This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, so I figured I may as well get my thoughts down. The short version is: I am hard-wired for media scarcity, and we now live in a time of media abundance. Here follows the long version:
A decent analogy is probably food. There is often a difference between the way people approach food, depending on whether they are used to abundance or scarcity. There are people (myself included) who save and re-use their teabags, because it would be wasteful not to do so, and there is at least two cups of tea in there! And there are people who do not, because why put up with extra hassle and a weak cup of tea to save ten cents! There are people who will want to save even small amounts as leftovers, and there are people who will leave half-finished plates at restaurants and not stoop to a doggie bag.
Speaking of half-finished plates, some people will stop half-way through if they aren’t particularly enjoying the food, and toss it. Other people (me) will finish a mediocre dinner, because it would be a waste not to. Some people when presented with a plate of four foods, will start in immediately on eating the one that most appeals to them. Other people (again, me) may start with the less appealing food under the time-honored principle of “save the best for last”.
However, if you are at an all-you-can-eat buffet, such actions are madness. You should eat the best first, because if you like it there is more best to be had. There’s no reason to start with things you might not enjoy. And if you do have a small serving of something, and don’t like it, stop after a single bite and get something else. There is abundance! Buffets are tricky and dangerous for those used to being perpetually hungry, as the glutton can easily over-eat. In a place of abundance, it is better to be a buffet gourmet, and eat the most delicious food, rather than simply the most food.
I am a media glutton in a world of abundance.
Video games, like teabags, I would save and re-use, having played through the original Final Fantasy more times than I can remember. It would be unthinkable in my youth not to clear my RPG plate of sidequests, let alone quit an RPG half-way through just because I thought it was only mediocre. And I always saved the best for last — when I first bought Final Fantasy and Faxanadu, I started with Faxanadu because I knew Final Fantasy was the game I was most excited about.
But the modern world is an all-you-can-eat media buffet. My shelf of console games has at least half a dozen games I was excited about that I have not even started, and two dozen more I got on sale that might be good. My Steam account has two dozen titles I really want to play, and another five dozen I might try. I began by playing the “maybe” games, saving the best for last, until my partner convinced me this was preposterous.
As usual, she was entirely correct. In a world of media abundance, settling for mediocre makes no sense. Rather, I should start right in on the best, because when I finish it, there will be more best available. Likewise, rather than running the optional post-game 100-floor dungeon to squeeze everything out of one game, I should simply move on to the next game. And if I try a game and find it mediocre, rather than slogging onwards, I should just pick up the next game. (Note that these are all formulated as “should” rather than “do”.)
And it’s not just video games. You’re reading this on the Internet, which means you have an abundance of things to browse. I have Netflix, an abundance of things to watch. Libraries are an abundance of things to read. I have over 200 boardgames, an abundance to play. We live in a world of media abundance, and there are certain behaviors more appropriate for this world than a world of scarcity and media conservation.
But old habits die hard. My partner can walk away from a movie she’s not enjoying after a half-hour. I still feel compelled to finish the movie. I still greedily devour borrowed media (books, movies, games, etc.) that may disappear soon, even if more appetizing media sits upon my own shelf, because I have the idea of scarcity. And while I no longer start off with the games I think I won’t like, if I have three new games I think I will really like, I still save my favorite for last.
It’s a difficult mental shift. For anyone who lived in poverty for a time, some of those habits stay with you even if you now earn a big salary. And media is no different. I know, intellectually, that we live in an all-you-can-eat media buffet, that more new media is produced every year than I could consume in a lifetime, and that I need never worry about running out of media again. But we are what we have lived through, and forged by a time of media scarcity*, I am still unfit for this world of abundance. Hopefully I can start to shift from glutton to gourmet, and realize that I can’t consume all the media, so the best thing I can do is figure out which I will most enjoy.
*(In a way, it’s insane to call my childhood “scarcity”, because I grew up with TV and a library, which is a cornucopia of media abundance. But with regards to movies and video games, there was a scarcity of what I possessed. And certainly I now have an embarrassment of abundance.)