Please Stop Saying Video Games Are ‘Too Long’

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 clamour 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.

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.

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” behaviour 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.

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. 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?” Doing would 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 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.


  • For me it’s not the size of the world, it’s how long a gaming session lasts.

    I stopped playing Left for Dead because it always seemed to take at least 45mins to get through a campaign. I often don’t have that much unbroken time!

    But any game that I can save at any time so I can attend to other things and come back to is fine. The bigger the better!

  • I think it’s more of the consumers resposiblity to research the amount of time they have to invest to finish a game. To me the longer the better.

    I really enjoyed Wolfenstein from last year because it did a great job with its story and kept me going for over 15 hours. I know it had no multiplayer and little reason to replay it, but I only have fond memories of it, despite my leanings towards co-op and/or freedom to explore.

    • You only have to compare the gathering/crafting component of Far Cry 4 to that of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and you’ll see that exact ‘padding’ behaviour.

      If you need something in Far Cry 4, the most you’ll need of that something is 5 pieces, but most commonly 2-4, and if you take care or pick the right skills, you’ll gather 2 components in one go. Voila! A few seconds diversion from what I was doing, and now I have stuff.

      Unlike Dragon Age, where the crafting components are awarded in such small quantities and their requirements so demanding, that you spend so much time collecting at any and every available opportunity (because, “At some point in the near future I’m going to want 50 of that, so I better grab this node of 1-2 while I can,”) that it actually BECOMES a central gameplay task in itself, instead of a diversion.
      A boring task. Or… ‘padding’.

      • But Ubisoft games have tried ‘padding’ their games with icons. Shoving as much icons on your map to clear. You have to clear all the icons. You don’t need that chest of 100 bucks. But you need to get rid of that chest icon.

        • Aha, I fell into the trap of doing that, too, for a while. And while this is definitely a trap the OCD-like can fall into, it is important to recognize that there is no award, no unlock, no achievement for doing so. And frankly, when your wallet is overstuffed 99% of the time and your inventory slots almost full as well, there is no need to pursue them, either. (Unlike DA:I’s crafting materials.) Think of those as like… fire extinguishers. They’re there if you need them.

        • I used to be like that, but nowadays if the number of icons is excessive, I tend to write it off as a lost cause and just focus on the main storyline. It doesn’t help when the filler content is not particularly enjoyable and/or relevant to the plot. I’m looking at you especially, contrived “race you” missions…

  • If i look at something like p4g, then 60+hrs is something im more than willing to sink into it as the gameplay & story keep me engaged for that whole time.

    BUT, Obviously, it depends on what type of game it is. Im not gonna expect that kind of length from an FPS thats been built for essentially online mulitplayer.

  • Too long? I say too short I don’t know about you guys but I don’t care about the latest amazeballs graphics engine (that also needs 35GB of space)…… I want value and progression that doesn’t feel like a grind.

    I can fondly remember sinking hundreds of hours into games like baldurs gate, Max Payne or Freespace; I’m so tired of paying through the nose, chewing through more disk space and then getting a game I can knock over in < 10 hours of campaign time.

  • Padding is the big concern here. Why make me run between two locations to split up a cutscene or put a “press x to progress” mechanic in? Just play the cutscene. Assassin’s Creed Rogue was great because it cut out much of that stuff. The lack of content traditionally associated with the AC series improved the game, rather than detracted from it.

  • I’m usually not this hostile towards people, but what a little bitch.

    Grinding – “Hunting down seven angry honeybadgers in Far Cry 4 just so you can upgrade your weapon holster”

    That’s not grinding! Grinding is going back and fighting low levelled NPC’s over and over just to get your stats/money/points up.

    Game hours are FINE the way they are, Jamin Warren is just a whiny hipster dick.

  • I know a game or movie feels too long when I look at my watch and think ‘is this going to be over soon’. Felt that way with the last Hobbit movie, and I felt that way with the Alien: Isolation. Although to be fair I really enjoyed the latter.

    • Conversely, I generally end up checking my watch at some point during a movie out of habit (rather than boredom), but see it as a mark of a really good movie when I never end up checking it at all 😛

  • If a game starts to approach <$5/hour once I’m done with it, I’m usually happy. Considering a trip to the movies approaches $12-15/hour it’s value for money.

  • To be fair I don’t think the amount of time is ultimately the issue. It comes down to the quality of the time spent.

  • Padding is the issue here. I don’t care if a game is 3 hours long. If it ends up being 3 amazing goddamn hours, then I’m totally happy with it.

    I was playing Batman Arkham Origins yesterday and it’s full of ridiculous bullshit that makes you go from the top of th emap, back to the bottom, back to the top again. For no reason. There’s no reason the story triggers couldn’t have been put in easier access to each other. It just doesn’t respect the fact that time spent staring at the (terrible) map and following icons is not time spent as a happy gamer.

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