games / Columns

The Gamer Parent’s Strategy Guide: Dealing With Backlog

October 19, 2020 | Posted by Jed Shaffer
Gamer Parent's Guide Backlog

I had sixty-five NES games. I don’t know why I still remember this obscure detail from my childhood when I can’t remember the lyrics to “Interstate Love Song”, but I do. I couldn’t name more than maybe twenty of them, but that name is carved into memory. And while I can’t remember all of them, I can tell you I have every single one of them attention. Even the worst ones like Fester’s Quest or the first Ninja Turtles game got play time in my youth. I can’t say I beat them all. I mean, yeah, you can’t beat Ice Hockey in the same way you can beat Life Force. But if it had a story to complete, I did my damnedest to finish it, and for many of them, I succeeded. I even beat both Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man II, two of the games that are responsible for the phrase “NES Hard”, which was what we called a brutally difficult game before the phrase “the Dark Souls of …” took over. Seeing the final screens for those two games still stand among the top five achievements of my life, gaming or otherwise. I could platinum trophy The Binding Of Issac Afterbirth+, and I still wouldn’t be as proud as I am of getting past that damned jump in Ninja Gaiden‘s world 5-2. Also got pelts on the wall for Zelda II, Dragon Warrior, Duck Tales, Faxanadu, and dozens more I can’t think of … still a little angry I never beat Friday the 13th, though. Damned Barney the Dinosaur-looking bastard and his Castlevania-Medusa-head mother.

I loathe you, run from me, I’ll catch up eventually.

You’d think with a library that big, some games would fall off the radar, but you’d be very wrong. Tis the magic of childhood; you have the bandwidth to make something like video games or Magic: The Gathering or anime the center of your world. I got more than my parents’ money’s worth out of every game in my NES library, and I mean every game. I would still occasionally play the black-box Tennis game up to 1990. It wasn’t even a thought in my mind that dividing my time between games would be a hassle. Have a quest going Dragon Warrior while also trying to get better at The Adventures Of Bayou Billy, mastering the special throws in Super Dodge Ball, and figure out the use of the “Spell” spell in Zelda II? No sweat. Oh, look, I got Clash At Demonhead and 3×3 Eyes for Christmas? BRING IT ON! I’LL BE HERE THROUGH PUBERTY.

Nothing changed when I started doing what Nintendidn’t. I hit my teens the year I got a Genesis, and I was home-schooled at this point, and had just moved to deep farm country the year before, the kind of rural area where cows outnumber people. So, I had a lot of free time on my hands. I was juggling games in E-SWAT, Shining In The Darkness, Kid Chameleon, Might & Magic, AND got all four endings in Phantasy Star III. How many times did I beat Space Harrier II, Mystic Defender or Forgotten Worlds? Dozens and dozens, I’d reckon, and I’d do it again from time to time, just for kicks. I probably had around fifty games for it by the end, plus a small collection for the Sega CD, and I squeezed every last drop of enjoyment out of every game. By the time I jumped to the Saturn, I was in my late teens. This is when things started changing. I had buddies to hang out with and a job. We’d watch wrestling pay-per-views twice a month, three if ECW ran one. And, on rare occasions, I even got a girlfriend. Unfortunately, balancing the competing desires of “boobs” and “video games” in the teenage gamer mind is not as easy as it seems. She wants to put on some Boyz II Men and turn off the lights; you’re one rebound away from a triple-double in NBA Live ’96. WHAT DO YOU DO?!?

He tried to warn us about women and Sega, and we didn’t listen.

Gaming was still an important outlet for fun in my life, but it was getting harder to split attention between games, let alone games and the demands of life. I know I didn’t complete Shining The Holy Ark or Monster Rancher because my attention drifted to other, non-gaming pursuits. I don’t know that I ever played Grand Theft Auto without cheat codes, and I don’t know that I even finished a single mission. I still played what I bought and loved what I played, but time just wasn’t on my side to 100% every game. It also didn’t help that, with the change from cartridge to CD, game designers decided they needed to turn every game into a Tolkein epic. The Legacy Of Kain series – one of my all-time favorite franchises, AND WHERE IS MY HIGH DEF REMASTER COLLECTION?!? – has a mythology so convoluted, if put into a flow chart, would look like a Mobius strip, a corkscrew and an ouroboros had an orgy. If you’re talking messy story arcs, though, you have to bow to the king, Metal Gear Solid, the game series took the simple concept of “spy stopping nuclear attack” and applied so much story, the HD collection comes with a digital encyclopedia. The MCU is less of a mess than MGS. Hell, even Twisted Metal 2 had a damned story.

