Gaming in a World Without Free Time

Gaming in a World Without Free Time

Gaming in a World Without Free Time

Posted by CJ Wilson

15 Jun, 2021


Gaming is a time-consuming hobby.

I’m not telling longtime gamers anything new here. But I often wonder how many of my compatriots in the gaming world truly understand how much more time-consuming gaming is than any other form of media—and the consequences that this mammoth investment of time has on their lives.

Gaming is not my only interest. I love writing. I love reading. I’m also an aspiring game developer, a dream of many gamers. My projects are often inspired by the games I play, and writing for  means that I do even more gaming than I would otherwise.

I’m struggling just to manage my backlog, let alone keep up with new releases.

It was while setting time aside for gaming that I thought about just how time-consuming this hobby is. I was trying to find the time to finish two games that I’ve been playing for as long as it takes me to read a half-dozen books. This felt wrong.

How Many Hours?

Of course, there’s so much coming out—in books, movies, TV, music, and games—that it’s impossible to keep up. There is not enough time in the day.

But gaming is a particularly difficult beast to manage.

The average novel is about 80,000 or 90,000 words long, which the average reader can get through in about nine hours. Most films are less than two hours long. Most albums are less than an hour long.  Most TV shows last 12 or 13 hours per season, and the seasons and are getting shorter. Take a look at, though, and you’ll realize that games are much, much more time-consuming than any of that other stuff. God of War (2018) takes 20 hours to get through just the main story, let alone any extras. The Last of Us, Part 2 takes 24 hours. Hollow Knight takes 26 hours. The Witcher 3 takes more than 50 hours. Don’t get me started on the 90-plus hours required to plow through Persona 5 Royal.

I am speaking here only of the time it takes to play through the content and reach the end credits. No extras, no side-quests. Once you start doing completionist runs—sometimes necessary to fully enjoy the game—the already-high number of hours skyrockets.

These days, a 20-hour game is regarded as “short, ” even though you could watch a dozen films, read two-and-a-half books, listen to the discographies of three bands, or watch a season and a half of The Expanse in those same 20 hours.

None of which even addresses the fact that you have to play a game. If you have any difficulty with it, the number of hours you must invest further increases. Moreover, these games demand more or less your full attention. You can’t really do anything else while you are playing. They also drain your energy, even if in a good way.

Going Up

Compare the games of yesteryear on to the games of yesterday and today, and you will notice that the average amount of time required to play a game has shot up over the years. The original God of War required a scant 9 hours. The first version of Last of Us required 14 hours. If you are a longtime gamer, you’ve noticed.

Which raises two questions: why and how?

The how is easy. Gaming has become more sophisticated, both as a medium and as a technology. Developers are realizing the full power of the medium and using it to craft worlds full of lush stories and brilliant characters. The technology has kept pace, allowing them to squeeze games that once occupied four separate discs into a single dusty corner of a single thumb drive. Developers thus have both the techniques and the technology that they need to make games ever bigger.

They why is a little more complicated.

The players may be one reason. Games are expensive, and many gamers are now adults. It can be hard to justify paying sixty bucks for a game you finish in a day. However grand the experience, we may feel cheated if we pay the cost of an expensive dinner for two on a game that we have waited three years for . . . only to be done with it in an afternoon.

Perhaps, then, developers are beefing up their games to make sure players feel that they are really getting their money’s worth. Of course, that’s a problem when developers cynically stuff a game with repetitive filler content, a bad habit that franchises like Assassin’s Creed are infamous for. Once their market research tells them that big games equal repeat customers, developers or their bosses are too ready to sacrifice quality to quantity.

Maybe the why and the how are connected. Developers know that they can create a big, long experience, and they have great experiences and stories to share. So they go all out to make something inconceivably big. And then they try to top that inconceivably big thing with something even bigger. It’s a mountain. It’s there.

Indie Versus AAA

I’ve mentioned the differences between indie games and AAA titles elsewhere.  Perhaps due to lack of resources, indie games tend to be more focused, more restrained, and smaller than the games produced by the brand-name behemoths.

For the most part, this is a good thing. Because indie studios simply don’t have the resources to shovel in filler content the way AAA developers do, they must be economical with every choice they make, from narrative to programming to scope.

