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What Playing Through My Backlog As My 2019 New Year’s Resolution Taught Me About Happiness

The Four Noble Truths learned through gaming in 2019

“I’m going to play more video games this year.”

I remember the look on my husband’s face when I told him my New Year’s Resolution for 2019: confusion.

“You mean, more than you already do?” He had asked, puzzled.

I nodded.

“Yes, but there’s a catch — I’m not going to buy anymore video games before I play through my backlog.” I explained.

His eyebrow raised in doubt.

“…at least, not until I make a dent in it.”

He shrugged, then went back to Netflix. My resolution clearly meant more to me than it did to my non-gamer husband.

As someone who not only works in the video game industry but plays video games or watches let’s plays every waking moment, promising to play more video games seemed like a weird resolution when I said it — even I questioned it — but the truth is, it was a long time coming.

In all honesty, I hadn’t really sat down and played video games since 2015. After getting engaged four years ago, I set aside all things that brought me joy to work extra jobs, spending sleepless nights hustling until I had earned enough money to pay for our dream wedding. I don’t regret doing what I did, but one of the smaller sacrifices I made was basically not playing video games for roughly two years in order to use that time earning extra cash. To get my fix, I’d watch YouTubers play my favorite games as I worked well into the night and put plenty of titles on my Steam Wishlist, occasionally buying some here and there in anticipation of the day when I could finally sit down and enjoy them for myself.

By the end of 2017, the wedding had come and gone, but my personal and professional life got in the way of any form of joy. I was habitually still working extra gigs to put cash into my savings account, and the stress of it all was starting to get to me. My life was crashing around me, and I’m still not sure how I survived 2018, but all I can say is everything got immeasurably better when I started focusing on three things ONLY: my new job, my marriage, and myself.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and I still wasn’t playing video games like I used to. Instead, I spent the last half of 2018 powering through Steam discovery queues and making a semi-regular circuit of all my nearby game stores (three GameStops, one Best Buy, one Target, one Book-off, and a local collectible warehouse called Frank & Son’s). I was hesitant to call it an addiction, but I’m not sure what else to dub that dopamine-craving. I didn’t just want new games, I felt better when I bought them.

My backlog, already fairly sizable, was growing bigger and bigger by the day — so much so that I started cataloging my games after I accidentally bought the same one twice. It got to a point where I spent more time shopping for games than I did playing them, having market price memorized on games that had been sitting on store shelves for years. I’d get a kick out of buying a game at a good deal, only to add it to the pile and wait for the next shopping trip.

I needed to change before someone close to me decided I needed an intervention.

1. To live means to suffer


First, I decided to set a few ground rules:

  1. No more shopping circuits.
  2. Finish the games once started (or keep playing until they stop being fun).
  3. Continuously update the backlog as necessary.
  4. Keep a detailed record of finished games.
  5. Sleep

I immediately put a stop to my standard shopping trips (I took a different route home to avoid a GameStop, for example). I held off on PC games for the first few titles so I wouldn’t be tempted to easily buy more through Steam. Weekend trips to Frank & Son’s were canceled. Once the circuit stopped, the cycle of shopping stopped, and my backlog’s growth rate came to a halt.

The goal was to choose a game that called out to me so it would keep my interest for the necessary length of time, finish it, update my backlog, and then write about it on my Instagram stories to keep a sense of accomplishment going. I also mandated that I shouldn’t stay up playing games, as I didn’t want to replace one vice with another and re-introduce a bad sleeping schedule (a lifetime struggle). Game plan set, I started off the resolution by finishing two quick games, something that hadn’t happened in who knows how long.

Initially, I worried that I would miss shopping for games, but I quickly found that playing them filled the void. Seems like a no-brainer, but for someone who spent more time in GameStop than in-game, it was a weird shift back to where I was supposed to be. I knew it would be tough to break that cycle, but it had to happen for both my financial and mental health.

2. The origin of suffering is attachment

to the moon game
As I kept playing through my backlog, I discovered that I had a lot of amazing gems already purchased that I hadn’t even touched. In 2019, I was finally playing games like Undertale, Rakuen, Night in the Woods, and To The Moon. Critically acclaimed games from the year prior also made it on the list, such as Frostpunk, Gris, and Octopath Traveler. I even broke out older games like Professor Layton, Story of Seasons, and Octodad — games I forgot I had finally made it into the rotation, and I felt really enriched by the experience.

