2019 - A Commitment to A Year of Depth
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage.
This is a more self-indulgent editorial than we normally publish. I’m sure you’ll agree - coming from a man who wrote a post on applying the Bloom Taxonomy to board game reviewing that’s quite the trick. I’m writing this because if I don’t document it somewhere it will become as ephemeral and as consequence free as any other promise of self improvement. I’m writing this here so as to make my intentions public. I hope in doing so I create a little accountability for the future. You can’t stop me from doing whatever I choose to do, but you can at least make me feel bad about it.
Let me tell you about my upcoming Depth Year.
This is an idea I encountered on the Raptitude blog and it has stuck with me like few such things ever do. It’s a simple idea, best expressed by the author of the post.
I keep imagining a tradition I’d like to invent. After you’re established in your career, and you have some neat stuff in your house, you take a whole year in which you don’t start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don’t need.
We’re all engaged in a fun hobby. However, this is also a hobby that is infested from trunk to skunk with a cult of acquisition. I’m no better than anyone else in that regard although I have been trying to fight the impulse for a while. It feels good to buy things. To take possession of things. To own things. Consumerism thrives on the little dose of dopamine we get when we indulge in frivolous purchasing. The rush of owning a new thing is such that we often seek novelty without our homes when there’s more than enough within to sustain us for the rest of our lives. It’s starting to weigh on me, because I have been a long-term offender on that score. Seriously, even Amazon throws shade at me for it. Here’s a quote from an honest to God email I got from them:
Hi Michael Heron. You're receiving this email because you are purchasing on Amazon in large amounts. Are you purchasing for business?
It’s bad when your online retailer of choice is clearly on the verge of staging an intervention. It’s worse when you know it probably wouldn’t even work.
And you know what? I think it actually is time for some kind of action plan. I look at my shelves and they’re full to the brim of boardgames I haven’t played. I wonder why I even bother to have a wish list of games that I want to get – I don’t need any more. My pace of acquisition far outstrips my ability to play, and all I’m buying on a monthly basis is the stress of an ever-expanding todo. If I don’t buy another game for two years, I’ll still be able to review a new title every week. At this point here I think any reasonable person would say ‘That’s plenty’. Reasonable though was a long time ago in the rear view mirror. A quick check of the ‘value’ of my collection reveals a stark number. It becomes even starker when I think that maybe about half of that value lies unplayed and perhaps always will unless drastic action is taken. There is so much depth to be had on my shelves that it is ludicrous that I still feel myself pulled towards more games. We have a term for this - 'the shelf of shame'. I think shame is a fair description, especially given what this conspicuous consumption does to enable gatekeeping attitudes within the hobby.
It would be one thing if this was just board games but they’re just the recent manifestation of decades of low-key hoarding behaviour. I have a couple of thousand books at last count. I’ve read a lot of them. Most of them even, although that ‘most’ is likely to be true only by a gnat’s hair. There are still unread hundreds that I bought at one point, interested enough in the topic to seek them out and pay cash money in order to take possession. I keep a spreadsheet of the books I have read because I’m just that kind of bell-end. I get through an average about 42 books a year. I’ve easily got a decade’s worth of reading material here before I seriously need to contemplate a new purchase. They’re all fascinating books that I fully intended to ‘get to’ except that there’s always a new Kindle daily deal or Waterstones sale. A new thing that I may have heard about will inevitable draw my attention until the next shiny thing distracts me. That’s why on one shelf you’ll see a book about the archaeological search for the Ark of the Covenant sitting right beside one on the French revolution. I haven’t read either. Yet.
I’ve got genuinely hundreds of movies that I’ve bought and never watched. Whole TV series that I picked up in box-set form and then never got around to taking out of the shrinkwrap. And for the love of God don’t get me started on my unplayed Steam library. The Humble Monthly by itself injects new games into my account at a rate with which I couldn’t possibly keep up. And yet there I go, putting money down on a new bundle deal because ‘It’ll be good to have those when I have time to play’.
Enough is enough. This is not psychologically healthy. I feel weighed down by this – possessed of abundant distraction and yet still always seeking for something new. I’m not especially interested in this as a money saving exercise, but as an attempt to improve my mental health. I embark on a depth year for healing purposes. I bear the scars of a battle with consumerism and the trophies I have earned in the fight are closing in on me from all sides.
I don’t think I’m going to succeed. I think I’m in too deep. I think I’m going to buckle within months and find myself continuing this spiral of endless, suffocating acquisition. I know that’s what I’m going to do if I don’t put this to paper, so that’s why you’re getting this fed into your eyeballs.
I’ve never been a fan of these kind of exercises, because I usually find they achieve the opposite of what they are supposed to accomplish. I once did a reading challenge for example that left me finishing only a scant handful of books. It was so restrictive that I didn’t want to read anything that would be compatible and I didn’t want to read anything that wouldn’t make progress on the list. Faced with that, I found other diversions.
First and foremost then one has to consider the end goals of a project like this. It’s not enough to set a challenge – that challenge has to be with a particular aim in mind. If the reality of the challenge undermines the aims, that’s the only circumstances under which it should be thrown away. For that escape hatch, we need to be clear about what we’re hoping to do.
