Time Keeps On Smashing Away

Note: Tron bow NOT actually visible at any point

Quick-time events. On-disc DLC. Moral choices that don’t mean anything and make you feel like you have to play a game through twice to see two barely-altered sides of the same coin.

Nowadays, gaming is arguably filled with more annoying gimmicks than you can shake a PlayStation Move controller at, but the one which bugs me the most of late is one of the most innocuous: the in-game timer that tracks how long you’ve been playing.

While it seems totally harmless at first, and only can be a pacifistic little quirk at best – what with it being a stat that only tracks how long you’ve played a game - it’s started to become the bane of my gaming existence. Oh, sure, it probably does have its positives, especially when you’re writing reviews and need to tell people how long you’ve spent playing, because some people can only see quantity over quality, but to me it’s an insidious feature that brings out a darker side and judges me in equal measure.

It first started with the brilliant Meteos on the DS, the physics-based puzzler that asked you to fire blocks of similar colours at another planet while one of its fourteen endings involves you turning into a giant fork and eating the villain. Spoilers. It was a title that was brilliantly suited to the pick-up-and-play ethos that pervaded the early days of the dual-screen hand-held, were it not for one particular little stat that I stumbled across in a menu one fateful day.

Now, I’m a man who played his first Nintendo DS so much and wore out the touch-screen so entirely that it would fade to white and become completely unusable after five minutes of being switched on, so I could easily spend hours manipulating gravity to throw things at other planets and morph into oversized cutlery. Yet, the moment I found out that the game was tracking how long I was playing and how many times I’d turned it on, my ethos changed entirely. No longer was I playing for approximately however much time I was still having fun, but for long enough that I could keep the average playing time the same.

I could no longer play for an innocent five minutes while waiting for a train, or get a quick one in while I was on the toilet. Instead, I’d only allow myself to play it on longer journies where I could guarantee at least an hour of play, just to keep that average play time up. I’d find myself asking exactly how long it’d take to drive places or to fly to that particular country. Meteos stopped becoming a game I could enjoy whenever I wanted in any situation, and one I could only allow myself to play at pre-determined times.

Eventually, I found myself playing it on fewer and fewer occasions before phasing it out of my travel selection entirely; not because it wasn’t fun, but rather I’d given myself such strict rules as to when I could play it. All so one statistic could tell me that, on average, I’d play Meteos for about an hour every time I turned it on. A statistic no-one would ever see but me, but one which had me controlled so utterly that it genuinely changed my entire gaming attitude for that one specific title.

As the years have passed, I long thought that side of me was over; not least because most console games weren’t concerned with telling me how much time I could have invested in a more practical hobby. Then, I found myself launching head-first back into PC gaming, and reacquainting myself with Steam, which had long shorn its identity of “that invasive, PC-destroying software that came with Half-Life 2” and became the platform’s de-facto distribution service.

While I never found myself getting so weird again as to threaten a resurgence of “The Meteos Incident“, I did start becoming more wary of Steam’s insistence on telling you how long you’d played all of the games in your library. For some it might be a neat little quirk, but I don’t exactly feel better about myself whenever I’m made aware of precisely how long I’ve spent playing every Codemasters F1 game since 2012. While I can’t deny I was having a fantastic time, games, to me, are inherently about escapism, which is why it’s so jarring to finally get my fill of taking on the world’s greatest drivers only to be brought back to reality by the sobering revelation that I could have spent those 196 hours learning how to race for real. If the Xbox 360 ever told me how much time I’d spent playing Rock Band and Guitar Hero instead of learning a real instrument then I’m pretty sure I’d never let myself have fun ever again.

I was certain that I was on the path to recovery recently, and almost adamant that this was the case when someone pointed out that the 3DS tracks every single time you play a game, precisely how long for, collates that information into a handy “average time played” stat, and even has an overall ranking board that tells you which games you’ve played longest. By the time this was revealed to me, it was far too late for me to get caught up in boosting average times played, and any marathon sessions I’d throw myself into would be but a fleeting raindrop in a tropical storm. I’d finally found myself able to play games on my own terms. Until the new Smash Bros.

I love the Super Smash Bros series to pieces, and they’ve always been a constant inspiration for marathon sessions of gameplay that far exceed the realms of human decency. Within a week of importing Brawl I’d managed to rack up over a hundred hours of play, despite picking up Mario Kart Wii halfway through, going outside, and being social. So, when the newest iteration dropped on the 3DS and Wii U, I knew that obsession was but the pull of a trigger away. Unfortunately for me, there were two such triggers: Amiibos, and a little statistic hidden within the game’s internal records which tracked my average play time.

While I’ve now managed to completely curb my addiction for Amiibos and stopped at owning only twenty of them (for now), I can only wish that I’d found that bloody time-tracking feature further down the line and at a stage where it could no longer affect me. Unfortunately, I ended up finding it way too early during my inaugural Smash session when I managed to bank six hours in a single sitting.

Far from the simple days of Meteos where I’d struggle to while away an hour, I’m now involved in a heroic struggle between my compulsion to keep the average play time as high as it is currently and my intense desire to not have to carve out a whole day just to do so. I may be having the time of my life playing it, especially thanks to the fact that Super Smash Bros for Wii U is easily the greatest game in the series, but the longer I insist on keeping the average up, the sooner it’ll literally turn into a nine-to-five job to do so.

It helps that the aforementioned Amiibo addiction gives me plenty to do every time I load the game up, but having to actually plan out which day of the week I have the most time to sit down and do nothing but Smash means that I’m slowly becoming unable to enjoy it on my own terms whenever I want. I found myself playing for twelve hours straight with the screen at the wrong proportions because I’d taken it elsewhere, adjusted the display for their screen, and forgotten to change it back when I got home, just so I could keep that average time up. Somewhere along the way I’d forgotten to draw a line, and while I’m adamant I’ll never lose my love for Smash Bros, I may soon find myself starting to lose my life to it.

I’m fully aware how stupid it seems, and how ridiculous it all is when you get down to it, but somewhere along the way I certainly didn’t help myself, and have slowly made it harder to break the cycle. Unless this article proves to be the magic cure-all solution I sorely hope it will be, that is. When I’m old, grey, and it’s absolutely too late to do everything I wanted to do in life, I’d rather not look back and have the precise amount of time I’ve wasted hurled back at me in a single statistic.

Actually, while we’re on the subject, can someone destroy all my receipts so I never sit down and figure out exactly how much I’ve spent on Amiibos? Because some of them I may have paid slightly above RRP for, plus I had to import a couple, and while I’d have sought it out anyway I’m pretty sure I bought Yoshi’s Wooly World just to get that Yarn Yoshi they made and…

Last five articles by Edward



  1. Richie rich says:

    LOL! OCD fucked. Just get back into achvs instead!

  2. Lorna Lorna says:

    Steam is an arse for that stuff. I think all those things, from timers to stats to cheevies, are just a handful of ‘fuck yous’ that we’ll have to live with when we’re desperate for more time on this screwy blue and green rock. It is why I gave up cheevies and have never looked back. Break the habit… dooooo it!

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