Why Hours Played Is Virtually Meaningless

by Jed Pressgrove

A prevalent ideology in gaming suggests that everyone — whether you’re a drooling gamer like my friend down the road or a fart-sniffing critic like myself — should keep up with how many hours they spend playing a game. Similar to open-world ideology and consumer-review ideology, this perspective is deceptive and should be ignored. There are several reasons why.

1. Hours played has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.

Theoretically, you can enjoy playing a mediocre game for more than 100 hours. I did this with Street Fighter V, the weakest game in that series since the arcade original. The reason I spent so much time with Street Fighter V is that I am a very competitive person who has played every Street Fighter sequel. Similarly, most gamers can name an average or below-average game that they have played with friends for numerous hours. From such observations, we can arrive at another critical truth: enjoyment alone has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.

2. Hours played often has little to do with whether we love or hate a game in general.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: in many cases, you must spend at least several hours with a game to give it a fair shot. This reminds me of my experience with Arkham Asylum more than a decade ago. I remember playing the first hour of Arkham Asylum at a friend’s, and I could not help but wonder why my friend thought the game was special. The opening was a bit tedious, and the mechanics seemed superficial when I was finally able to engage with them. A year or so later after this first impression, I ended up buying Arkham Asylum. After putting just a little more time into the game, I was able to understand my friend’s adoration (not that understanding someone else’s adoration is the point).

Once you grasp what a game is going for, though, you’re not going to change your mind about it with more hours played. To give a different example, I was annoyed by Persona 5’s approach to tutorialization and storytelling for the first 12 hours that I played it. After 70 hours, my opinions only became more crystallized. Why? Games are like pop song choruses. They tend to repeat themselves. As such, just as you won’t come to praise what you find to be a crappy pop song after hearing it 100 times, you’re not going to magically fall in love with a game after playing it for 100 hours. You might become more skilled after 100 hours, but you can be good at a game that you think is substantially flawed. It happens all the time.

3. Hours played often has little to do with finishing a game.

First we have to know what we mean with “finishing a game.” If we define it in the simplest way (i.e., if “finishing a game” means to view some version of closing credits), hours played before we finish a game can vary for multiple reasons. Existing skill and the time it takes to improve skill are obvious factors and can lead to fewer or more hours. Another variable is whether the gamer in question is a curious cat. Does this person like to meander about in virtual environments? Does this person, before finishing a story, like to screw around and find different tricks or glitches to “break” the game? Does this person always press any button they can to skip story-focused segments? Does this person get distracted by sidequests? We could ask such questions for a long time.

Others might define “finishing a game” as beating a final boss AND uncovering what they consider significant secrets or parts of a game. My personal interpretation of “finishing a game” is more straightforward: to me, you’re finished when you’re ready to move on from the game for whatever reason. Perhaps you’re not good at the game and wish to quit, perhaps you’re good at the game but find it uninspired and stupid, perhaps you’d like to keep playing the game but don’t have the time, or perhaps you’ve beaten the game 10 times in a row and want to experience something else. In any case, hours played doesn’t tell us why or if someone is finished with a game in the overwhelming majority of cases (exceptions include so-called narrative-focused games that require little, if any, skill to see the finale of the story).

4. Assuming that “finishing a game” means to see closing credits, this also frequently says nothing about whether or why we like the game in question.

The first time I played Castlevania was before the age of 10. Even though I found the game very interesting and was able to view the closing credits of other infamously difficult NES games of the era (such as Contra and Ninja Gaiden), I thought I would never get past the Grim Reaper boss on the fifth stage. It basically took me more than a decade of trying (with extremely long breaks, of course) to kill the cheap bastard and go on to conquer the rest of the game with no trouble.

I couldn’t begin to determine the number of hours I put into Castlevania before I “finished it” (I still play it to this day). Like I said in the title, hours played is virtually meaningless. Meaning is found in feelings: I thought Castlevania was a good game the entire time, and “finishing” it didn’t make it lesser or greater. It was always fucking Castlevania.

Like it or not, most video games are like Castlevania (exceptions include works that invite full readings without much skill, such as Off-Peak, Actual Sunlight, or Proteus). You know what you’re getting after several hours of observing the same kind of stuff. It’s as simple as that. (What’s more, the suggestion that games should only or primarily be played to be “finished” doesn’t make sense. Why would you want to spend hours and hours just for the closing credits of something you hate for 10 different reasons?)

Granted, if you want to talk specifically about the ending of a game, or its final level, or its climactic boss fight, and so on, yes, you should have seen the final credits or at least gotten close enough to them in order to make particular claims about any of these things. If I had reviewed the original Castlevania before beating Dracula, I could have reasonably called it a very good game, but I couldn’t have said, for instance, that Dracula is a great boss fight.

The truth is almost nobody seems to care if you’ve not beaten a game yet and you love it. But if you despise the game and haven’t beaten it, you’re tantamount to a corrupt dictator. My stance is that, unless you’re talking about specific things that occur at the end of a game, seeing the closing credits isn’t relevant to what you think about a game’s pop song chorus, if you will. And let’s not forget, too, that many of the greatest video games will likely never be beaten by anyone reading this: BurgerTime, Galaga, Xevious, Ms. Pac-Man, and on and on we could go. Gamers have a rich history of not beating games, only to hold and share passionate opinions about their qualities. It’s a tradition that I find instructive and significant from a critical standpoint, within reason.


