Monday, December 23, 2013

A New Year’s resolution for all geeks and gamers – make time to play good games

As another year draws to a close, it’s tempting – expected, even – to think of a resolution for the 365 days ahead.  More often than not, these resolutions are forgotten before the end of January… but it’s important to at least try, right?

And that’s the New Year’s resolution I’d encourage all of you to make: please try to make the time to play good games.

I’m not going to judge by genre or developer here, if you enjoy immersive, 100+ hour RPGs or fast and frantic rhythm games – god bless and have fun – but make sure you’re playing what you actually want to be playing.

We're spoiled for choice when it comes to entertainment like no generation before us ever was. No longer shackled to the traditional retail model which required us to drive out and purchase a game or rent a movie, we can now download games of every stripe in mere seconds and stream media to an ever-growing armada of wireless devices.

And this isn’t necessarily a good thing.  There are genuinely great games waiting for us out there, but there are also hundreds of thousands of free games waiting for us on the App Store and Google Play - and we can easily lose ourselves in this flood of digital content if we’re not careful.

Bravely Default, Nintendo 3DS

When it comes time to unwind, we'll often turn not to the games we *want* to play but instead to the opiate of games that we can *easily* play.  Overwhelmed by choice – and who wouldn’t be? – we grab onto whatever’s easiest in the same way that a drowning man will cling to a log in the hopes of staying afloat for just a little bit longer.

We did this with Minesweeper and Solitaire on the PC, and we're doing it now on our smartphones and tablets.

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Time and again at gaming conferences, I’ve heard the same excuse from developers, publishers, PR folk, and even other games journalists as to why their gaming habits have fallen off over the past few years.

"I just don’t have the time to play games any more..."

This refrain is as flimsy as it is familiar, since many of these same people who repeated this line would later abashedly admit that they’ve spent 2-3 hours straight playing super-casual games like Candy Crush Saga after intending to only play a single level or two.

The spirit of the holidays compels me to say that there’s nothing wrong with these types of low-investment games in theory, nor the binge play sessions that they can command, but what’s wrong – well and truly wrong – is how incredibly lazy they’re making us as gamers.

If one can find 2-3 hours to burn on a freemium App Store indulgence they could easily find 2-3 hours to sink into the latest console or PC game that’s caught their interest. So rather than say “I just don’t have to play games any more”, these people should really be saying “I’m too lazy to devote time to the games I want to play any more”.

I never want to return to the dark days of being reliant on the physical retail model, and my mind is still absolutely blown by the fact that I can download a Triple A game wirelessly in a matter of minutes – but the flood of digital distribution is, again, very easy to lose oneself in.

Thankfully, there’s a way to keep your head above the water and it’s deceptively simple: set a minimum time limit for your gaming sessions.

Gravity Rush, PS Vita

Sure, I play games on my phone (mostly for work, pity the poor journalist!) but when I find that I have time to spend on gaming for fun, I make a conscious choice on what media I’ll consume and I limit my play sessions to at least 30-60 minutes.

Placing a minimum limit on play sessions might sound a little strange, but it’s a healthy exercise in making sure that I approach gaming as an event to be experienced and not an idle time killer – down that road lies brain-dead tapping as flashing lights delude my mind into thinking it’s enjoying itself when it’s really just shutting itself down.

If you think 30-60 minutes is too long to play, I’ll remind you that that breaks down to roughly one or two episodes of whatever show you’re binging your way through on Netflix (Moonphase, at current!) and it’s still enough time to have a satisfying experience in most games.

An Elder Scrolls saga or classic Final Fantasy game might tempt you into sinking a few hours in to really accomplish anything of note, and that’s fine – treat these high-investment games like you would a movie and only approach them when you have 2-3 hours to spare.

By making a conscious decision not to play casual games as idle timewasters, you’ll be surprised at how much time you’ve suddenly freed up to spend on gaming.

And when you have that time, those precious and beautiful few moments where you control what you’re experiencing, make sure you spend it on the games that you really want to be playing.