Wasting Time in Open-World Games

Editor's note: Ben frets about indulging in too much "unproductive" gaming in open-world games, frittering around for hours at a time instead of advancing the story. Do you worry about wasting time in your games? -Brett

I have wasted a lot of time gaming. That's not to say gaming is a waste of time. Quite the opposite. But sometimes I find myself on autopilot, spending hours pressing buttons and twiddling analog sticks, barely aware of what I'm doing, achieving nothing of value whatsoever. Dead time. Lost time. Time that passes, utterly wasted and unmarked, as I idle my way inexorably toward the glowing GAME OVER sign in the sky.

Let me elaborate: I've spent literally days on the streets of Grand Theft Auto 4's Liberty City with no intention of progressing the story, nor any other goal of substance. I'd complete a couple of story missions with Nico — a good, worthwhile pursuit — before hopping online into Free Mode and wasting more time than I care to remember in a kill/die/respawn cycle that would bore even the most rabid Rockstar fan.

Finally I'd head back to the single-player game for a true master class in pointlessness: Kill pedestrians. Accumulate stars. Kill cops. More stars. Die. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

And my lack of productivity doesn’t end with GTA.


Just Cause 2 is the cheap chocolate in gaming's grocery store. It’s eye-catching, tempting, and really, really bad for you if not enjoyed in moderation. Combine a beautiful sandbox with superhuman abilities and a barely functional story (the voice acting makes me want to smash my Xbox to pieces) and you've a recipe for creating the perfect zombie gamer, staring dumbly at the TV screen.

Just Cause 2

I have a friend who has played nearly 30 hours of the game, yet he's completed only the bare minimum of story missions to open the map up. I understand why. I have sunk a dozen or more hours into Just Cause 2 myself, most of them spent tethering one thing to another.

I once devoted an hour solely to attaching boats to planes. I was trying to jump from an airborne plane onto a boat and land it in the water. I eventually managed it. Needless to say, I felt only a fleeting moment of satisfaction.

The truth is, that hour of my life is gone and never coming back. It's filed away next to the hours I spent devastating my Sim Cities only to revert to an earlier save point, practicing Zangief's spinning piledrivers in Street Fighter 4 with no intention of ever using him in an actual fight, repeatedly playing through the interactive credits on Hitman: Blood Money, and so on.

Now, I’m not saying there’s no place for the gamer to undertake activities outside of the main aims of the game. I’ve written strongly in favor of just that in the past. I’m specifically talking about those vacuous, numb hours spent with nothing in mind while staring at the screen and holding the control pad. Surely that can’t be good?

Red Dead Redemption

I'm an evening gamer. When I engage with games fully, I tend to go to bed feeling like it's been time well spent. But when I fall into the kind of repetitive and meaningless tasks I've outlined above, I am left feeling empty and disappointed, sure in the knowledge I could have got more out of a night's worth of staring at a wall and thinking about life than what I had actually done: played an hour and a half poker in Red Dead Redemption's Blackwater, followed by the slow-motion, Dead-Eye enabled execution of the other card players.

Am I alone in this? Is this typical gamer behavior? Perhaps it's just one way in which games are meant to be played, to help us to "switch off" after a busy day. Or perhaps my intuition’s correct and those hours really are just wasted time.

What are your thoughts?

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