Speaking of Octopath Traveler, I spent $60 on it when it first came out and promptly put it on the shelf to collect dust. In June 2019 — a year later — I completed every single main mission and side-quest in just over 125 hours. That’s roughly $2 per hour — not bad in terms of bang for my buck, and definitely much cheaper than spending 125 hours shopping for games.

By putting a halt to game buying, I realized just how attached I had become to that dopamine rush of purchasing games. Games with no end in sight aside (like rhythm games), I spent more time in Octopath Traveler than pretty much any other game this year, yet initially I didn’t even think to touch it. I had become addicted to the act of owning and the feeling of new belongings instead of the joys of playing. And while it’s good to support developers, games are meant to be played.

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable

Initially, I thought I’d put a complete and total stop to my video game purchasing until my backlog was defeated, but realized by doing so, I probably wouldn’t last a month. In personal training, I learned that not taking rest days or allowing yourself to have “bad foods” from time to time was the fastest way to failure, so I applied what I learned to my resolution and gave myself space to purchase new games every once in awhile.

Of course, there was a catch — I set a budget for how much I’d allow myself to spend (with certain exceptions, like games I knew I’d play immediately such as Pokemon) and I would only visit one store maximum on any given trip. By doing so, shopping again became a conduit for playing games instead of the act of joy itself. Instead of being attached to shopping, I used the trips expressly for the purpose of getting a game I knew I’d play shortly.

In other words, I cultivated a healthy relationship with video game stores, retraining my brain to think of them as mere places to buy my true source of joy and not the source itself. In retrospect, this was probably the most important aspect of the entire resolution, as building a new foundation is the ultimate key to long-term success. By setting an attainable goal with room to breathe, I was able to reasonably fulfill my New Year’s Resolution and end a fairly damaging cycle caused by extreme and unhealthy routines.

4. The path of ‘gradual self-improvement’ leads to the cessation of suffering

It took 10 months and 50+ games, but I realized that I achieved what I actually set out to do back in January: I established a healthy balance with my true passion by shedding the game-purchasing addiction bred out of extreme, yet necessary, working habits. And, for the first time, I was happier with what I already owned instead of looking for new things to make me happy. As it turns out, desire really was the root of my suffering, and to end that cycle, I had to end the desire. Only by ending the desire could true happiness actually begin.

By mid-October, I felt comfortable enough to move back into playing new titles. It wasn’t because I had run out of games, mind you, rather that I found myself playing through incredibly rich storytelling experiences with no one to talk to about them. When I finished Rakuen, I sobbed uncontrollably, my husband finally holding me in a somewhat failed attempt to console me. Octopath Traveler’s final boss battle music became my go-to traffic-fighting jam, pumping myself up in my isolated steel cage. And, I’m not going to lie, I felt like I waited too long on Octodad, missing a window on novelty mechanics that could have otherwise been an enjoyable experience.

By November, I decided to re-introduce one more passion into the mix — one that delights me to my core — and that’s reviewing video games. The time spent on purchasing new games was freed up, and something I legitimately enjoy — talking to people about gaming experiences through the written word — was able to take its place. I’m still trying to figure out a healthy balance and, truthfully, I got back on my no-sleeping bullshit, but this article marks not only the end of the year but the end up staying up until the wee hours of the morning reviewing (hopefully). 2020 will see further self-improvement, including better budgeting, better health, and better sleep.

But I suppose that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are all about — a continual path towards self-improvement. Nobody’s perfect, but acknowledging imperfections and striving to improve is better than doing nothing at all.

As I finish this article on the dawn of the final day of 2019, I do so surprised but satisfied with my resolution for the year. I used to joke that I’d “get a real resolution next year”, but the truth is, I’ve never been more proud of myself for breaking a pretty vicious cycle caused by events set in motion years prior. One of the last gasps of perhaps the most stressful periods of my life coming to a close, I look back on this accomplishment and reflect on the benefits it’s brought me — I’ve saved money, I’ve achieved a healthier work-life balance, and I’ve had fun.

But — most importantly — I’ve learned to be happy with what I have.

Happy new year, everyone!

Heather Johnson
Born at a very young age; self-made thousandaire. Recommended by 4 out of 5 people that recommend things. Covered in cat hair. Probably the best sleeper in the world. Still haven't completed the civil war quest in Skyrim but I'm kind of okay with that. Too rad to be sad.
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