That’s how life is, though; as you get older, you get busier. After high school, there’s college. Eventually, you’ll start your career path. You’ll date, which often leads to marriage, and all the time-consuming off-shoots LTR’s/marriages entail (“let’s go to the apple orchard/a wine tasting event/a carnival/a couples painting event!”). Weddings usually lead to home ownership, and that is a black hole of responsibility. Buying a home is buying the world’s most expensive list of chores. And weddings and houses are stepping stones for that biggest of adulthood milestones: having kids. And that means all those things kids do: youth sports, dance practice, choir recitals, Scouts of either type, field trips, helping with homework, and lots and lots of arguments over the most trivial garbage you could possible imagine.

Once you have a teenager, this sketch goes from “hilarious” to “uncomfortably biographical”.

Nowadays, I get to game on Saturday and Sunday mornings, for about two to three hours apiece. Maybe I can sneak in an hour when the wife takes our youngest to karate twice a week. Otherwise, the daily schedule at 43 just isn’t as wide open as it was at 13 or 23. That’s parenthood, folks.

But you know what hasn’t changed? My appetite for new games. Right now, I have about forty games for the PS4, a similar haul for the PS3, ten or so for the Wii, and a Raspberry Pi that is used for totally legal purposes and does not have five thousand-plus games or any emulators on it at all. But let’s zoom in on just the PS4. Sitting in my bin, as yet untouched, I have Bloodborne, Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, Call Of Cthulhu, Guacamelee II, and Nioh. I started Transformers: Devastation, but got sidetracked by Fallout 4. I still haven’t finished Darkest Dungeon, Streets Of Rage 4, Guacamelee, Strider, Cuphead, Supermash, the story mode for Mortal Kombat XL, Sundered, Ratchet & Clank, and I’ve only unlocked maybe one area of the Tony Hawk remake. I know I have unfinished games on the PS3, and I recently discovered it’s backwards compatible with PS1 discs, so I started buying games for that, because why not pour gas on the fire. Now I have Monster Rancher and two of the Colony Wars games. And we won’t even discuss games I want to get. I should seek some kind of support group, shouldn’t I?

There’s a word for this vile, contemptible mountain of entertainment whose summit I cannot even conceive of, let alone see, but to which I keep adding. I hear this word in the back of my head like a siren’s call, mocking me, daring me to push aside mowing the lawn, or introducing my older boys to classic movies, or my youngest’s karate rank-up ceremony. The word is unspeakable atrocity in seven letters and two syllables. It is something you utter only in hushed, horrified whispers, like Voldemort or Dane Cook.

Expandio Librarium!

O undying evil!, thy accursed name is BACKLOG. You don’t have to be a gamer parent to encounter it, but if you are, you WILL carry this burden, and you will face some unique hurdles in your quest to conquer it. Backlog is as relentless as a slasher movie killer, as unwanted as a Uwe Boll video game movie adaptation, and as hard to get rid of as herpes.

What makes backlog especially insidious now is that the current gaming landscape is geared so that amassing a war chest takes almost no effort whatsoever. You can acquire new games so easily and without thought, you’d think they were delivered by Columbia House at twelve for a penny (plus shipping and handling). Digital marketplaces make it so simple to hit the bar on the Skinner box. I’d already played and defeated Tomb Raider on the PS3, but it was through PS+, so it didn’t have the DLC. I had no intention of getting the PS4 remaster, because why bother, right? And then they put it on sale, with all the DLC, for less than a tenner. What am I, a fool? Well, yes, clearly I am, because OF COURSE I BOUGHT IT. Still haven’t played it, but I have it, just in case. And if it isn’t the digital storefronts baiting you, there’s the game stores. GameStop is running a B2G1 sale on used games? I’m getting a free game out of the deal! It’s like they’re paying me to take games away! And it isn’t just sales that make our wallets weep and our libraries expand like Mr. Creosote. The sheer volume of games available has gotten wildly out of hand. You’ve got more triple-A franchises than ever. There’s games that have become annualized, like Call Of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and pretty much all the sports games. High-def re-releases and remakes so you can buy the same game every five years. If you’re a PC gamer, there’s GOG, which is Steam for old games, so you can enjoy TIE Fighter or Loom on a modern system without spending days trying to figure out how to patch it to make it work. And the indie market! HOLY HELL THE INDIE MARKET, PEOPLE. EA and Capcom are no longer the gatekeepers. Games like Flower, Untitled Goose Game, Retro/Grade, Journey, Shovel Knight and Papers Please exist, thanks to asset kits that make game development something you can learn via a YouTube video. And because there’s no corporate hand trying to guide development towards what they think will sell, you will find the most batshit insane games.

