4 steps to clear your games backlog and free yourself from an unending pressure

My games backlog

The games backlog has become a widely recognised phenomenon at this point, even a meme. It’s a problem that every gamer seems to suffer from, particularly those on PC where Steam sales (and the sweet, sweet discounts they offer) seem to occur more frequently than ever.

For the uninitiated, the games backlog is the library of games that accrues over the years and is never completed – sitting there unplayed. For most, the backlog only ever grows, and rarely shrinks. Clearing the backlog can take literal months of solid play, a figure you can look up for yourself.

Time required to clear my games backlog
Here’s my games backlog burden, from the 172 (out of 279) games HowLongToBeat.com has data for

Why does this matter? Surely having lots of choice of what to play is a privilege to be celebrated not begrudged?

Firstly, no. Choice paralysis is a very real thing, which makes picking the next game an unenviable task (first-world problem alert). But even when you’ve picked a game from your backlog to play, there is an even bigger issue constantly at play.

That game had better be GOOD. You picked it over tens, hundreds of other games. It not only has to be enjoyable in the moment, but among one of the best games you’ve ever played to justify it being picked in such a competitive field. It’s an unrealistic standard to meet and it stops you enjoying that game for its own merits. Even 8/10 games feel a waste of time when the next 10/10 game could be sat in your Steam library waiting to be downloaded. Most games, by definition, will not be amongst the best you’ve ever played. So why do we expect them to be?

My favourite games
Here’s my favourite games from my entire Steam library. 7 (SEVEN) games out of nearly 300 qualify as ‘favourites’

So here’s the theory; clear the backlog, clear the burden, start enjoying the next game again. How to do that? Read on.

Step 1: Accept you won’t play everything

The sunk cost fallacy is where the decisions we make are influenced by the knowledge that we have invested something (time, money, effort) into a thing, despite being unable to get any of that effort back. In this context, as we have spent good money on building our games backlog, we feel indebted to play each game. But why – the money is already spent, it’s gone. If we play something we know we don’t want to, just because we’ve spent money on it, then we’re only wasting our time as well as our cash.

The value of my Steam backlog
And this isn’t even purchase price…

It’s hard not to do this, but don’t do this! Accept that past you might have made a mistake buying a thing, but present you doesn’t have to pay for that mistake. Write it off and move on.

Step 2: Do some brutally honest categorisation

Whilst Steam has to share its blame for the current games backlog pandemic, it has tools to help you solve that problem. The Steam library collections tab allows you to build groups of games and name them accordingly. Get categorising! I’ve gone with the below, but modify for you if something else makes more sense.

  • Favorites – the default collection everyone has. Only the bestest of the best, that I know for certain I’ll replay/pick up at a moment’s notice, go in here.
  • Keep handy – things I’ve enjoyed that I may want to replay some day, or a place for games which I want to remember I have.
  • Likely done with – games I’ve completed, or played a bit, that I don’t expect I’ll put any more time into. Again, be honest. Are you really going to resume that 40-hour Divinity campaign at this point?
  • Will never play – games I really can’t ever see myself playing. Be BRUTALLY HONEST here – remembering that it could take you years and years of dedicated play to get through everything. The bigger this folder the better. There is no shame here – it will later be collapsed down in your library so you never need to look at its contents or feel guilty about it.
  • Backlog – games where you have a genuine intention to play at some point. The strength of this intention could vary (from ‘definitely will’ to ‘possibly might’), which is fine.

The broad shape of my categories is 50% in ‘done with’, 25% in ‘never play’ and just 10% in ‘backlog’.

My Steam collections
My Steam backlog and other categories

Of course, you may have games on other platforms and that’s fine. Do a similar thing with them if you can, or use something like GOG Galaxy to pull everything in one place if you’d like. Or keep a Google sheet, whatever works for you.

It’s a cathartic process. I’ve taken a huge long list down to 24 games I know I’ll want to play at some point. In doing so, I’ve written off 73 games, and cut out over 3 solid months of gaming time.

Step 3: sprint through the backlog

The aim of the next step is to clear the games backlog as quickly as possible. To do this, you should remind yourself of some truths:

  • You don’t have time to complete all of your games backlog.
  • You might not enjoy all games in your games backlog.
  • You are not indebted to past you (and their stupid purchase mistakes). And you’re certainly not indebted to the game’s developer (they have your money, they’re fine).

Calculate how many games are in the backlog across platforms, and give them all a number. Use a random number generator to pick a number between 1 and X, where X is the total number of games in the backlog (in my case between 1 and 24). That’s the next game you’re playing (great – no more hard decisions to make!).

Play the game, uninterrupted for 90 minutes. Commit to this time – no distractions, no worrying about how good the game is, don’t overthink it in the moment. At the end of those 90 minutes, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does the game give you some sort of positive feeling? Excitement, intrigue, joy, wonder, love. Any will do – but be honest.
  2. Does the game avoid creating any negative emotions? Boredom, frustration, (avoidable) confusion. Obviously forgive negative emotions that the game might be trying to create, for example fear.
  3. (Optional) Does the game do something new that you haven’t seen before? This is optional because it presumes you value new experiences over once you’ve had before, which may not be the case for everyone. It is for me.

If you answer ‘no’ to any of these, put the game down and into the ‘done with’ folder. If you answer yes to all three of these questions, then play on. Go for another chunk of time (maybe slightly longer; 2-3 hours) and ask the same questions again. Once the game stops deserving your time, cut it out.

This might seem harsh, but you don’t have time to be fair. Yes there are games that might hotup after 90 minutes, but do you really have time to find out? If a game doesn’t get going straight away, there are lots of other games in the backlog that will make a more immediate connection with you.

Step 4: Remain disciplined

At some point you will clear your games backlog. You will be free, once again, to enjoy a game without the burden of knowing you could be spending your time elsewhere. But remain disciplined, keeping the categorisation system going. You may no longer need to set a strict 90 minute time limit once you’ve got nothing on the ‘to play’ list, but keep evaluating games in the same way. Time is a precious resource, and one we can’t get back. We can always earn more money.

My journey

Hopefully this helps you clear yours. I’m going to practice what I preach in order to get my backlog under control, and will share my learnings along the way here. God speed.

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