Kill Your Backlogs

We’re nearing the end of the year, which in video games world means one thing — Game of the Year discussions, awards, and events. I always tell myself it’s going to be different, but every year plays out the same. All through winter, spring, and summer I find myself adding titles to Steam wishlist, from Big Important Releases to smaller, indie games that catch my eye. By fall, I find myself facing a huge list of games and an nagging feeling that I ought to get through them all. Why? Well, if I’m going to be involved in Fanbyte’s GOTY coverage, I better know my stuff, right! I have to keep up with the conversation, and more importantly to me, bring smaller games to the attention of people who might have missed them.

This year, though, I did something different. I went into my Switch and Steam wish lists a couple of weeks ago and began culling. I chopped out Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, despite its stellar reception among Fanbyte staff, because I just didn’t see myself making the time to play it. I axed Death’s Door simply because I felt like I had had enough of overhead action games for the year. I made it an hour into Psychonauts 2 before I realized it just wasn’t my thing and put it aside. Even now, I’m eyeing my list of a dozen or so games I was planning on playing before the end of the year and realizing I could ignore all of them and nothing bad would happen — buildings wouldn’t fall down, statues wouldn’t crumble.

Importantly, I’m not making these judgements based on quality. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the solution to there being more games than you could possibly play is to only play the truly good ones, but even then, you’re still looking at a massive time investment. And to imagine that everything you’re missing out on wasn’t worth it in the first place is to believe in the fantasy of perfect knowledge. The fact is, like in every other realm of life, you are going to miss some experiences in games that enjoyable or interesting.

Not to be a downer, but you’re going to die one day. So am I. When that happens, there will likely still be books you would have liked to read, games you would have liked to play, places you would have liked to go. The quantity of media available to the average person with an internet connection is staggering, and so we make our little lists, our backlogs we someday dream of getting through. But what then? Imagine that you could bring your computer with you to Narnia and play everything you’ve been meaning to, from recent hits to forgotten obscurities. Would you be satisfied? Or would you start right back up making lists?

I’ve been thinking about all this since reading an article by Oliver Burkeman at the Financial Times. Burkeman makes the case that applying the same kind of ruthless to-do list attitude to our leisure time as we do to work ends up making leisure unsatisfying and empty. By imagining a state in which we’ve finally cleared our backlog, you find yourself “living mentally in the future, locating the ‘real’ value of your life at some time that you haven’t yet reached and maybe never will.”

Sound familiar? It sure did to me. In addition to my attempts to stay up to date on Steam, I have a list of nearly 150 games on ggapp that I’ve marked as “want to play.” Many of these are dozens of hours-long RPGs, and since I add to the list whenever I read about some other strange old game I might want to check out, it seems unlikely that I’ll ever clear it. I’ve moved some games off the list by reading or watching videos about them, which satisfied my curiosity sufficiently that I didn’t feel the need to actually play through them. But to merely glean secondhand knowledge of a backlog of any considerable size is an undertaking in itself.

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A selection of my “want to play” list from

So what are we to do? For Burkeman, the solution is not to retreat into despair or to throw yourself into a manic struggle to live every day as if it’s our last. Instead, we need to accept our reality, and realize that “we’re guaranteed to have to abandon certain ambitions, disappoint certain people and drop certain balls in order to make time for doing a few things that count.”

Video games are supposed to be enjoyable leisure activities. They can be occasions to compete with other people, to get lost in a story, to test one’s skills, or cooperate to achieve a goal. But too often, they can become chores that we push ourselves to get through, dashing towards an ever-retreating finish line like Zeno’s runner.

I don’t feel this way about film, which has become more of a passion for me over the course of the pandemic — maybe because I’m aware that there are far more movies than I could ever possibly watch, or because films rarely involve the same time investment as many games do. We tend to think of games as a young medium, and comparatively they are, but we’re still talking about decades and decades of releases. (The Nintendo 64 just turned 25, which is how old the first commercially available video game was when the N64 was released in 1996.)

This isn’t a call to play fewer games, to play less of the time-sinks you love (though I could probably stand to play less Destiny), or to reevaluate your entire life and fall into an existentialist spiral about the meaninglessness of any kind of human activity. It’s instead a gentle suggestion that we step back from the idea of treating media as something to “get through,” to realize that for most of us, it isn’t our job to be up-to-date or historically-versed. And even for those of us whose jobs do involve playing, reviewing, guiding, streaming, discussing, or critiquing games, we’re never going to get to everything we’d ideally like to.

So, why not kill your backlog? Or else maybe just try to see it as a curated list of suggestions for your future self, little gifts you might enjoy, rather than an onerous burden. Empty your wishlists or go towards the other extreme and fill them with dozens, hundreds of titles you know you might never get to. Let go of the desire to stay up-to-date, the impulse to have complete knowledge. The AAA blockbusters of 2021, the overlooked gems of decades past — they’ll all still be around for you to play (or not) next year.