This has sold over 1 million units to the tune of $12 million. Earthbound sold 140,000 units. Just sayin’.

So, how is a gamer parent supposed to get their arms around their backlog?

The first thing you should do is toss that goofy idea right into a volcano. Just like you will never pay off your mortgage, you will never conquer your backlog. Give up the ghost. There’s only two ways possible, and both are as sensible as traveling by trebuchet;

1) You don’t buy any more games, which, please, like that’s even possible. Or,
2) You neglect your parenting duties to the point at which child welfare agencies get involved.

With those dead-end ideas out of the way, you need accept that , as a parent, it just isn’t possible to get your backlog to zero. You won’t ever have enough time. “But what about when I retire?” I don’t hear you saying, but I’m imagining because it furthers the column. Okay, imaginary smart guy, I’ll bit. In the fantasy world where you don’t have to get a part time job at Home Depot because your pension isn’t quite as much as you thought? Retirement still a few decades away. Do you really think you’re gonna drag out your 360 when you’re 65 so you can try that 100% Renegade playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy? Not when your spouse is gonna start mentioning all the traveling you couldn’t when you had kids. Maybe you visit the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota, or go to every Cracker Barrel in the United States. Trust me, you ain’t just sitting around drinking Ensure and downloading mods that make Skyrim dragons look like pro wrestlers.

The next mental hurdle to clear is being realistic about the games you play. Now, I’m not going to cut myself off at the knees here, as I plan on doing deeper dives into specific genres of games in the future, and how different genres mix with being a parent. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how some genres, or even specific games, weigh more on the backlog scale than others. For example, Undertale and Final Fantasy XV are both RPG’s, but they are not created equal; FF15 will take a minimum of 30 hours to beat, and that’s sticking to the main story only. Undertale, meanwhile, is so short, it can be beaten five times in that same time span. There’s infinite sandbox games like Minecraft or No Man’s Sky. There’s loot-grinders, rogue-likes, MMORPG’s, franchise/GM modes in sports games, battle royales, massive open-world games, the list keeps going. It isn’t out of line to suggest that maybe, given your limited free time as a parent, examining the kinds of games you play might be worth a moment of it. Weigh the time investment versus the ROI. I used to love one-on-one fighting games as a teenager, but I don’t have the time to memorize the moves and develop the muscle memory to pull them off at a moment’s notice. I own Mortal Kombat XL because it has Jason Voorhees as a playable fighter. As a long-time Friday the 13th fan, it amuses me to play a game like MK with horror’s most prolific graveyard filler, even if I do have to pause to look up how to do his Fatality.

Now, maybe you find it hard to be selective about the games you play. It’s hard walling yourself off from something you enjoy. You could work it from another angle; set realistic goals within the games. Want to play No Man’s Sky? Maybe don’t bother building the six-story lunar base and stick to solving the game’s story. Don’t accept every single side-quest in The Witcher III. Must you have regulation-length quarters in Madden? Do you really need Paragon-level characters for each class in Diablo III? I know it goes against our nature as gamers to not enjoy the game to its fullest, but games aren’t designed with you, gamer parent, in mind. We’re the outlier in the gaming community. EA is happy to take our money, but they made the game for a younger demo.

Which leads to the next issue we gotta discuss: FOMO, or “fear of missing out”. It’s the irrational feeling one gets when they see a large number of people enjoying or participating in something, and feel compelled to join in, regardless of their personal feelings towards it.

Here it is, illustrated in perhaps its dumbest incarnation ever.

As much as it sounds like it might hurt, you should look at your game library and/or your wishlist and consider what your motivation is behind getting or keeping the game. Do you really want it, or do you want it because everybody else does? I know it sucks being on the outside looking in. You don’t wanna be the only person who hasn’t experienced [insert pop culture thing here]. But if your motivation can be boiled down to “so I’m not the one”, what’s the upshot here? So your friends got Destiny 2. Why does this compel you to get it? Does friendship come with some kind of contractual obligation I’m unaware of? Even worse is FOMO-buying a game you know you won’t like in the first place. Here, please take my money AND kick me in the balls? Don’t mind if I don’t. Sorry-not-sorry, but I don’t like first person perspective in games, so, FOMO be damned, I’m not gonna waste my time on Cyberpunk 2077. All I get if I FOMO-buy it is a bank account that’s $60 lighter and my backlog gets bloated with a game I’ll only ever play out of buyer’s guilt. Gaming purchases should not contain a level of psychological complexity requiring a therapist.

