally consists of perishable items, whilst games purchased through digital distribution services like Steam stay attached to your account forever, but I would argue this non-perishability is one symptom of why so many gamers like me have such ridiculously large backlogs, and continue to purchase games knowing fully that they are never going to play them. A report by Ars Technica in 2014 used random sampling to conduct a massive trawling of publicly available Steam accounts and collate the data on game ownership versus playtime. The results will probably not surprise you. They found that of all the 781 million games registered to Steam accounts, 26% had never been played, and 45% had been played for less than 1 hour!
And on some level, I understand this. It’s easy to buy games on sale with the mentality that you will play it later but never do. Recently I purchased the Daedalic adventure game bundle through Humble Bundle. Are there arguably better games sitting in my library right now that I could play instead? I currently have Nier: Automata, Crusader Kings II, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, Owlboy, LISA AND Dark Souls III installed and haven’t finished any of them. And from what I played they are all good games. Am I a fan of Daedalic or want to play any of the games in that bundle in particular? No. But it was four games for $1USD and at that price point it’s hard to think of reasons not to part with your cash. I’ve spoken to a lot of people and be they consumers of games, television or movies, the consensus seems to be that we are spoiled for choice of content these days. And despite this, or perhaps in part because of it, people can be lazy when it comes to consuming media and prefer to retreat to the comfort of their favourite series, Youtuber or video game instead of trying something new.
The ubiquity of cheap games available on digital distribution services such as Steam, GOG and Humble Bundle means it has never been a better time to be a PC gamer. It was only 10 years ago that gamers were beholden to pricing of retail chains to acquire the new hotness, meaning that only those fortunate enough to have a lot of disposable income could afford to play more than a few $60 – $100AUD games bought at full RRP per year. But I would argue that today, primarily due to the explosion of independent developers, endless sandbox and lifestyle type games and the revival of a multitude of previously niche genres like survival horror and twin stick shooters, we have reached a tipping point. The rate of at least decent games being released, and the average playtime of those games, far exceeds the capacity of free time that any reasonable person might have to experience them all. We are consumers of an artistic medium in which there is more quality content being produced than is reasonably able to be consumed, and that content is more widely available and affordable than ever.
However, the problem of gamer backlogs is inherently an odd one because its born from a set of circumstances which themselves are generally positive. A more free and open market creates competition and breeds creativity. This is positive for consumers, allowing them a greater range of content to choose from at a lower price point. So, whilst the general climate of PC gaming is pretty positive right now, as a consequence of that I think that PC gamers have a developed a sense of entitlement about what they think they should be paying for their games. Anything that doesn’t meet the requirements of that entitlement can get ignored, which can push what might otherwise have been a popular and interesting game down into obscurity. And I’m as guilty of this as anyone.
In 2016, Numinous Games released an independent story driven game called That Dragon, Cancer. I remember hearing an interview with the lead designer Ryan Green prior to the games release and being taken in by his passion for conveying the raw emotions he felt whilst going through the suffering of his young son Joel with terminal cancer. I was eager to pick it up and be privy to the emotional experience that the developer wanted to share with their audience. I would say overall the game was of a high quality objectively, well produced for its budget and conveying some heavy emotional hits by focusing on the simple mundane aspects of everyday life caring for a loved one whilst framing them within fantastical and esoteric levels. But I’m almost ashamed to say that my overall experience was sullied by the fact that the game took only 2 hours to complete. This is the kind of game that doesn’t require much player agency. There are certainly hidden parts of the story to find, but overall the player is there to be told a story. An admittedly heart wrenching and memorable story, but not one that they have any control over. It’s a walking simulator. And whilst I have enjoyed those in the past, the fact that I paid $15USD for it left a bad taste in my mouth. In the end, I let an arbitrary metric of hours/dollar affect my impression of a heartfelt piece of art.