Many amazing indie titles are vanishingly short. Games like Journey and The Last Campfire come to mind. Obviously, there’s a market for games this brief. Their popularity may indicate not only that gamers can accept a smaller game, but also that they positively prefer a game that’s concise and focused to one that’s blurry and bloated.

After all, those beautifully rendered landscapes in Assassin’s Creed don’t really matter if your players lose interest after 20 hours of relentless grinding.

Yet indie developers are also part—a growing part—of the vanguard who are creating another time-consuming kind of game.

Neverending Games

Neverending games are games designed to be played over and over again instead of being shelved after you finally reach the end. Developing such a game is tough. Human beings crave novelty. In his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Ralph Koster posits that a game cannot be fun unless it is teaching us something new. If it gets repetitive, if we come to understand the pattern all too well , we get bored. This is a big problem with the long games described above, which can run on for so long that we feel stuck in a loop.

Two kinds of games in particular seek to overcome this problem: procedurally generated games and multiplayer games.

Procedurally generated games such as roguelikes like Dead Cells are games in which you play through computer-generated levels that randomly change during each new attempt to beat the game. In a well-designed game, the result is that no two runs will ever be the same. The pinnacle of this genre is Hades, which avoids the potential meta-repetitiveness of the genre by inserting new story  and character segments into every run, changing your emotional relationship to the game every time you play. But no simulation is truly random. Sooner or later, we pick up on the underlying patterns and even a random level generator will cease to give us a novel experience.

Although  indie studios tend to make the best procedurally generated games, much of the multiplayer world is dominated by AAA studios who produce the biggest titles: Overwatch, Call of Duty, DotA2, League of Legends, Smash Bros, Street Fighter. These games turn the responsibility of creating novel scenarios over to the players. In a good multiplayer game, the other players, in combination with a well-designed system, should give us new experiences every time we play.

Games like these can come to define both your gaming habits and your life. Fans of Overwatch and League of Legends can spend full-time hours playing the game. Some even make it their career, playing competitively. Judging by the increasing popularity of these games and the rave reviews of Hades, long-term games aren’t going away anytime soon.

Gaming: A Lifestyle

A game like Dead Cells or Overwatch can become so time-consuming that it’s all you ever play. Such a game becomes your only game  and the major way that you use your free time. People get tattoos of these single games and define themselves in relation to them.

This reaction to a single game overshadows the medium and gives us some insight into that medium. Because there’s one other thing that gaming seems to have that most other mediums don’t: a die-hard audience that defines itself in relation to this single hobby.

Yes, there are book nerds. There are film geeks and music snobs and TV fanatics. But the ones who love the medium enough to define themselves in terms of their hobby are far and few between. Most of the time, they work in the industry producing the works that occupy their attention, or they aspire to do so.

Gamers seem to be different. Defining yourself as a gamer isn’t terribly weird in the gaming community. It’s normal. The impulse also crafts a community, one that tends to welcome those who haven’t felt comfortable anywhere else.

Perhaps one fundamental explanation is the fact that gaming is time-consuming. People who are into games in a big way almost have to spend more time keeping up with their hobby than the participants in any other medium do. When factor in the immersive, active nature of gaming, the combination is a recipe for huge emotional investment.

A single game can take us weeks to beat. You’d think that the need to invest such an enormous amount of time in a single game would choke the hobby. Instead, it seems to be separating us into cliques, into groups of players who are especially fans of this or that genre but who can still share and enjoy the fact that all of us gamers appreciate a different palette of what is, after all, the very same art.

Would I care as much about The Legend of Zelda if I hadn’t sunk so many hours into it? Would I still love Joel and Ellie as much as I did in The Last of Us if I hadn’t spent 20 damn hours with them?

The paradox is that the very same thing that makes the hobby hard to keep up with is probably also why we so deeply immerse ourselves in it. I’ll always be an opponent of bloat for the sake of bloat. But I wonder . . .

Would gaming enjoy so many über-dedicated fans if you could get everything there is to get out of a game during your lunch break?


About Author

CJ Wilson

CJ Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist specializing in game writing, journalism, and non-profit work. His writing expertise includes gaming, law, nature/environmental writing, literature, and travel. As a novelist, he specializes in character-focused fantasy and sci-fi.

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