A weird thing happens to me sometimes, usually on a day off from work. First, I’ll look around and spread my arms wide, exclaiming like a child, “I can do anything I want!” Do I slide through the living room in my underwear and lip sync to Bob Seger, ala Risky Business? No. No I do not. But I do consider indulging in at least one or two of my favorite things, like watching horror movies, playing retro video games, flipping through some old magazines, or reading a book.
This is when the aforementioned “weird thing” happens: I can’t decide.
I walk to my movie shelf and scan the many Blu-ray, DVD, and VHS options. A strange, frustrating itch develops on my chest as none of the movies selections appeal to me. So I switch gears and break out boxes of NES games. Flipping through cart after cart—Rygar, Stinger, 3-D World Runner, Super Mario Bros. 3, River City Ransom—the itch on my chest gets worse. I try to scratch the frustration away, but my fingers can’t seem to reach. No, none of these games will do.
Again, I shift gears. Maybe some old magazines. Nintendo Power, Fangoria, Weird Tales…No, no, and no! The itch spreads to my back, my shoulders, my neck. I rub anti-itch cream all over myself, but it does nothing.
Fine, what about some comics? Spawn, Violator, Ren and Stimpy. Books? Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker? Shelves and boxes and totes are filled with entertainment media calling out to me, saying, “Pick me, pick me!” I feel like the reluctant captain, chosen by my elementary school gym teacher to build an epic dodgeball team, but I don’t know who to choose. They're all calling out to me, desperate to be selected, no one wanting to be the last pick of the game.
The itch covers my entire body now, and no matter how hard I scratch, there’s no quenching this figurative fire. I go back to the movie shelf, then back to the games, the comics, the magazines, the books, the boardgames. All I want to do is enjoy my time off, but I’m overloaded, and I can’t choose!
Why can’t I choose? This is the question that echoes in my mind as I stand frozen, staring at an array of options. This doesn’t even scratch the surface, as I know there’s still the online streaming movies, the digital games, the seemingly endless vortex of digital content that waits.
And that is the problem. The answer hits me like my toppling tower of VHS tapes. I have too many options.
The reason I had such a hard time understanding the issue is because the problem itself sounds like a solution. After all, the more choices you have, the easier it should be to find something you like, right? Only, more and more, I find the opposite to be true. It’s like when cable TV first came out, after a while people would complain, “There are so many channels but there’s nothing to watch!” Certainty part of the issue must be that with this enormous supply of entertainment, a large percentage must simply…well…suck. But that’s not the whole of the issue, at least not for me.
Have you ever walked into the kitchen, starving, needing desperately to eat, only to stand staring at all the options and not wanting any of it? Then, perhaps you realize that, despite your hunger, you aren’t in the mood for anything at all.
More and more, this is how I feel about all entertainment media, and I think I know why: I’m overloaded. There’s so much, that I consume more than I ever have before only to crave more. Further, the more I consume, the less I enjoy each subsequent meal, as if the nutritional value drops ever steeper as companies push out increasing volumes of junk food with empty calories merely to sustain the starving masses.
When I was younger, my mother would tell me to take breaks from the TV and go outside to play a while. There were loosely enforced limits in place for most of us as kids. Only so many hours of TV before we had to do some chores or find something to do outside. In addition, there was less, easily accessible entertainment.
Movie nights happened once or twice a week, because video tape rentals cost money. Renting a new movie was a weekend treat. Going out to theaters happened even less frequently. There were television movie broadcasts, but usually only being run in the evening or on weekends, and even then only on a handful of channels (not to mention we only had a handful of channels). These movie broadcasts were even billed as special events by the channels themselves. Unless you were well off, you probably didn’t have a huge video game library. I was lucky to have a dozen games to choose from with maybe only two or three new ones per year for birthdays and Christmas.
The point is, we were forced to enjoy what we had. With nothing else available, we’d “go back to the well” a lot more often than we do these days. We’d play the same game for several months. We’d watch the same movies over and over (if we were lucky enough to actually own the VHS tape, which was a luxury early on). And when we got bored of our limited selections, we’d go do something else that had nothing to do with entertainment media.
Everything felt a lot more special when I was younger. The same way various holiday traditions tend to feel special because we only do it once a year, so did “movie night” have greater appeal. So did a new video game purchase feel more like a grand occasion worthy of celebration.
As adults, not only do we have a significantly larger pool of options before us, but we also have our own money with which to purchase as many movies, games, books, comics, and toys as we want. Most of us have some semblance of self-control in these matters, but even with self-control we certainly own much more than we did as kids.
I’m not saying any of this is bad, but there’s that itch I can’t seem to scratch. That “weird thing” that happens far too often these days, and the answer is clear to me. Stepping away from entertainment media more often, like we did as kids, is essential. Further, attempting to recreate that feeling of a special occasion helps. Instead of watching a movie every night, why not only on the weekends? Game night can make a comeback. Pouring over the entirety of a magazine before moving on to the next one. Actually reading all the way through a book before buying another stack that will sit on the shelf unread for a year.
Hell, maybe I’m alone in all of this. Maybe you’re reading my article, utterly confused about the notion of becoming overloaded by overconsumption of media. And that’s okay. We don’t all experience the world in the same way, and it’s completely possible my perception of media is skewed, based entirely on my own background and upbringing.
Then again, maybe you’ve noticed a peculiar itch beginning to form on your back, just out of reach, and growing in intensity. How will you scratch it?