Speaking of psychology and buying stuff, let’s examine how the sunk cost fallacy fits in. It’s the idea that, if you keep dumping resources into something, no matter how long you’ve operated at a loss, eventually, you’ll not only recoup your lost resources but somehow come out ahead. If you’ve been alive longer than, perhaps, eleven seconds, you’ll recognize why this is just cuckoo-banana-pants stupid. Bad+bad=/=good. If you took a bite of pizza and it tasted like paint thinner, would you take another bite and assume it’d taste better? No, of course not. So why keep playing a game once it has presented the evidence that it’s not a good match for you? And I speak from experience here. I’ve done it on multiple occasions. I quit Mass Effect, Skyrim and Alien Isolation after only playing a couple hours apiece. The combat mechanics in the first two ruined the entire experience for me, and I just couldn’t get past the first person perspective for the last. I didn’t get the message as soon with Horizon Zero Dawn, Metal Gear Solid V and Agents of Chaos. I dropped somewhere between 15-25 hours into each of those before admitting that the sunk cost fallacy had me by the short and curlies. Once I admitted it to myself, though, I stopped playing and didn’t regret it for a moment. And that’s okay! It’s not a crime to give up on a game you don’t like. The Gamer Police won’t revoke your credentials if you decide a game isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and pull the ripcord.

If, after all that, you look at your backlog and it still looks longer than a CVS receipt? Yeah, you’re pretty much doomed, dude. There’s just no circling your particular square here. Best thing I can do is suggest maybe prioritization of some kind, but not to make the pile magically smaller; to distract you from its size. I’ve found that if I juggle the kind of games I play, the thought of the backlog’s size doesn’t weigh so heavily upon me. Before my current main focus of Fallout 4, I played Undertale, Metal Gear Solid V, Bloodstained, and Nier Automata; a quirky indie RPG, a stealth action game, a Metroidvania game, and … whatever the hell Nier Automata is (bullet-hell/hack-and-slash/softcore anime porn?).

If that’s what you’re into, it looks like a one-way-ticket to sleeping on the sofa.

And as I play these big games, to keep the feelings of sameness and tedium from creeping in, I’ll pop in and out of a few minor games over the course of time. Stuff like Sonic Mania or Tempest 4000 or Tetris Effect; stuff that isn’t story-heavy or require a significant time commitment. Something I can put down and pick back up without the nagging feeling I’ll lose all momentum and sense for the game. It doesn’t shrink the mountain, but it does help me enjoy the part of the climb I’m on.

And that’s the reason we all started playing video games, right? For fun? To match our skills and wits against the game’s puzzles, or the competition against other people? I think that the looming shadow of a backlog can make it difficult to remember that. You stop seeing these games you invested in as games. Focusing on the backlog as a backlog, and how to go about shrinking it, changes the dynamic. Gaming is no longer a fun activity to enjoy in your spare time. It’s now a to-do list. If you’re married or you co-habitat with someone, you already see more to-do lists than an elected official. You don’t need to self-assign them.

Maybe it’s that simple, though, and we’ve all been over-thinking this. Maybe, as Hallmark Channel-saccharine as this sounds, the best way to handle backlog … is not to. Don’t think about it. Don’t make a plan, don’t worry about it, and don’t let it poison your current gaming experience. Just play the damned games. After all, they’re games, right? You’re not repainting the rooms in your house or visiting your spouse’s step-uncle-in-law from Nova Scotia, whose name you can’t remember and who thinks J. Edgar Hoover had Jim Morrison assassinated. You made an investment in your platform of choice and the games library for it. You carved out what meager amount of time you can spare in your busy schedule. This is your time, your fun, your outlet. This isn’t work, and you’re not going to be punished if you don’t hit a quota. You’re a gamer. Play them. Beat ’em or don’t. But, first, foremost, and last, enjoy your mountain. I’d rather have games to beat than none at all.

Big talk, columnist-boy. I’M STILL HERE, WHERE ARE YOU.

And in closing …

Larry Csonka’s GoFundMe is still going on. Every little bit helps, and gets that number close to that beautiful round number of $50K.

I meant to get this up a few days sooner, but I switched topics after a week. Didn’t like where the original version of this was going. Sorry for the delay.

Me on Twitter!

Got a question, thought, idea you’d like to see done for a column, rant, or something else? Email me at [email protected]. I’m also available for podcasts, interviews, whatever. Any readers who have a media project, regardless of topic, I’m down to network. Do the kids still say they’re “down” for something? Jeez, I’m old.

I’m pretty sure next time around, I’m gonna discuss what to do with that old console when you get a new one. Seems timely. Strike while the iron is lukewarm, right? See you in 2.