Editorial / Gaming in moderation

As far as passing time goes, video games are uniquely interactive. As you play a game, and strive to play well, you develop a skillset that lets you really open the gameplay up. There’s a certain satisfaction, for example, in racking up a 150-hit combo in Arkham City‘s combat mini-game.

But that pastime can easily start taking up too much time. Anyone who’s glanced up at the clock at the end of an 8-hour session of Skyrim knows how an afternoon can just disappear into your console or PC. And you have to ask yourself: was it worth playing the day away to get that high score or to unlock those achievements?

It’s easy to let it happen, of course. Lots of games are designed with a high replay value in mind. Some action RPG series, like Fable, Bioshock, and Mass Effect, have stories that end differently depending on how you play them. The difference between playing as an evil or noble character can effectively double your playing time, if you get to the credits and want to know how it all could have gone down differently.

Then there are sports games; if you really love football or hockey, there is literally no limit to the number of games and seasons you can play through, if you want to. Shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield focus on online multiplayer modes, which also offer huge replay value, limited only by the amount of trash-talk and headshots you feel like dishing out.

Speaking of online play, MMORPGs have been popular for a decade or more, including notable titles like Runescape, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft. These are even less “beatable” than sports games; there are always new quests, new levels to unlock, and new raids to prepare for.

It’s games like WoW that illustrate what too much of a good thing can do. We’ve all heard stories of full-on addiction, of people who dodge friends, family, and even their jobs to play 16 hours of WoW every day. These are extreme cases, but that doesn’t mean that a daily habit of 6 hours’ gaming is a good idea, either.

You might be concerned about how much time you’re investing in your own gaming habits. I know it’s been a problem in my life at times. So what can you do about it? How can you have a great time honing your gaming skills without turning into a hermit?

Give your day a schedule and structure

This is especially difficult if you’re unemployed. I know I can easily lose momentum in my life if there isn’t anything I feel like I HAVE to do. It helps to plan out your day—including job-hunting, if you need to—and set aside a bit of time for video games. Just make sure you do your best to adhere to your limit. One way to do this is to arrange to have some sort of commitment—say, a doctor’s appointment—immediately after your gaming time. Or tell yourself you’ll play for an hour before you have to leave for work. The prospect of squeezing in another quick round might not look so appealing if you’re always showing up late for work. That’s a boss battle you don’t want to get into.

Set a goal before you turn the game on, and stick to it

This can be useful in the more open-ended games, and varies depending on what you’re playing. Madden? Play three games, then hit the showers.  As far as mission-based action games or platformers, clear a few levels and leave the rest for later. Quit when you said you would, even if you FEEL like you could play longer. You don’t have to go for bust. Pretend you’re at a casino with $100, and large men with baseball bats are coming to your house later to collect the 70 bucks you owe them, whether you have it or not. Still think that $50 poker bet is a good idea?

Be careful in the sandbox

The hallmark of a great sandbox game is a world you can immerse yourself in. GTA IV’s Liberty City felt like a real metropolis. And let’s not even get started on the Skyrim realm that’s just begging to be explored. The danger with an open-ended game world is that you can wander aimlessly for countless hours. By all means, enjoy the all-you-can-eat environment. Just don’t eat yourself into a coma.

Find other things to be awesome at

A big part of the appeal of video games is that you get to act like a superhero—Super Mario Bros. is all about stomping baddies, saving princesses, and collecting sweet, sweet coins. Well, you can be the master of lots of things besides video games. Take up cooking. Join an amateur basketball league. Run for mayor. You play video games to win, right? Why not get out there and win the game called life? “In your face” sounds so much better when you’re in someone’s actual face.

Invite over friends who aren’t as hardcore

There are games that are a blast to play with your friends, and even better when it’s offline and you’re on the same couch. So invite some pals over and blast through some bouts of Goldeneye (64 version only, of course) or Smash Bros. (home-run bats only, of course). The trick is to include people who LIKE video games but don’t LOVE them. Peer pressure can work both ways. Your friend might be able to get you to put the controller down after a while and get outside.

When it comes down to it, the simple fact is that life gets busy the older you get. As an adult, you have more things you need to do so that you can keep your home and feed yourself and your family. Considering the fact that the NES debuted over 25 years ago, there are plenty of lifelong gamers in their 30s and 40s. As you grow up, you tend to realize that video games can’t take up the time they used to. It’s okay to be jealous of your kids, by the way.

A good philosophy to have? Everything in moderation. It’s cliche, I know, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And it doesn’t mean that your gaming experience needs to be any less valuable. Quality trumps quantity. You’re still able to make time once in a while for a gaming binge. But, just like a night out on the town, you have to call it a night eventually. You’ve got work in the morning.