One big thing that makes video games unique in the cornucopia of pop culture is the time investment they demand of their audience. This had lead to an age-old debate about whether games are "too long," one that Kill Screen founder Jamin Warren recently tackled in his latest PBS Game/Show episode.
Arguments about the merits (or lack thereof) of gaming's requisite time sinks have been around since time immemorial, so don't expect to find the one true answer to the puzzle in Warren's segment. He makes a very well-reasoned argument, but it's one that left me all the more convinced that time in and of itself isn't the real problem here. Ironically, fixating on it precludes the discovery of any plausible solution to the problems games have with managing time.
Warren starts out by saying that time is a precious commodity. Simple enough. Because of its limited availability, the very choice to play video games comes at a cost. All the hours one sinks into reading through lore-drenched texts in Dragon Age: Inquisition or Skyrim are hours they're not spending with, say, classic works of literature like War and Peace. Or doing anything else that could easily be more valuable and interesting than scrounging around in the deep recesses of a role-playing game, for that matter.
The zero-sum game of gaming's time investment has led to what Warren calls "a crisis of audience." Adult gamers are becoming increasingly impatient with work that doesn't respect their time, while their younger brethren clamor for the longest possible games as they always have. Regardless of how many people actually end up finishing games, meanwhile, gameplay time remains a clear enough value in and of itself that game makers try to enhance it in any way possible. And so the cycle continues on and on.
Game/Show's generational distinction isn't an entirely fair one. There are undoubtedly many adult gamers who decide what games are worth buying because of their relative length since, again, that's considered a core part of their overall value. Games are expensive. Time is, of course, valuable as well. So if someone has to choose between plunging headfirst into Destiny or Shadow of Mordor, the fact that the former game will still have stuff to do hundreds of hours after the latter has dried up probably makes it seem a hell of a lot more appealing to many people.
And that's where we get into murky territory. Because really: how do you compare the 30-50 hours it takes to play Shadow of Mordor with the 400-plus some have spent with Destiny? Or the 30-40 hours for Grand Theft Auto 5? The 50-80 hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition? That's not even considering other great games that never come to an "end" like Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros., or League of Legends. The latter two of those are eSports in their own right as well as plain ol' video games. Can you safely say that sports are "too long?" Maybe baseball. But sports?
Time as a metric to evaluate games is so vague that I think it's all but useless to consider. Really, what people mean when they suggest that video games are "too long" is that they don't make proper use of the player's time. But, once again, that's difficult to analyse objectively. I was driven away from Destiny because I found the grind-heavy journey towards its supposedly miraculous endgame mind-numbingly repetitive. At the same time, I've continued to be more than happy wandering aimlessly through Far Cry 4 and GTA V doing ostensibly similar things—killing bad guys (or just guys, in GTA's case), collecting virtual trinkets, checking off boxes in each of those games' arbitrary list of tasks that are all ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Would I be a better person today if I'd not spent the time I did playing Mordor, Far Cry, Destiny, and GTA, and used it instead to finally read Gravity's Rainbow? Or spent all those hours at the gym transforming myself into a "spornosexual" male ideal? I'd be out of job, that's for sure.
That final qualification points to a crucial oversight in criticisms like Warren's. He, like me, is a person who's devoted his professional life to video games. The amount of games the popular audience he says is "in crisis" play in a given year pales in comparison to the number we do. Many people lack the time and money to play Far Cry 4, GTA V, and Shadow of Mordor all in the span of two months. They have to choose one. Gameplay time in and of itself means something very different for this hypothetical average gamer than it does for me or Warren. Which isn't to say that critics should blindly praise work for being "long" or "content-rich"—if anything, we should do the opposite. But from my perspective, that also means I can't tell somebody with much degree of certainty that their time would be better spent in Kyrat over Los Santos, any more than I can tell them that their money would be better spent in performing the same calculation. All I can do is reflect on what my time in those games has been like, and hope that experience will resonate with others well enough to help them make their own decisions.
Grand Theft Auto, Far Cry, and Destiny all create similar systems to encourage me to sink more and more time into their respective worlds. The only difference between them, then, is the value of the experiences I find within. In a similar vein, I could just as easily describe the many embarrassing losses I suffer in Smash Bros. or League of Legends as requisite "grinding" behavior like the kind I have to participate in in any of those big open-world shooters. But I don't, simply because I prefer to think of it as "practicing"—bettering myself as a player so that someday I'll be able to enjoy the game at a higher level. If any of these games starts to feel like playing it is taking too long, that's certainly a problem. But how do I go from that to saying, "video games are too long?"
The point of all these comparisons is to show that the quality of a game can never be understood by looking at the time it takes to play it. Warren even admits this in his video when he argues that gamers need to be able to trust that game developers aren't thoughtlessly "padding" their games with extra content. That's an entirely different statement than saying a game is "too long," though, which is my problem with the original inquiry.
Like asking if video games are too "violent," too "scary," too "realistic," too whatever, wondering if they're "too long" is the sort of question that only becomes substantive enough to actually mean something when you delve into specifics. Actually, violence and realism are already better descriptors simply because they're more tangible than something as ephemeral and philosophically puzzling as time.
As a starting point for any discussion, then, I think the "too long" line of criticism does more damage than good. I mean, think about it in terms of the comparisons that Warren raises at the beginning of his segment. Would you really use War and Peace as an example to ask if books are "too long?" Does the tragedy of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy serve as evidence that movies are "too long?" Is Nas's legendary and famously succinct record Illmatic proof that rap albums too often suffer from bloat? Well...yeah. But that's already a clearer proclamation than "music is too long." A critic hoping to make the latter point better come prepared with a sequel thoughtpiece: "sound is too loud."
These examples probably sound ridiculous, and that's the point. The only difference between asking if books versus games are "too long" is that the level of cultural panic around literature's deleterious effects has become muted enough that suggesting anything about their length or overall quality wouldn't be taken seriously.
I don't mean to dismiss the many valid concerns that we should have as gamers about how long it takes to play video games in any satisfying way. But the rhetoric we deploy when doing so is important too. Fixating on a concern as general as whether or not video games are "too long" prevents us, however temporarily, from asking deeper and more valuable questions about the relationships we form with games: if they're manipulative, strained, even abusive—as many have found Dragon Age: Inquisition's to be. There's a reason why, "Are video games too long?" continues to linger so stubbornly as a debate among gamers, after all: there's really no proper way to answer it.
Weirdly enough, I think that means it's officially begun to waste our time.
Full, probably unnecessary disclosure: I worked as an intern at Kill Screen for a few months after graduating college in 2011, so Jamin Warren was sort of my boss at one point. I've written many things for Kill Screen since, including a personal favorite that describes the time I almost had sex with a vacuum cleaner. Long story, which you can read here.