The More I Have, the Less I Play

by G. Christopher Williams

1 March 2017

Choice in media sometimes doesn't lead to freedom, just paralysis.

I own hundreds of games. I mean, hundreds.

I have two big bureau drawers full of physical copies of console games, I have boxes of old PC ROMs, and I, of course, like many gamers, have a ludicrously long list of games in my Steam library.
Admittedly, I have played and completed a lot of these games, easily 70-80% of them, and some of them I have completed multiple times. However, in recent years, even when I pick up a new title or two, I find myself playing less, finishing less.

When I’m between games or have grown bored with the games installed on my PC, I find myself browsing my Steam library list, thinking about what games that I have started but not finished, thinking about loading up an older title that I know I like, trying to figure out what some of my games even are (those that I don’t recognize from their titles).

Often enough, after a few minutes of browsing, I end up firing up a YouTube video or go read some articles on some website. I don’t pick anything at all. I am paralyzed by my choices.

I recently heard about Sheena S. Iyengar’s and Mark R.  Lepper’s study “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?”, which concerns the nature of capitalizing on consumer choice when marketing a product. Joseph Putnam describes that study in ”Are You Losing Sales by Giving Customers Too Many Choices?”. He explains how the two researchers set up a marketing experiment involving presenting samples of specialty jams to customers at a supermarket.

In the study, the researchers found that when displaying 24 types of jam to customers to sample on their way into the store, that 60% of shoppers stopped to sample some of the jams. However, when presenting only six flavors of the jam, they found that only 40% of shoppers stopped by to try the jam. On the face of it, this seems to confirm the idea that presenting customers with many choices is a good thing. However, as Putman explains, the goal of marketing—to produce sales—was strangely less effective under these circumstances, “Of the customers who sampled 24 flavors, only 3% purchased, but of the customers who sampled 6, 30% did the same”.

I began thinking about this phenomenon in relationship to my problems in selecting games to commit to playing in recent months and just to the weird ways that we relate to media that offers a rich variety of choice. When I was a kid, and there was only three network stations on television, plus one local affiliate, plus public television, I always selected something to watch fairly quickly. When the cable box entered my home in the mid-‘80s, suddenly, I was often just surfing, not really watching anything at all.

I watch my daughter and her boyfriend announce their intention to watch Netflix, then spend 20 to 30 minutes browsing the rows and rows of video offerings on the launch page of Netflix, discussing various titles, hemming and hawing, before abandoning the television in search of something else to do or just falling into conversation in front of the Netflix menu.

All of these scenarios feel quite close to the futility of my own Steam library browsing experiences. There are loads of choices there, but as I vaguely evaluate my options, noting that, yeah, I should get back to that game or that’s a game I always have fun with or just, nah, that’s not the right one, I just tend to give up and look for something else to do.

The seemingly obvious solution to this problem seems like a bit of a horror to me, though. I need to reduce my collection right? I need fewer options so that I commit to one of these things instead of simply getting tripped up in the process of feeling a desire to play that is quelled by the needlessly long foreplay that is making the commitment actually to play with one of these things.

As I said, though, this seems like a horror to me. I have all this cool stuff, all these cool games, many of them that I know I love or would probably enjoy if I gave them more of a chance or, hell, that I simply might discover aren’t my thing at all and I would at least know to avoid it the next time. I have so many choices that I don’t play, and, yet, I somehow fear that if I reduced those choices that I would miss out on something that I discarded. It’s a Catch-22 between the desire to play with my toys or a desire to simply collect my toys, perhaps, and honestly, I remain at an impasse in regards to which desire will win out. 

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article