This wasn’t supposed to become a discussion on game length versus price, but I think it’s indicative of the kind of entitlement that gamers can exhibit in an environment where even good games are routinely bundled together or sold for a fraction of their cost only months after release. When the cycle of game releases becomes less about the traditional release seasons and more of a constant drip feed of quality titles, consumers are less incentivised to buy games immediately as they come out, as there are most likely older games that they have had their eye on or already own that they can play instead. The gaming market is fragmented, between platforms and genres. Small communities can spring up around a games fandom and keep the excitement and discussion about that game going for months if not years. I recently played Dark Souls 1 for the first time, and was delighted that I could still play with people online and discuss tactics and jokes with people on reddit who were still supporting the game. Today the worst consequence you get for not buying a game at launch is that you might not understand a few memes? So, the fear of missing out on the hype of a new release is reduced, but what remains is the fear of missing out on a good deal, and this can be seen in the plethora of steam sale memes that flood my social media every few months or so.
The combination of these elements creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that I believe hampers the potential success, perhaps not of the biggest AAA releases, who have enough marketing and hype surrounding them that they will sell well regardless, but of the AA and independent titles. Backlogs can be a problem for a few other reasons as well. Firstly, it’s poor consumer practice and comes down to a matter of quality versus quantity. Money that you think you are saving on products that you don’t use isn’t saved, it’s wasted. Even though there is no cost to you to let a game sit in your library, most people have a set amount of disposable income which they feel comfortable blowing on non-essential leisure products. Spending this money on video games, of which only a small portion get played, and telling yourself that you will play the rest at some indeterminate point in the future is worse than buying a game that you really want now and playing it whilst your excitement is still fresh. Not that it isn’t good to be a patient consumer, it definitely can be, but sales are designed to attract people and make them feel savvy. This desire to grab games while they are cheap leads many consumers to purchase multiple games they only partially want as opposed to a potentially full priced, new release game they are genuinely excited to play.
Additionally, when you purchase a game online or a physical copy, it isn’t exactly analogous to when your mum goes to Haven and Space and comes back with an assortment of bizarre throw pillows and a ceramic cast of a French bulldog. Games aren’t trinkets or trophies, they are high tech pieces of creative expression, they are toys built for people of all ages. Games are designed, often with a lot of hard work and sacrifice behind the scenes, to be experienced and enjoyed. By buying a game and letting it sit in your steam library, you are in a sense disrespecting the work of the author by turning their complex and toiled over creation into a digital trinket. And you’re not learning anything about yourself or the medium that you claim to love.
So how do we cure Digital Tsundoku? As counter intuitive as it sounds, I’ve found that making your leisure time spent with games more goal oriented and informed by routine can increase your motivation and ability to get through your backlog. Starting a new game can be daunting, especially if it is in a very involved genre, like an RPG. So, start with small games first. Uninstall Hearthstone, LoL or whatever lifestyle game you dedicate 2 hours to every night doing the same repetitive tasks. Turn off Youtube and really focus just on games. Preload whatever game you are going to play onto your hard drive that day so it’s ready for you in the evening. And then play. Become involved in the game. Think about it, formulate opinions and write them down, watch videos about it and join the community if there is one. Dark Souls for instance, has annual Return to Lordran events where large numbers of players replay the game in an attempt to keep the community alive and help new players experience the game. Decide for yourself what constitutes finishing the game, whether it be the end credits, or if you really enjoy the game, some other arbitrary goal like 100% trophies. And then once you are finished, move on. Games are expendable pieces of entertainment that are meant to be spent. Set yourself challenges and short-term goals. Alternate between different genres. Play one game at a time and limit yourself from too many games that favour repetition, online multiplayer or endless sandboxing and have ill-defined end states. Plan ahead with sites like Backloggery.com and HowLongToBeat.com. And then track your progress and how many games you’ve beat. Reassess your habits and tastes and what genres you like most and cater to that. The goal of the exercise is to have fun after all, so don’t punish yourself by pushing through a game that you’re sure you don’t like. It seems ironic to apply gamerfication to your gaming habits but it will help, trust me. I recently took my own advice and played Furi, a shmup hack and slash hybrid with awesome synthwave music and aesthetics that I just couldn’t get into when I first bought it. But after I pushed myself over an initial difficulty hump I had a blast. Next, I think I’ll finish Dark Souls III and then maybe take a shot at Outlast finally. So, take a stroll scroll through your online games library and take another stab at that game that you said you were going to play 2 years ago. If you do this you’ll eventually remember why you love video games so much in the first place.