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The Steam Summer Sale trap


You're reading Reaction Time, a weekly column that claims to examine recent events, games and trends in the industry, but is really just looking for an excuse to use the word "zeitgeist." It debuts on Fridays in Engadget's digital magazine, Distro.

I've already bought several games during this year's Steam Summer Sale, including Legend of Grimrock, an old-fashioned dungeon crawler with a modern veneer. Good for me! Oh, except Legend of Grimrock is a PC game. I don't even have a PC right now, and I've never bothered to set up a dual-boot partition on my MacBook Air. The dread of missing out on the deal was so great, it overwhelmed the fact that I don't even have the preferred equipment for the game.

It happens every year, as Valve gets more and more adept at carving off costs and doling out deals at the perfect pace – slowly enough to keep you coming back, but not fast enough to let you realize you're spending something you don't have.

Money isn't the problem. Spending five bucks on the latest indie gem, even if it's buried in a shopping minecart of indie gems, won't be the death of you. The actual death of you, however, might be slightly more prohibitive when it comes to buying all these games. When are you going to find time to play all this stuff?

Steam's inevitable annual sale feels like a grim reminder of your own mortality. "You're never gonna get through all this stuff!" it yells, and every year you give it a louder megaphone and a handful of spare change. At some point in your adult life, you realize that there just isn't enough time to consume all the media that interests you, and that situation only becomes grimmer if you're a gamer, a movie buff and an avid reader all in one. (And don't even think about squeezing in the occasional 100-volume manga.)

Having realized this, but done nothing to stop the steady excursion of two dollars, three dollars, five dollars and another four dollars from the bank account, it seems there are other reasons to buy games on a Steam sale – besides, you know, to play them. Perhaps there are noble intentions behind my seemingly thoughtless acquisition of Legend of Grimrock – which I intend to play as soon as I get a proper PC again, one day, I swear.

Buying a Steam sale game is like buying a T-shirt bearing a reference to one of your favorite characters, and in fact it's even cheaper than that. In an age where even the minutiae of a quick Steam shopping spree can be shared and discussed in social networks online, buying a game, even when you may never get to play it (or if you already own it elsewhere!), says something about you and your tastes. It's a little piece of what you like and support, shared with friends and publishers alike – albeit at much less considerable risk to you by the time it gets to Steam's chopping block.

A more apt comparison might be in the humble bookshelf. Though its utility has become eroded in light of electronic readers that can handily store everything you could fit on a hundred wooden rows, it can still be a centerpiece in any home and an easily decipherable glimpse into your tastes and passions. What does your Steam collection say about you, if not that you have a great deal more money than time?

It's a shame that so many games will go unplayed in our lifetimes, despite our best efforts, but perhaps there's value in voting at a few bucks per ballot. If I never get around to playing Legend of Grimrock, at least I can say that I've supported the idea, the developer and the hard work that led to enough positive reviews to put the game on my radar in the first place. And while it would be easier to evangelize the game's virtues in detail, right now my Steam purchases list does a quicker job of it.

Alternatively: This is all just a huge, delusional rationalization to conceal my deleterious addiction to Steam sales and a backlog that stretches well beyond my gravestone.

Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.

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