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The Completion Compulsion

These days, we have access to far more entertainment than we have hours in the day. Experiencing everything on offer is impossible, a Sisyphean venture beyond the reach of us mortal humans. Despite insurmountable odds, though, many of us don’t stop trying. The allure of the new hotness is tough to ignore, and the threat of spoilers and the pressure of conformity stand to punish anyone who can’t keep up with the relentless pace of pop culture. But even if you manage to defy the odds and balance on the bleeding edge of popularity, it won’t just be your time and money that take a hit; a Jack of all joys is no master of fun.

STATING THE OBVIOUS: The following is based on personal experience, and may not be the same for everyone.


On paper, attempting to consume the feast of fresh experiences constantly being served up doesn’t seem so bad. Constant entertainment, endless variety, expanding expertise. In practice, though, the buffet of fun is more like an eating contest, each dish shovelled down to make way for the next one. To keep up with the influx of new entertainment, it becomes necessary to treat the project like a checklist, with the crossing off of items being the primary goal. So, instead of just enjoying each experience for its own sake, satisfaction is shifted to the act of completion. While watching a movie or playing a game, focus drifts from the here and now to the next item on the list, stifling the enjoyment of the moment with concerns of the future. The whole thing devolves into a process of going through the motions just to taste the brief burst of accomplishment that accompanies the completion of another item in the queue.

This hollow methodology is easy to fall prey to, especially with the in-your-face attitude of the modern entertainment industry. Thanks to the internet and social media, anything remotely popular gets extolled and disseminated the moment it is released, making coverage practically impossible to avoid for anyone not living under a rock. The buzz surrounding the flavour of the week makes every new release seem like the greatest thing ever, a mandatory experience for all who consider themselves ‘true’ gamers/geeks/aficionados. It’s the same sort of peer pressure friends used to heap upon each other for being ‘too cheap’ to catch the latest craze, only on a global scale. Seeing nothing but Star Wars on your Twitter and Facebook feeds makes you feel like an outcast if you can’t join in on the discussion. Witnessing gallons of effusive praise poured upon Metal Gear Solid V leaves you feeling like a fraud if you can’t weigh in with authority on the matter. Society’s attention span is as short as its fuse, and keeping pace with it is equivalent to treading water in an ocean that’s constantly rising. Just staying afloat takes every ounce of energy; forget about enjoying the swim.

The cost of entertainment on itself highlights the pitfalls of abundance. More options doesn’t always equal more fun. In fact, the longer the checklist, the more overwhelming the pressure to cross them all off. Thanks to services like Netflix streaming TV shows full seasons at a time, and the popularity of the open-world formula driving developers to pack their games with a much content as physically possible, binge-watching and hours-long play sessions have become common practice. Unfortunately, having access to so much content can be overwhelming. Like a kid in a candy store, it can be hard to hold back even when you know you’re full. Marathoning an entire season Breaking Bad in a single day might feel like an achievement, but the physical and mental exhaustion of such a feat takes a significant toll on its enjoyment. Episodic TV exists for a reason: the breathing room between episodes encourages reflection and speculation, harnessing the power of anticipation to increase the impact of the payload.


Genre fatigue is another side-effect of the checklist approach. Racing through every season of Game of Thrones is probably going to leave you burned out on horrible people being horrible to each other, just as blasting through Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Star Wars Battlefront all in quick succession would likely crush most any enthusiasm for meat-and-potatoes shooters. It’s a similar issue faced by annual franchises: yearly Assassin’s Creed tend to feel droll and predictable, whereas the downtime between new GTAs and Zeldas keeps their respective formulas from succumbing to stagnation. A little room to breathe can be the difference between fresh and stale.

Repetition can harm even the most exciting of experiences. The notion that ‘if everyone is special, then no one is’ speaks to the human trait of adaptation, our impressive ability to acclimatise to whatever conditions we find ourselves in. The more we are exposed to certain stimuli, the stronger our tolerances become, until that level of stimulation becomes the new normal. Excitement fades into expectation, the old buzz neutered in much the same way fans of spicy foods grow immune to burns that would leave most people hollering their heads off. Explosions and apocalypses can be just as mundane when served up en masse; it’s why no Call of Duty campaign has matched the impact of the first Modern Warfare.


In addition to homogenising high-quality experiences, the urge to consume everything can also lead to the sufferance of boredom purely for the sake of checking another name off the list. The sunk-cost fallacy compels us to complete what we’ve started out of an obligation to the time and effort we’ve already spent on it, even if the experience itself holds no appeal. The prospect of closure overrides the lack of enjoyment, often prompting a slew of self-justifications as to why continued investment is worth it: ‘It’s popular’, ‘It cost $60', ‘It might get better after a few more hours’. As studies have shown, we humans hate leaving things unfinished. That attitude might be useful for work and study, but in the wide world of entertainment, knowing when to cut your losses is essential. The return-on-investment for self-inflicted boredom just isn’t worth it.


You can’t escape the Star Wars.

The aggregate nature of social media only fans the flames of compulsion. By collecting opinions from a large number of disparate sources, services like Facebook and Twitter promote the illusion of a super-consumer, someone with unlimited time and money who is always at the forefront of trends and hot topics. News-and-reviews sites present a similar façade, grouping the views of multiple critics under a single banner such that the collective feels like a consensus. It is thus tempting to assume that all reviewers play every popular game or watch every popular movie, even when it’s practically impossible. And if all these critics and faceless commenters can keep up with the Joneses, I should be able to too, right?


Avoiding the perils of entertainment gluttony doesn’t take much. By simply spacing out one’s feasts of fun, the mind is able to reflect, recuperate, and regain its hunger for more. A well-paced diet is hard to maintain, though, especially when temptation beckons around every corner. And riding on the hype train can be a fun journey, while it lasts; sadly, it loses its lustre on consecutive trips. Take a little break, though, and the buff returns. Having fun is not a race; the best way to win is not to compete at all.

Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% terrible at maths. You can read more of his articles here, friend him on Steam here or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar

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