Analysis | Overwhelmed by your video game backlog? We’ve got tips.


Picture this: It’s the end of a long day. You’re tired, looking to give your weary brain a well-deserved break with something mindless and fun in the precious few hours before you have to do it all over again. Do you pick up playing the game you stopped halfway through because life got crazy? Or that new game your friends have all been hyping up? Or any of the dozens of titles gathering virtual dust in your Steam library, bought for a steal and never once fired up?

If you’re like me, more often than not, you end up either 1) retreating to time-tested favorites, games you’ve already sunk hours and hours into, or 2) burning yourself out overthinking your options and ultimately gravitating to whatever TV show or movie or app is less overwhelming in that moment.

This inability to make a decision when faced with seemingly countless options is commonly known as decision paralysis. It’s an anxiety believed to be born of FOMO, or fear of missing out; a player weighing so many options may find themselves frozen with indecision, and that can send their mind down a rabbit hole of self-doubt. Which is the best? What if I choose wrong? What if I regret my decision?

“They’re never quite sure if they’ve chosen the one that was the best or the one that was good for them,” explains Sheena Iyengar, the S.T. Lee professor of business at Columbia University whose research dives into the psychology of choice and decision-making extensively. “The more choices they have, they’re less likely to make a choice. They procrastinate, they delay, they just get overwhelmed and they don’t choose.”

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Even when the stakes are all but nonexistent, our brains still struggle to shake this notion of there being a “right” choice, the most optimal solution. “People, when they make a choice, essentially want to feel competent as choosers and confident with the choice that they’ve made,” Iyengar said.

This compulsion can leave players spinning their wheels when trying to decide what to play next, she explained: “You want your leisure to be exciting. And so then you pick [a game] and … if it’s not exciting, every single second, you’re kind of wondering, ‘Well, but what if I had chosen another one or that other one?’ ”

Though anyone can experience decision paralysis, it’s particularly common among people with ADHD. As someone who was diagnosed later in life, it’s a wall I’ve run into many times. Over the years I’ve developed a few strategies to narrow my choices and get over the bear of starting a new game. Some of these tips will require a bit of ground work on your part, but there are online resources that’ll make the process much more manageable.

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If you’re struggling to make a decision on what to play next, then don’t! Let the universe, Lady Luck, the random number generator gods — whatever you want to call it — decide for you.

There are a couple of ways to do this. One option is to create a spreadsheet of all the games on your backlog and use the random sort feature to generate a recommendation at random. For Google sheets, right click on the list of items, select “View more column actions” and then select “Randomize range.” Randomizing a list in Excel requires a few more steps, but there are plenty of guides online to walk you through it.

Another option is to make categories that can help narrow down what you want to play. When coming up with the categories themselves, the more specific, the better. You’ll want to use phrasing that makes the most sense to you and reflects what you regularly find yourself in the mood to play. “Want something to zone out to?” or “JRPG grind” or “Make me suffer” are all categories I’ve used before. Then, once you have your games sorted into buckets, assign each one a number and then roll the dice — either literally with a physical die or using an online random number generator.

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Randomization can work as a good barometer. If you randomly select a game and something about the pick feels off, or if you’re not excited by the idea of playing it, you can skip that game and circle back later. Or just drop that title from your backlog.

Offload the process onto a computer

I joke that I don’t trust my brain with any amount of information — if I don’t write it down or put it in my calendar or set a reminder, it’s anyone’s guess whether I’ll be able to remember it. I’ve found a lot of success letting my computer and smartphone bear the brunt of the mental load when it comes to the nitty-gritty details. That goes for tackling my video game backlog t00.

If you play on PC, Steam has a recommendation engine that uses machine learning to compare your gameplay history with other players. It then spits out a list of games that seem up your alley, which you can customize with sliders for how popular or niche of a game you’re looking for as well as when it was released. You can filter out games on your wishlist, genres or specific series.

This recommendation engine from the video game market research firm Quantic Foundry is another great option. You don’t need an account to use it, just enter the titles of three games you enjoy, and it generates a list of recommendations by cross-referencing the company’s database, which includes data from more than 300,000 players about their gaming preferences, demographics and the titles they enjoy.

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Free cataloguing sites like Backloggd and How Long to Beat are great resources (think Goodreads, but for all the games you’ve been meaning to play) to help streamline the decision process. Once you’ve input your library, you can sort games into categories — want to play, currently playing, completed, abandoned — to keep track of your progress.

Another great feature of both How Long to Beat and Backloggd that gets back to tip number one: You can randomize your backlog. Backloggd has the option to randomly sort the titles on your “want to play” list, while How Long to Beat will suggest a single game at random from your backlog with the press of a button.

Figure out what you’re signing up for

Iyengar’s research has shown that the presence of clearly defined categories in an assortment of options can increase a consumer’s satisfaction with whichever one they end up picking. When it comes to video games, she said, the more consumers are able to differentiate and understand the experience they’re going into, the more likely they’ll be satisfied walking away from it.

“The more the consumers see, ‘Okay, if I play this one, I’ll have this experience, versus if I play that one, I’ll have that experience,’ … the more confident they’re going to be in the choice that they’ve made and the happier they’ll be.”

In addition to reading reviews, you can check out a game’s runtime to help you narrow down your options based on what your schedule permits. How Long to Beat can help with that: As the name implies, it’s a site that lists the average runtime for video games broken down by play styles — whether you’re a completionist trying to platinum the game or just looking to get through the main campaign. The estimated playtimes are aggregated from player feedback, and each entry lays out how many players were polled, what systems they played on, etc. Nailing down a fuller picture of the time commitment you’re getting into when you press Start means one less variable for your brain to chew over when you sit down to play.

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You don’t have to make an account to check a game’s playtime on How Long to Beat, but you will need one to keep track of your backlog. It has a nifty feature to link up your Steam account and import your library automatically, where you can then sort games by player ratings, average time to beat and other options.

Backloggd, which you also need to make an account to use, has the added benefit of applying filters. That way you can narrow down your options based on genre or release year among other options depending on what you’re in the mood to play. Things start to feel a lot more manageable when you’re looking at four or five options instead of your entire library.

Try going into a play session with a predetermined time commitment in mind and a visual cue to reference throughout. Set a timer, or better yet, a visual timer to give your brain a reference point to latch onto. Visual timers are designed to show time passing in a way that, at a glance, you can see the amount of time remaining. Different types use different visual cues: sand timers, liquid timers or color-coded countdown clocks. Knowing a game’s runtime can only help so much if you experience time blindness, or the inability to correctly gauge the passing of time, another common symptom of ADHD. But armed with a visual timer, you’ll be surprised by how much less intimidating the decision-making process becomes.

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