Backlog Guilt and how to beat it

If you’ve been a gamer for awhile, I bet you can relate to this image.

With Guild Wars 2 on the horizon I’ve been trying to play my way through other games I’ve bought recently (and over the last couple of years,) because after August 25th they certainly won’t see the light of day again for a long time. Between all the new, must-have AAA games and the awesome deals available through the likes of Steam and Humble Indie Bundles, gamers are swimming in more great games than ever before. The problem is that the days, weeks, and months haven’t gotten any longer to accommodate the rate at which people are buying games. There’s no holiday dedicated to playing video games–friends, family, the outdoors, and alcohol typically monopolize the holiday and vacation seasons. All of this leads to a problem that every gamer suffers from to some extent: Backlog Guilt.

Like many gamers, I find myself opening a new console game or seeing an awesome deal on Steam, only to look and grimace at all of the other games I either haven’t 100%ed, beaten, or even played at all. Assassin’s Creed Revelations is out? But I never found all the glyphs in AC:Brotherhood! New DLC for Skyrim? But I have 10 Humble Bundle games I’ve never even started. I hear about these dilemmas from my friends, and encounter them myself, all the time. People often lean towards buying the newer games and staying current–which they shouldn’t feel bad about if it’s what they would rather do–but Backlog Guilt is a vicious cycle. This week’s new hotness is next week’s old news. So what’s a gamer to do?

I do pretty well in terms of not feeling guilty about my gaming choices, so I thought I’d share my decision-making process for buying games and how I approach chipping away at my enormous backlog. The first thing to remember is that video games are a leisure activity–you spent money on games to have a good time playing them, not to worry about unbeaten, unplayed games. When you’re looking at your backlog with regret, thinking “I need to play all these games or they were a waste” and feeling bad that you haven’t played them, you’re committing a variant of the sunk-cost fallacy. In economics/business, a sunk cost is an investment that cannot be recovered, much like buying a game on Steam or a newly-released $60 retail game. If it turns out that investment is not going to work out–like if a game is bad, or something better has come along–it doesn’t make sense to continue investing in it just because you have already sunk money into it.

In the gamer’s case we aren’t just concerned with money, but also time. Backlog guilt drives gamers to spend time on old games to “justify” their purchase, even if there is something else they’d rather be playing or doing. Therein lies the fallacy. Remember how I said games are a leisure activity that should be motivated by fun and enjoyment? Letting guilt control what games you decide to play means you won’t enjoy yourself as much, and you’ll feel envious of people who are playing the games you’d rather play. Don’t throw away your leisure time to justify the sunk cost of old games! You own the games, and the money you spent on them is gone. Forcing yourself to play them doesn’t bring that money back or make the cost of the game “more worth it.” Remember, you don’t have a moral duty to beat all your video games. Maybe you don’t want to play an old game because it sucks, it’s more fun with a co-op buddy, or it’s just not as appealing as something else right now. Your backlog will still be there in a month or a year, so don’t worry!

That said, it is fair enough to regret spending money on games you haven’t played or beaten. Gaming can be an expensive hobby, so it’s important to make sure you get the most bang for your buck. If you find yourself looking back and wishing you hadn’t bought something, try and take a lesson from that moving forward. Rather than buying new games on an impulse and feeling guilty about it later, I try to only buy new games I’m sure I’ll enjoy and am really interested in. In other words, be responsible with your money. When you’re thinking about buying a new game, take a look at your backlog. If you see it and think “yeah, I would rather play this new game than any of these” then maybe the new purchase is appropriate. But how often can you really say that?

For me, Guild Wars 2 is a great example of when it’s okay to buy something new. I am going to love that game to pieces and many of my friends will be playing it, so of course I should start playing it ASAP. It’s a total no-brainer. It doesn’t mean that the games I’m playing now are bad or that I don’t want them anymore, they’re simply less important to me than GW2. Playing GW2 to the exclusion of other games will be the most enjoyable use of my game collection as a whole.

If you’re curious about the games I’ve got at the top of my queue, here you go.

When you’ve got a Steam library as big as mine, you might even find yourself weighing games you already own against other games you already own. I find that Steam’s Favorites feature is really great for creating a “cache” of games I’m most interested in playing. I can see them all at once on one screen, decide which one I feel like playing, and have at it. When I’m done with one, I remove it from my favorites and replace it with something else from my full list of games.

Besides the obligatory, my cache has a mix of games from various bundles that I never started, recent purchases from the Steam Summer Sale (I’ve somehow never played a Tomb Raider game before,) and long games like Skyrim and Borderlands I wouldn’t mind continuing/replaying. Out of that whole screenshot, the only games I’m actively playing are Lara Croft: Guardian of Light, Saints Row 3, VVVVVV, and Binding of Isaac, but I’ll be done with GoL soon which will free up a spot in the cache for something else. Maybe I’ll start replaying Borderlands or finally finish the main quest of Skyrim. Or maybe I’ll decide I don’t care about BIT.TRIP anymore and kick it out without finishing it. That’s the beauty of it–I don’t really need a good reason to play something or not, because it’s all for fun anyway!

How to you beat backlog guilt and balance the desire for buying new games vs finishing old ones? Let me know in the comments!

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6 Responses to Backlog Guilt and how to beat it

  1. BarGamer says:

    Thanks for reminding me that I still haven’t finished Jade Empire. XP

  2. Aly says:

    The last game I bought was the EotN expansion for GW. I haven’t even purchased a console since the game cube, and still have a few games on that left unfinished including Twilight Princess. I love the Zelda franchise but unless they release a version with Zelda playable like that little known release for the long defunct CDI, I don’t see myself playing anymore.

    There’s times I find myself eying Eternal Darkness wistfully but one of the same things that drew me to it is what makes me leery of playing. I identify a little too strongly with the main character to risk getting killed while learning the combat system.

    The other day I found myself reminiscing about the 7th Guest and 11th Hour, and wondering if there were any more recent haunted house puzzle type games worth checking out but I simply don’t have much time for gaming so GW2 is more than adequate.

  3. Verene says:

    I’m so damn picky with games that I usually buy less than a handful a year. I’m really not an impulse shopper at all with that sort of thing – if I buy a game, it’s because it’s something I’ve decided I’ll actually really enjoy (and those are few and far between).

    …and yet still I wind up with games I’ve never touched. Sigh.

  4. SlothBear says:

    I have serious backlog guilt, its like a hangover from Steam sales. When I see that I spent more time in the SR3 Initiation Station then I have most of my actual games I vow to play them all more. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I even realize the games are just as much fun as I thought they would be.

    I need to finish Space Marine, Psychonauts, The Longest Journey, Alice: Madness Returns, Bloodlines and Dreamfall and spend more time in Empire Total War and Civ III. Its like I need to take time off work just to catch up on games :(

    • Well, fortunately, your games are not people and you aren’t hurting their feelings by not playing them more. :-P After all, if you really wanted to play something, wouldn’t you play it without guilting yourself into it first? As I said in the post, you won’t have fun if you’re playing a game just because you feel bad about not playing it.

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