It’s in your console’s home screen. It’s in your Twitter feed. It’s festering in every open-world game you’ve ever played. It’s creeping up your skin, crawling over your face, burrowing into your skull. It’s taking over your brain!
It’s the fear of missing out, and it’s something gamers know all too well.
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With media of both the social and commercial kind bombarding us with content 24/7, it’s no surprise that many of us are losing our patience. Our need for instant gratification has fuelled the success of on-demand streaming, same-day delivery, and Twitter’s 140 character limit. Gamers are in no way immune to the trend. New games are released every single day, bringing with them hundreds of screenshots, trailers, articles, and Let’s Plays to quiet our cravings for sharing in the new hotness. Whether it be praise, criticism, analysis, or speculation, there’s always a lively discussion to be had.
But what if you can’t afford to join in? Games require a considerable investment of time and money. Trying to play them all is a fool’s errand, especially on release. Missing out sucks, though. When the internet is going crazy for the latest AAA blockbuster, it’s tough to sit on the sidelines, trying to avoid spoilers while you make do with the games you’ve already got. It often feels like the whole world’s in on a secret and you’re the only one who doesn’t know it.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m in a bit of a Simpsons mood today.
I’m sure you’ve been in this situation a bunch of times. I certainly have. But here’s the thing: of the many games I was convinced I needed to play but couldn’t, not one survived long enough to produce true regret. Within a week or two, the industry had moved on to the next game, and the object of my lamentation was forgotten. Suddenly, I discovered that it wasn’t the game itself I had desired; it was the urge to engage with the social zeitgeist that drove my compulsion.
Think back to a game you had to miss out on. I’m guessing it sucked, but I bet it didn’t take long to get over it. We humans are good at moving on. There are always more games, far too many for one person to play. We have to be selective in the experiences we pursue; the games we choose to play shape who we are, both inside and outside the medium. We owe it to ourselves to be smart about how we invest our time. It can be a challenge, but it’s a good one to have.
It’s not only our purchasing habits that are influenced by a desire to keep up with the Jones’; how we play is just as vulnerable to the fear of missing out. ‘Completing’ a game has taken on a wildly different meaning since the popularisation of open-world games and the advent of achievements. Collect all 100 feathers scattered around Italy if you want to get 100% completion in Assassin’s Creed II! Score ten more headshots to unlock a new weapon grip in Call of Duty that you’ll never use! Spend hours upon hours checking every niche and crevice in Borderlands lest you miss out on the hi-larious memes and rare loot the internet is going nuts over.
While most of these pursuits are optional, the sheer aggressiveness in which they’re thrusted upon you implies otherwise. Worse, the compulsive behaviour they encourage runs counter to the main reason we play games: for entertainment. Scouring Mordor for the last variety of herb on your quest list isn’t fun. So why do we do it? Because the game tells us to? Because it doesn’t feel right not to complete every quest? Because we want that fleeting shot of dopamine that accompanies the achievement ping? It’s never worth it, no matter how fervently a game insists otherwise.
Games have a distinct advantage over more linear art forms when it comes to delivering a satisfying experience: you don’t have to ‘finish’ them to have a good time. Where abandoning a book or a movie halfway through is certain to leave you unfulfilled, there is no right or wrong time to be done with a game. I never saw the ending of Alien: Isolation, I left dozens of quests incomplete in Fallout 3, I’ve never come close to collecting every gold brick in a LEGO game; and yet, my time with those games feels complete. I played until I had my full, and I was content. In contrast, every book I’ve set aside feels like a failure, every movie I’ve half-watched a waste of time and money. At least I feel like I got something out of all the games I’ve walked away from.
Remembering that we don’t have to play - much less complete - every game that comes out may seem obvious, but it’s worth reflecting on nonetheless. We all have a valuable opinions to share, regardless of how big our Gamerscores are. In this age of fast and furious game releases, backlogs the size of Mt Everest, and pushy pre-order incentives, it is more important than ever that we separate desire from a feeling of obligation. Maybe we should stop asking ‘What game is everyone else playing?’ and focus more on ‘What game do I feel like playing?’.