  1. I don’t understand your first and second point. Is anyone talking about hours spent on a game for enjoyment? Unless someone thinks you rushed a game I don’t hear this point brought up frequently elsewhere.

    Your logic with 3 kind of reminds me of film critic Mike D’Angelo, deciding that during film festivals he’ll only give unknown film makers 30 minutes of his time and if he doesn’t think there will be much to it, he leaves. Granted he only does it with unknown film makers and always stay for one’s he respects.

    I’m honestly fine for people to review games and not finish them beforehand, but your wording for your third points are honestly hilariously pretentious. Paraphrasing, part of “finishing” a game for you, I imagine would be to fully understand what the artists were going for in a game. So do you not ever go back to a game and have your mind changed? I assume not since you brought up the Arkham example. Did you finish that game and then unfinished it, or did you just never “start” that game?

    “And let’s not forget, too, that many of the greatest video games will likely never be beaten by anyone reading this: BurgerTime, Galaga, Xevious, Ms. Pac-Man, and on and on we could go.”

    You love bringing this up and using it as a shield don’t you? Granted I hear this conversation all the time with film with Griffith, Eisenstein, Lang, Lubitsch. Although with film I feel like it’s easier to trace lineage and influences.

  2. I don’t totally agree but it’s a valid opinion. I’ve been following the Sekiro fallout and my belief is that if you’re able to play for a decent period of time, and can communicate your thoughts well, then your view is as valid as anybody who’s finished a game.

    Obviously that doesn’t mean giving up after 20 minutes but it does mean that a few hours is often enough to ‘get it’ (maybe something like 25% of the game’s play-time). I think how your argument is framed in your review/essay/article will illustrate its depth. For me an interesting point made from 5 minutes of gameplay is better than a ‘perfect’ opinion formed after 50.

    The reason I don’t totally agree is that sometimes games do open up over time. I can give two recent examples: Mario Odyssey, which improves after the main story is done, and Nier: Automata, which breaks free from its shackles on Route C. There’s nuances because it works in some cases, whereas in others it’s poor design (Persona 5 being a good example).

    Beyond that, games people play for a long time frequently create a type of ‘stockholm syndrome’. The more somebody plays, the more likely they might choose to overlook its flaws because they’re committed to being good at it. That creates bias and that’s not the mark of a good critic. Further, Nick Yee’s research on MMORPGs illustrates that’ burn out’ can also impact feeling if a game is played for too long (or the Dota 2 effect).

    More personally, I had the situation happen to me recently with Octopath Traveller. I considered the game ‘finished’ after 15 hours of playtime because it seemed quite clear that it wasn’t going to rapidly change what it was doing. Why persist? Nobody on any forums I visited suggested anything to the contrary.

  3. So, with this long apologie, you just gave the reason to people who criticize you about Sekiro’s review.

    Sorry, there is no other way to see it. You could post this a month before and maybe you could be right, but at this moment, you are just mad because people is right about you as critic.

    There is no point here, just mere apologies about a review that has zero value, and not because people, is only because of you.

  4. This. So much. Many of my favorite games are very short or at least offer short play sessions. Replay value outdoes padding every time. A game that’s too short can easily be replayed and come back to. A game that overstays its welcome will almost certainly lose interest.

  5. “But if you despise the game and haven’t beaten it, you’re tantamount to a corrupt dictator. My stance is that, unless you’re talking about specific things that occur at the end of a game, seeing the closing credits isn’t relevant to what you think about a game’s pop song chorus, if you will.”

    Absolutely. If you play the first hour or so of a game and you don’t already have a pretty good idea of what the rest of the game looks like, it probably wasn’t designed very well. Art can do weird things sometimes, which is perfectly acceptable, but the most quality of it usually attempts to be consistent in its delivery from start to finish. Even a story with a fantastic twist that you have to experience to understand is generally going to have the same beats in the last 10 minutes that it had in the first 10 if put together by a skilled practitioner.

    Though there are certainly cases in creative works where something gets notably better further in, that’s not a defense of the material, so much as it is something people can sometimes find worth communicating to each other, if they think that someone will enjoy something more if they “stick it out” and don’t want them to miss out because of some struggles earlier on in a piece of work. In other words, if you need to get to the end to “get it,” that says something about the piece of art, not about you. It is the job of the artist to convince you to come along for the entire ride, not the job of fans who have already finished.

    For example, I love the game KOTOR, but I know someone who tried it and never really “got it.” It would be silly for me to argue that they should have pushed through because the experience is “worth it.” How am I to know that it would be for them? The beats (story and gameplay) in the beginning of the game are, in my assessment, strong beats that are consistent with the beats in the middle and at the end. If someone does not jive with those beats at the beginning and has compelling reasons pertaining to their preferences that explain why those beats don’t work for them, I don’t see any reason to believe they are going to grow to love them with more time invested and if their arguments are compelling, I would consider their criticism to be a valid perspective on the game.

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