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Joystiq Interview: How to quit games for a year

Justin McElroy

Though he may not necessarily be a "hero" in the traditional sense of the word, Matthew Shafeek is something of a folk legend in the Joystiq offices. Against all logic, Shafeek decided to mark his 29th year of life with the complete abandonment of his favorite hobby, video games.

He's getting close to the 365-day finish line, and in the interim he's managed to read more, learn some recipes, travel, run a half-marathon and catalog all his progress on his blog Paused. We recently caught up with Shafeek via an email exchange to find out why he quit, when he's going back and from where he draws his staggering, iron resolve.

So, the big question: What prompted this?

In 2007, the year before I gave games up, my life got pretty busy. I was working two jobs, I wrote and performed in a one man show (about gaming, believe it or not) and I started falling behind on my games. And while I was sad to be playing less, I was happy with what I was accomplishing.

Then one night while I was lying in bed, I took a mental inventory of the year and I realized I was barely gaming at all, just a few hours a week. And at that moment, I basically dared myself to just stop playing altogether and see how much further I could push myself. A few days later I mentioned the idea to some friends and after I got a few looks of shock and awe, it was set it stone. Since no one wants to give up gaming in November, I decided I'd give myself the rest of the year, and start it on my 29th birthday, in January, which I also found appropriate since it was my last year as a "young adult." One last shot at not "wasting my 20's," as it were.

How heavy of a gamer were you before you tried it?

Not the hardest of the hardcore, but definitely a pretty dedicated, lifelong gamer. I've owned every major system from the Atari 2600 to date. I currently own a 360 and a Wii, but no PS3 yet. I've beaten (and I mean thoroughly completed) probably over 300 games in my life, and there are those games that I've put over 100 hours into - Final Fantasy Tactics and Oblivion, to name a few. But I've actually never allowed myself to play World of Warcraft, for honest fear of addiction.

Before giving up games this year, I'd probably not gone more than a week without playing anything since I was a toddler. And I'd point to my "To Play" list to give you a good idea of what I was and I guess, still am like as a gamer to this day. Right before I stopped playing I was probably only playing about 6-7 hours a week of games, but as recently as 2 or 3 years ago I'm sure that number was closer to 20.

"I basically dared myself to just stop playing altogether."

What was the last thing you played?

I threw a big party at my apartment the night of my 29th birthday. We all played lots of Rock Band, which I'm a huge fan of. My very last game/song was OK GO's "Here We Go Again" on expert, which I believe I got 90% on (which, in all honestly, is not very hard to do). Incidentally, I'm having another gaming party a few days after my 30th, featuring Rock Band 2 (which I hope to get for Christmas!).

What rules did you set up for yourself?

The rules were very simple - no 'electronic gaming' of any kind (including stupid things, like "Scrabulous" on Facebook, back when it existed) from January 6th, 2008 until January 6th, 2009. In addition to not playing games, I set some basic goals for myself - read 5 books (I managed to do 12!), visit 5 new places, learn to cook 5 new meals, start and maintain a blog and train for and run a half marathon. This was all in addition to not replacing gaming with pot, heroin or crack/cocaine.

A few of my friends got together with a deal of their own - no smoking for a year, so we all went into a pact and signed a contract that stated if we cheated we'd all put $10 in a pot per infraction to be donated to a charity at the end of the year. Two out of the three smoking friends cheated (they also found a loophole and starting smoking cigars, too) at some point. The pot currently has about $120 of their money, I believe.

Have you slipped at all? If not, how close have you come?

No -- well, never intentionally. I once clicked on a link from Kotaku that brought me to something like: "Mario in ASCII script" without realizing it would open up the actual game, and when I touched the keyboard, Mario jumped. I had a mini-freak out and immediately closed the application. But though I've been very, VERY tempted over the past year (I've somehow wound up at more "Wii parties" than ever before) I've stuck to my guns.

The funny thing is I've dreamed about cheating dozens of times over the past year, especially when I first quit. It's become a recurring dream - I walk into a room, see something I want to play, I start playing it without giving it a second thought, and I have a "I've made a huge mistake." moment and a wave of guilt washes over me.

"I've kept a list going of games to play when the year is up that I'm sure I'll never finish."

Did you keep up on the gaming world, or was that too painful?

