A day-to-day problem that we all face in the 21st century that earlier generations didn’t encounter (at least not in nearly the same way) is how we all have to monitor our “screen time” or how much time we spend at the computer or on our phone. Sometimes this means monitoring our work-life balance and making sure that we aren’t sagging under the feeling of always being on the clock; sometimes this means trimming the buds of envy or narcissism as we scroll around on social media; and, in a stark alternative to option one, sometimes it means watching out to make sure we aren’t having a bit too much fun. Today’s topic is for all of the quest completers, the PVP’ers and the 360 no-scope’ers. How do you know if you are spending too much time playing games?

First off, this isn’t just a “touch grass” message in disguise. Nor is this about video games being bad or a waste of time‒they are as valid a form of entertainment as anything else, whether you use them to relax by yourself or link up with friends. Third, this isn’t a checklist to see if you have a “gaming addiction,” because such a thing isn’t even recognized by the DSM-5. All we recommend you do is, every now and then, ask yourself if you would be happier if you played games less than you do. I have only a handful of times in my life realized I’ve watched too many movies a day and feel a little visually overloaded, and I don’t think I have ever regretted taking time to explore a new city. I have, even as a lover of games, looked up from my computer to realize the sun has set without me knowing or stood up after too many games of FIFA and felt a dull pain around my spine. I would realize that I was going through the motions of habit rather than really doing anything that I would remember in a day or two’s time. If that sounds like a familiar feeling, then now is a fantastic time to try to think about putting some limits on your gaming time to hit the point of moderation that feels best for you.

So what leads us to spend too much time playing a game? During my college days, you would hear about people playing too much World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, missing classes or tests, and ultimately dropping out of school. Sure, there were probably other factors to those stories than video games being simply “too good,” but I have never heard of someone dropping out of school because they spend too much time looking at Renaissance paintings. There are a couple things to keep in mind here, and they will have different levels of importance for different readers. One simple reason that people’s behavior playing games has changed dramatically since the early 90s is that games have become more and more massive. Obviously, this makes sense in a bang-for-your-buck sense, but I know people who want the reassurance that a game might take them more than a hundred hours to complete before they buy them. Second, the interconnectedness of consoles and PCs via the internet means that competitive play exists, and it “never sleeps.” There is always someone out there to challenge; there are always other people increasing their rank or making their team/character/deck better; and there are always tips to be read online about how you might tweak your strategy for more wins. Finally, ever since video games no longer became a static entity (that is to say, once upon a time you bought Super Metroid for SNES and that was that; you had the whole game and it wouldn’t change), developers work to constantly shift and update games to bring players back. This might come in the form of holiday events or costumes to unlock, or designers might send out regular emails to their fans advertising new upcoming content. At the farthest extent, we also live in a world where it is actually possible to make money by being a competitive gamer or streamer. All of these forces combine to mean that not only have games become shinier, more accessible and more diverse than ever, but they also are designed to give players a continuous, steady drip of new content or challenges. In the best case, this means you have new ways to kick back after work and have fun; in the worst cases, this means compulsive playing behavior and an intense fear of missing out.

So again, if you ask yourself “Would I be happier if I played video games less,” and you answer “Yes,” what should you do? Well, first of all, just as if we are setting up a weight-loss program, think about what your target goal is. If you are that person who has forgotten to study for a test because of Elden Ring, then maybe scale down quite a bit, whereas if you just feel you still have a lot of quarantine habits that encourage you to sit around the house, then maybe just try to trim out little bits here and there. Again, gaming itself is just fine, so it’s really not a great idea to go “cold turkey” and just try to quit because this often will just leave you frustrated and cut off from something that should be a healthy source of fun. Here are five tips for curbing those urges:

  • Setting Limits – Yes, this does sort of feel like self-parenting, but in severe cases, you might just have to set yourself a daily limit of playing time. You can do this with a timer on your phone, but many video games now give you quite a few ways of seeing your own play time. The popular PC platform Steam, for instance, allows you to see your play time, and there are even ways of integrating Parental Controls (for yourself or for others) that govern playtime. I won’t offer you any type of “Safe Time.” Just find what you think works for you.
  • Treat it as a Reward – As a step down from the first “nuclear” option, it’s important to keep in mind that video games should be fun. I’ve seen people get hung up on the idea that their rank has to be the highest, or they are trying to break into streaming or competitive gaming. The worst feeling is when something supposed to be fun just . . . isn’t because it is starting to feel like a job. With that said, try to structure your day between active work time and follow those periods up with fun time and a controller in your hand. This makes gaming something you actually look forward to rather than what you do as soon as you roll out of bed or have any free time.
  • Consider what ‘Type’ of Games You Play – So this is a bit niche, but there are some games that are much easier than others to “increment” your time with. Let’s say you have a project to do for school and you want to take breaks using games (great job following the tip above!). Some games (I’m thinking Zelda, Dark Souls, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy) allow you to run around in a world and explore to your heart’s content, meaning you can run around for hours without hitting any sort of “Game Over” either in victory or defeat. Other games, however, have very clear “Beginning” and “End” points each time you sit down. For instance, most sports games have you on the clock trying to beat your opponent in a set amount of time; competitive games like League of Legends or Battlefield are a little more flexible in their length, but similarly have clear endings; and just about anything in the broad “puzzle” game category tends to be broken down into bite-sized segments. Any of these types of games where the screen clearly says “You are Done – Care for Another?” can make it easier to resolve yourself into saying “No” and getting back to work.
  • Plan Other Activities (with Friends!) – One of the reasons it’s so easy to play games for hours on end is because the console is just there. It’s as convenient as anything else and always available. Bouncing off point two again, it’s important to make sure you have other fun things to do mixed in with video games, both for your life balance and just to make sure games are still a good time. Make sure to schedule events or join activities and clubs that get you out of the house.
  • Consider Your Social Media Intake – OK, this is the most abstract one, but if you were trying to quit drinking alcohol and your social media feed is full of accounts promoting liquor, then you are in some trouble. Similarly, if your Twitter or Facebook feed is full of people promoting their Twitch Stream, sharing game clips and video game memes, then it’s probably no wonder that when you are in that state of trying to decide what to do that video games are the first thing to come to mind. Finding a shared passion with people online is always great, but if you can diversify a bit and find people who are invested in other forms of entertainment, it can help you foster those interests as well.

All of these are things you might consider if you are looking to cut down on your time with a controller in your hand. With a little luck, they won’t just help you spend less time sitting motionless in a chair or less time feeling anxious that other people are out there grinding while you aren’t. On the contrary, hopefully it will help you have more fun with games because they feel like an escape from the world again. From there, you are free to try to stick to the “healthy gamer” classics like only playing while standing up or some variant of the “Ten pushups each time I lose” method. Happy gaming!


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