Like junk food, some video games are easy to enjoy but aren’t nutritious

It’s only the fourth week of the semester, and I’m already beginning to feel that sense of being constantly overwhelmed with homework and only barely able to scrape by to the next week. Every Monday, I’m greeted with the same feeling of perpetual drowning, only being able to surface for a second to catch my breath before being pushed under the surface by yet another monstrous wave.

A combination of physical fatigue and mental stress has led me to play what I’ve been calling “junk food games.” I’ve been playing games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Rage 2, games that don’t require much thought or effort. They’re easy to just start, put on a podcast or music for a while and not think. These junk food games are the sort that I only play because I know I couldn’t focus and lack the mental energy to play games that I know are better. They’re a way to fill the silence, like putting on a TV show in the background.

Playing junk food games is like watching “The Office” for the tenth time instead of starting a new show: it’s comforting. Photo courtesy of on Unsplash.

There’s a distinction to be made here between junk food games and games that put you “in the zone.” Games that put you in the zone actively demand your attention. Doom’s combat chess makes the player think about which demon to target first and where they’ll move to dodge an incoming fireball. Especially on the harder difficulties, Doom is relentless in demanding the player’s attention. I have a similar reaction when I’m driving a supercar in Forza Horizon 4. I’m thinking about how fast and sharp I’m going to take the next corner so that I don’t careen off the road and smash into a tree.

Junk food games, on the other hand, don’t demand my attention at all. I’m not immersed in the world of the game or paying any true amount of attention to the story. I’m plainly engaging in the game’s systems, usually to get better items, like weapons and armor, while listening to something else. That means competitive multiplayer games like Overwatch or Call of Duty, where I risk becoming angry about repeated deaths, absolutely don’t qualify as my type of junk food games.

If the idea of a junk food game sounds familiar, it might be because almost all Ubisoft games can be described this way: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Far Cry 5, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, Steep and The Crew 2. Every single-player Ubisoft game follows the junk food game model of completing objectives represented as icons on a map.

These games all take an inordinately long time to beat. The average time to complete all the icon objectives is 66 hours, according to How Long to Beat. The game that takes the longest to 100% complete is Assassin’s Creed Odyssey at 122 hours. That’s a lot of time to spend on a game that values quantity over quality, not to say you can’t have fun playing it, though.

I have a small library of last year’s critically acclaimed games just sitting on my desktop, staring at me, as I routinely say to myself, “I’ll get around to playing that soon,” only to move my cursor away from their icons and launch a junk food game. It’s gotten to the point where I feel guilty for owning these great games, but just going back to what’s comfortable.

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I think part of the reason why I feel compelled to play those critically acclaimed games is because I want to write about video games professionally, so I should be on the up-and-up and know about these games. However, I think another part of me that’s much more relatable is that I want to be a part of the discussion of these games. I want to have a story about the first time I encountered Mr. X in the Resident Evil 2 remake. I want to defeat the guardian ape boss after dying dozens of times in Sekiro.

After spending 57 hours absent-mindedly playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey before coming to my senses, I’m mostly wondering why I keep trying to force myself to play the critically acclaimed games. Is it just because of a fear of missing out or because I can’t admit to myself that the game I’ve spent 57 hours playing might be compelling for the opposite reason the developers intended? I still want to play the text-heavy Disco Elysium and experience more of the methodical shinobi combat of Sekiro, but I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that come next Monday, I still won’t be playing any of those critically acclaimed games waiting patiently on my desktop.