I don’t have a games backlog

In video games, there is the concept of a “backlog”—a list of games that you want to play, but haven’t gotten around to playing. This is commonly discussed as a source of anxiety, as people accumulate hundreds of games in a list that they have no hope of ever completing. There are lots of videos and articles giving tips on how to clear your backlog, or else chronicling a journey to clear a backlog.

Talk of backlogs is so ubiquitous that people seem to think every gamer has one. This isn’t true. There are myriad ways to approach the consumption of entertainment media, and the backlog is just one. I’d wager that many people would even consider the backlog to be counterintuitive. Would you have a backlog for books, movies, or TV shows? You could, but I think most people just check what movies are available in the moment, and then pick one out.

I recently watched a Transparency video in opposition to the idea of a backlog, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have one. Now, I also don’t have a backlog, but it struck me that Alicia’s approach is still different from mine. I think Alicia assumes that any list is a backlog, but I actually have a list that I don’t consider to be a backlog.

The games orchard

So, I play about 50 games a year. That sounds like a lot, and it is. But for what it’s worth these are mostly shorter indie games. Since I cycle through games so quickly, I frequently need to figure out what to play next. So as a practical measure, I maintain a list–implemented primarily as a Steam wishlist of about length 50.

But unlike a backlog, I have no intention of ever playing most of the games on the list. I do not have a goal of “getting through” the list. The eventual fate of most games is to be dropped from the list.

Rather than a backlog, the list is more like an orchard. When I want a new game to play, I go walk through my orchard and pick something out. I pick out the best of the bunch, or whatever moves me in the moment, or perhaps something that’s on sale. The list is pragmatically-oriented, making no attempt to be complete; it only needs to have the things that I’m likely to choose to play. There are sections of the orchard that aren’t even for me specifically, but there to recommend to my husband, or for my multiplayer group.

And what happens when a game goes on sale before I’m ready to pick it out? If I want to play a game in the near future, okay, I’ll buy it on sale. I add it to a queue of games to be played. This queue does not resemble a “backlog” though, because most of the time there are one or zero games in my queue. I don’t need to buy every game on sale, because I know that sales are a ploy to get people to spend more money, not less.

Another thing that makes the orchard analogy apt, is that I frequently plant seeds (i.e. add as-yet-unreleased games), on the chance that they will eventually bear fruit. When the games eventually come out, I look at the reviews and recent trailers, and reassess whether they belong in the orchard at all.

A lot of marketing for indie games occurs long before the games are even released. This structurally encourages wishlists like mine, and trailers will even explicitly encourage wishlisting. My understanding is that devs use Steam wishlists to forecast commercial success and attract publishers.

And I’m okay with that, because curating the orchard is a source of joy rather than anxiety. I like watching it grow; I like ruthlessly pruning it. As I wrote elsewhere:

I really like game trailers. There’s something invigorating about watching like two seconds, and making a snap judgment about it. It’s a little power fantasy, where I play the role of evil overlord. “Wouldn’t you like to play–” Nope! Rejected! *pulls switch to open trap door*

The joy in negativity

So, this is obviously a more contentious solution to backlogs, and tailored to my own personality and outlook on media. But it seems to me that if there are an excess of games you want to play, the solution is to raise your standards. The solution is to be more negative about games, to even take joy in negativity. You are the evil overlord, hand poised over the trap door switch, why would you not cackle in pleasure?

Implicitly, the orchard approach raises your standards whenever there are more games to choose from. You are, after all, picking the best games (in a fluid subjective sense) from the orchard. If a game languishes in the orchard for years without ever being picked, that’s because better games keep coming out at a faster pace than you can play them. Therefore, the game doesn’t meet your standards, and you don’t need to play it, it might as well be dropped from the list. The real problem is that people have difficulty aligning their stated preferences (what they think they want to play) with their revealed preferences (what they ultimately choose to play).

A common hazard is the difference between games with short-term payoff and long-term payoff. For example, a long RPG might only feel gratifying once you get into the groove. Or perhaps the reason you want to play a game is not for the in-the-moment experience, but for the promise of enculturation, a connection to the cultural touchstones of gaming. When you set out to make a list, you have a preference for long-term payoff. After all, you’re not playing any of the games right this instant, you’re too busy making a list. But when you want a game to play in the immediate future, that’s when you prefer games with short-term payoff.

(It’s an elephant in the room, that the people who complain loudest about their backlogs are basically professional critics. So they have a vested interest in being enculturated into games. But for the rest of us, my feeling is, why bother? If you want to be enculturated into games then go for it, but it’s no obligation.)

Personally, I align my stated and revealed preferences through taking joy in negativity and criticism. I believe in negativity above and beyond what is considered normatively acceptable. For example, people think you can’t disparage the “classics”. To this I say, why not? I sure don’t have time to play all of them, and neither do you. People say you can’t be critical of a game without having experienced it. To this I say, why not? I’m not writing a professional review, I’m picking out games that I haven’t played, so prejudgment is practically required. It’s also fun to be petty, and this is a harmless outlet.

People say, you can’t hate everything. To this I say, why not? Ruling out entire categories of games (e.g. shooters, RPGs, character action, horror, etc.) is a great way of focusing more on genres I actually like. Also, being critical of media is a wonderful way of enjoying it. The way I see it, media already speaks in its own favor. So if I want to get an interesting dialectic going, It’s up to me to supply the opposing viewpoint.

And really, what’s the worst that can happen if I’m overly negative? Would I run out of games to play? Heh. Then maybe I could work on my book backlog.


  1. says

    I heard somewhere that when people buy things and never end up using them, it’s because of the mismatch between the kind of person they want to be, and the kind of person they actually are. When they buy something, they imagine having the kind of life where they use that thing (and the same concept would apply to having a games backlog that they feel obligated to play- they want to be the kind of person who has experience playing all of those games) but then in their everyday life, they don’t actually want to do the work of being that kind of person. Which is fine! And this should be addressed by honestly looking at the amount of work it would take and whether it’s actually worth it or not.

    This is why I have a massive list of books I want to read- I want to be the kind of person who has read all of these books and has an opinion on them. (Every time I go to the US, I’m like “HOW MANY BOOKS SHOULD I BUY THIS TIME”)

  2. says

    If there are books you can only purchase in the US, there’s also an issue of hedging against risk. What if you want to read a book later, before you get another opportunity to buy it? What if you don’t get another opportunity?

    It the same thing with game sales. They’re deliberately trying to encourage overpurchasing,

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