I made the decision early on to continue following the gaming world, for better or for worse. I still visit gaming sites every day, and listen to several gaming podcasts regularly. I've even kept a running list going of games to play when the year is up, or just in general, that I'm sure I'll never finish. This is me showing my true geek colors here - the list is actually an excel spreadsheet that is broken down by game title, system, etc., and what I've dubbed the D.T.P. (or Desire To Play) Index, on a scale of 1-10. Currently, Rock Band 2, Gears 2, Smash Bros., Geometry Wars 2, and GTA IV top the list. Some would say all this kind of defeats the purpose of "taking a year off from games" - but honestly, I love the gaming world too much to fully keep myself away everything. And it's not like I replaced all my gaming time with "gaming research" time (though I do tinker with my "To Play" list quite a bit).

What was the toughest part?

It got pretty difficult recently, in the last few months, what with the fall lineup of games, and the months of not playing anything finally all adding up. But overall - honestly, it was something I did whenever I had any free time, and now I have to force myself to find other things to do instead. Which was kind of the point of this whole thing.

What was the best thing about quitting?

Discovering what I'm capable of. I started a blog, something I'd wanted to do forever but never got around to. I ran my first half marathon, which was great. I'm considering doing a triathlon sometime down the line. And now I'm hoping to continue with other long term goals - I didn't get around to learning how to cook more this year, so I'll roll it into next year, having "dinner and a game" nights with some friends that maybe I'll write about to replace my current tales of video gaming longing.

Did you miss it more or less as time went on? What did you miss the most?

The first few weeks were kind of hard, then it got easier (the busier I made myself the easier it was to forget about games), and now that I see the finish line so close yet so far away, it's become excruciatingly difficult. I think keeping myself attached to the world during the year off seemed like way to soften the blow, but it probably made things harder. It was like a person on a diet listening to people talk about how delicious cookies are all day.

I really miss being able to wake up on the weekend and game. That was really the only nice chunk of time I used to have for playing. And TV and movies just don't cut it when it comes to killing an afternoon. I also miss online (and local) multiplayer matches, and all my friends on XBL. I'm fairly competitive, so that's probably when I'm the most invested in what I'm playing.

Did you consider not going back to games? What made you decide to start playing again?

I did, briefly. Have you ever seen that South Park, where Stan's dad gives up alcohol, joins AA, and complains the entire episode how helpless he is to "the disease" that is alcoholism? Obviously I don't think gaming is at all the same as alcoholism, but I do think it's like any other hobby/habit in that it's great in moderation, but bad in excess. If you make it this 'forbidden thing,' then really, it's still controlling your life in some way. That was the lesson from South Park. I'd like to think that all the good things I did this year will stick with me in some way, and I'll hopefully be able to find the time to write/exercise/travel/etc. and still get in some good gaming time. And quite frankly, I don't think I'll ever have the ability to go crazy like I did back in college, when I probably would have benefited most from putting the controller down.

"I'd love to hear from the Joystiq readers what they think I should play."

How much longer do you have? What are you going to play first?

Twenty five days as of today, December 11th. I can play games again as of midnight on January 6th. I was thinking Geometry Wars, since it's old school, it's familiar, and it's really a gamer's game, you know? Followed shortly afterward by the sequel, I'm sure. I'd love to hear from the Joystiq readers what they think I should play though.

Side note - you guys had a posting a while back about playing games a year behind, or something, which I thought was great [Ed. Note: Holidaze 2008: Live in the past, it's cheaper]. I still haven't played Mass Effect (beyond the first level) or Assassin's Creed, so I hope to pick them both up for cheap and continue the trend throughout the year. It's a nice little bonus to doing all of this!

Is this something you'd recommend to other people?

Absolutely - but only if you're serious about it. And it doesn't have to be a year. It can be a month, or a week. See what you do with your time, just to find out. It could be that there's nothing you'd rather be doing. Or you could discover that you really love wind surfing, or that you'd forgotten how satisfying a good book can be.

To be clear though, I definitely don't want this to turn into a "games are bad, and my life is better now that I've given them up" story because I really do love games and gaming culture (I've worked in the industry before and hope to again down the line) and I view this as more of a test of willpower and self-discovery than the abandonment of a useless hobby.

I think the reality is, people who get married and start families have this sort of thing imposed on them anyway, so for most people it's only a matter of time before they're "paused" too. So at the end of the day, if you can game now, I say enjoy this time while it lasts!

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