The room was dark, the screen was bright, and once more, Al Michaels crooned excitedly. “Aaaaaaand he’s in there for the touchdown.” I had heard it endlessly during my 120-point Madden 2005 rampage. As my players ran through one of the ten or so touchdown celebrations on the disk, I noticed the sun peeking through my window.
I think every gamer has heard a story like this, or, like myself, been the poor sap telling it. It’s practically a rite of passage. Recently, I’ve been hearing similar stories about Stardew Valley, 2016’s smash hit PC title about living on a small-town farm. (What an insane sentence that is.) It was released last year on the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo’s latest home console offering. The re-release marked the return of the game’s unofficial slogan. “It’ll take over your life.” And, every time I hear the slogan, I have the same thought: No thanks?
The gaming industry is still growing and maturing, but it’s 45 years old if you start with the release of Pong and the Magnavox Odyssey (the first home console) in 1972. Gaming is old enough to be taken seriously and compared to other visual art. And when I think about the best pieces of art, I don’t think of them taking over my life. The best art makes our lives richer. It makes us think. When a game “takes over your life” and is praised, it’s a signal to the world that gaming isn’t ready to be put on a pedestal with other artforms. What do games like Stardew Valley and Destiny 2 have to say? Do they making us think about anything other than raising chickens and shooting moon wizards?
I’ll concede: it’s more than fair to say that there’s artistry in gameplay systems. No other medium is interactive in the way games are. Stardew Valley has a wealth of pathways to be explored, and its “what can I do today” structure makes the player carefully consider the in-game choices they make. Destiny 2 has, perhaps, the most satisfying shooting of any game ever put on the market. There’s artistic merit in creating interlocking systems and capturing a good feeling. But, both games also feature pessimistic design choices. The same daily structure that makes Stardew Valley special is used to encourage the player to play just one more day. And since each day is only about ten minutes, it’s a small sacrifice that we’re willing to make over and over until we have lost track of time. Destiny 2 draws players in by offering daily rewards. Unfortunately, these missions often lack variety or interesting mechanical additions. They don’t push Destiny’s shooting mechanics to their logical extremes, like a great piece of art would. They’re conservative and meant to draw in the player without any reason other than to keep them playing. Destiny isn’t confident enough in its artistry – the excellent feeling of shooting space aliens – to let it be the game’s biggest draw. Instead, it becomes a grind.
Destiny 2 and Stardew Valley want me to be playing them nonstop, but I don’t want a game to take over my life. There are lots of interesting things that I could be doing otherwise. Is it enjoyable to play a game for more than a few hours at a time? Does it feel good? Because that’s what we’re trying to do when we play games, I think. We’re trying to participate in a hobby that makes us happy. When I plug in a game and play for more than several hours, I am a vegetable. A large head of broccoli replaces my body on the couch. And when I pass the point that playing the game makes me happy, I am achieving nothing. Is it even enjoyable to lose a whole day to, say, Skyrim? The aftermath of avoiding reality for a whole day tends to sink in quickly.
Every time I lose a day to a game, I am reminded that I have so, so many things to do. How then, can I cope with a game “taking over my life?” Did the game make me happy when I played it for extended periods of time? Will I be miserable the next day due to loss of sleep? Will all my work pile up around me in an inescapable mountain of real things not from a video game farm?
“Gamers,” as a community, are guilty of a lot of cognitive dissonance. We play a game for hours and hours and hours and we look back on it fondly. We harvested virtual crops for twelve hours! Amazing! What an idyllic twelve hours. How were the next twenty-four, though? In my experience, they were usually quite bad. I got bad grades on tests. I pulled all-nighters to study. I betrayed myself.
Or, did the game betray me? Somehow, I still looked back on playing the game for hours on end fondly. I blamed myself for my mistakes and never blamed the game I was playing. But, in a way, the game I was playing betrayed me, too. It grabbed me by the face and said PLAY ME. It was designed to draw me in and trap me. Those twelve hours of gaming shouldn’t be looked back on fondly, because the result was that I was less happy.
Games can entrance us in a way most other media cannot. A film is over in two hours, typically. A painting can enrapture, but only the most dedicated art critic is going to lose sleep over it. Television series can do this, in a way similar to games. An episode ending on a cliffhanger is tempting in the same way as a game adding things to your to-do list. I’m not sure too many people, however, are arguing that binge-watching is a positive force in their life. Games have leg up on TV, too. People have died playing World of Warcraft and Starcraft. Those are, obviously, the most outrageous examples, but even casually playing a game like World of Warcraft can make it difficult to juggle other responsibilities. Does Blizzard hold any responsibility for that?
I quite simply don’t want to play any game described as life-draining. I cannot spare twelve hours for gaming time, especially not a two hour session that becomes twelve. I think most people would agree, so why is it that we buy games that we’ve been actively warned will suck the life right out of our souls? Honestly, if your game is going to take over my life, then can you please get it the hell away from me? I don’t want to look at it. I do not want to see it. If another person tells me how good Stardew Valley is, my head will explode.
“This game will take over your life” is not a recommendation. It is a warning. It is a big red sticker on top of the game, and for me it reads THIS WILL NOT END WELL. We only have one go at this whole life thing. And if I spend 1000 hours of my life in Stardew Valley, I’ve spent 11% of a whole year of my whole life on a virtual farm. That’s crazy to me. And good lord, if I didn’t enjoy it the whole time, then what did I gain from that dedication?
I know this may not have been an article you enjoyed, dear game-playing reader. I hope you believe me when I say that I love games. But, I love games that make me think about what I’m doing. I love games that let me live my real life first and grant me a temporary escape to a virtual one. I love Mario, because I can pick his game up for one hour and never be asked for more. He will not waggle a carrot to tempt me into one more play. As I mature as a human and, I suppose, as a gamer, I find myself grappling more and more with my favorite hobby. What am I doing with my time? And I think that all I can hope for is that I’m having fun. There’s a place for games. They’re great for having fun! Just, please, don’t let them take over my life.