So here’s my goal: I want to develop a healthier relationship with consumerism by valuing what I have rather than what I (temporarily) want.
And I will do that by: Not purchasing unnecessary things while I have other unnecessary things already available.
I want to put a focus here on consumerism, because a self-improvement project like this is also somewhat at odds with the aims of Meeple Like Us. We get sent review copies on occasion, and request them once in a while so as to continue our mission to nail down the accessibility profile of the hobby. I don’t want to completely tie our hands here just in case we have an opportunity to get hold of an especially interesting game, or to assist a publisher with an accessibility project. I’m going to make an exception for review material, but not much of an exception. Once per quarter, I will accept a review copy of a game or a book if and only if I’m going to get it reviewed within a couple of weeks. I will adopt a similar policy for Amazon Vine – nothing will be accepted on the basis it was offered, but rather as something I need and intend to review very promptly. No more agreeing to review stuff that stays in an unopened box for months.
I am also going to make an exception here for my Humble Monthly subscription, because I keep that up mainly so I can give games away. However, I will not claim any key that I am sent until this Depth Year is over or I have died in the attempt.
Other than this though:
- No new physical books while I have unread books on my shelves.
- No new ebooks while I still have unread books on my tablet.
- No new board games unless I play all the ones I already have. Some limited exceptions, as above, for review copies.
- No new video games unless I play all the ones I already have. This goes for Steam, Switch and mobile. No new software in general unless I genuinely need it to accomplish a specific work-related task.
- No new movies or TV shows until I’ve watched the ones I have.
- No new hobbies. Full stop. No pretending a new musical instrument will finally be the one that shows I’ve secretly been talented all along.
- No new albums until I have listened to all the ones I own.
The necessities of life – clothes, groceries, electrical equipment for when other electrical equipment fails – those are all exempt. I don’t have to stick to cornflakes if I really fancy Rice Krispies. I’ve never been one for buying lots of clothes anyway, and we’ve precious little room for new electrical doodads unless something else vacates the space. I’ll also make exceptions for ‘format shifting’ – for example when a paper book I already own is available on a Kindle deal, or as a cheap audiobook.
One thing I’m having some difficulty with is working out how things like Netflix, Spotify, YouTube subscriptions and podcasts should factor in here. After all, nothing there needs me to purchase anything new. I get the new content there for free. It just doesn’t seem in the spirit of the thing to permit these to be an exception. I think Netflix is going to come under the movies and TV rules, but I’ll be a little more flexible with Spotify. I don’t want to lose the serendipity of discovery that comes from hearing a new song I like and finding out it’s from an amazing artist. My playlists before I played Life is Strange and Before the Storm had gaping holes I didn’t even know existed.
My rule for YouTube is probably going to be ‘no new subscriptions’, and similarly for podcasts although I listen to few of them as it is.
More problematic is the constant influx of content that comes via the internet – blogs, websites, and social media. I have of late been questioning the value of maintaining a social media presence on things like Twitter – while there are lots of people I enjoy chatting with, it never seems like I have the engagement that merits the attention I give it. Should the Internet itself be considered a source of media that should be carefully curtailed? No new web-pages until I’ve read all the ones I’ve got bookmarked? I could easily fritter away a Depth Year with nothing more than Facebook and idly scrolling through Twitter, but that’s not what I want to accomplish here. I don’t think cutting the Internet out of my life is feasible or even desirable – at least for now. I just don’t want to reach for Google when I should be reaching to a bookshelf. That’s perhaps going to have to be addressed on a case by case basis.
However, there’s a counter philosophy that’s going to underwrite all of this. I’m not going to stick with things that bring me no joy. I’m over forty years old now – statistically speaking I could drop dead of old age at any minute. For several years now I’ve been intentionally ruthless with my time – if a book doesn’t grab me in fifty pages, it’s done. If a TV show doesn’t convince me it has promise within two episodes, it’s gone. If I’m not enthralled half way through a movie, it’s time to bail out. I’m keen to explore the accumulated abundance of my possessions but I’m not willing to let that lead to a tolerance of mediocrity. While this is a reaction to consumerism, I also intend for this to be a pretty aggressive cull. By the end of 2019 I intend to have made a large dent in my various media todo lists. One way, or another.
So, here’s what I’m going to ask of you reading – help me keep honest with this. Every so often, send me a mail or a tweet or a comment on the blog asking ‘Hey, are you still keeping this up?’. Force some accountability here. Make me dread having to admit I didn’t have the willpower all along.
I'm posting this two months in advance in the hope of building up some interest in other people. Does this seem like something you’d like to do yourself? Maybe we could set up some kind of mutual support group. A cheerleading squad, perhaps? We can do it, team. GO TEAM. Would you be interested in regular updates? I was thinking of adding a Patron diary of the process to my routine to make sure I’m constantly forced to confront people with the truth of the endeavor.
From the 1st of January 2019, I will be engaged in a Depth Year. May it be the first of many.