Playtime Counters vs My Secret Shame

Depending on your perspective, games that track your playtime could be useful or your worst nightmare

Garry Lee
Garry Lee
Dec 19, 2020 · 5 min read

magine a drug addict that gets sent an email daily telling them what they just put into their body. The shopaholic whose credit card bill gets updated daily and sends them a text saying how much they have ever spent. That’s what it’s like as a childhood fanatic of a game that kept a record of how long you spent on the game!

The crazy thing, I never saw it as a problem, it was a badge of honour. One summer holiday I racked up over 12 hours a day for 2 straight weeks and proudly showed people — turns out the rest of the world did the same, and not just on Championship Manager like me.

Misspent youth

I lost my youth to Football Manager (or Championship Manager as it was called then). I started as a small child on the ZX Spectrum version with just 12 player names and the worst graphics for the game in computer history, but to the 10-year-old me, it was amazing.

Over the years I’ve progressed through computer game platforms, but it was on the PC version of the game that I really put in those dedicated hours; there was just so much you could do. Then a couple of years ago they added a new mobile version that brought a new level of addiction for me because it meant I could sit in front of the telly and play for more hours!

Over the years, the game has evolved significantly: they added transfers, the ability to move clubs, training programmes, hiring and firing of staff, leagues from around the world, more stats than you can ever use, and even talking to the press. But the worst addition to the game, and any game, is the function that tells you how long you’ve been playing the game.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash.

Stop highlighting my shame

As I grew up, I started to realise playing all day and night on Championship Manager was maybe not the best thing. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t stop me from playing, I just started to feel guilty.

What I didn’t need was a little option towards the bottom of the menu where it showed me how long I’d been playing the game.

I get it, as a kid you use this stat to show off to your friends, but surely as you get older it would make sense to give the player the option to turn this off. I know I could just not look, but it’s sitting there teasing you, and who can resist a little peek?

“Come and see how long it has taken you to take non-league Barrow Town to win the Champions League”

Maybe it does have a reason

I started out writing this article after a chat with friends about games we played as kids, and I was very much determined that I wanted to slam this terrible feature. What’s interesting is that the more I wrote and thought about it, the more I realised there were two sides to it.

So for balance, let me put forward the arguments why it is a good thing.

1. It is a real achievement

I must confess to not being a hardcore gamer. I played a lot as a child, I still play now, but I have a lot of friends that I would place in that category ahead of myself. When talking to them, they use this data to track progress, to judge how well they are doing. Rather than being a shameful figure, as I saw it, to them it’s an achievement.

They measure how good a game is by how long they have played. They use the metric to compare to others and understand how much more they need to play to reach the levels of their friends.

2. Parental controls

I’m a dad of two children that love playing on their consoles. They are seven and nine. I mention their ages because it is important as a parent to monitor and control how long they are playing online.

Whilst this can be done by setting times for them of when they are allowed to play, the time-spent clock is another really good way of tracking total use, as well as monitoring use of individual games — for example, I like to watch carefully the amount of time my son plays on Minecraft.

How did this all come about?

Of course, the most recent movement in playtime tracking is the PS5 launch, with the new system’s standard of tracking playtime across all games. This has produced a consistent level of data and has even backdated to games played on PS4. PlayStation is playing catch up in this sense, with the Xbox and Switch having introduced this feature sometime before.

Some individual games have been tracking game time for a long time, with my story of Championship Manager being a prime example. But probably one of the great milestones in playtime tracking was Steam recording playtime, which was added for the first time in March 2009. Since that time, over 5-billion hours of play have been tracked, from over 6 million players, across 3,000+ games.

And if you do a search online under this subject, you will actually find people that will refuse to play a game if it doesn’t track playtime!

It’s actually good to have the choice

Without trying to overthink this, I actually feel the playtime metric is something that really shows the difference between the average gamer and the “real” gamers. To my mind, spending too much time on a game was an indication I wasn’t spending enough time on other things. To hardcore gamers, it is a measure to double-check if they should be spending more time!

When I thought about writing this article, I honestly expected to end it by imploring game makers to remove this evil function. Now, I actually feel it’s a democratic feature and people should make their own choice — I will personally discipline myself to not look.

Cover image by Paul Rover on Dribbble.

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