With all the choices in the world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lose track of the goal. Don’t just choose an objective: start SMART Gaming.

Fallout 4 came out last Tuesday, a Holy Grail of open-world gaming for many people; set in a post-apocalyptic 1950s, you wander the Wasteland hunting RadRoaches, building shelters, and drinking as much Nuka-Cola as you can get your hands on. Though there’s a main story to complete, there are also tons-upon-tons of sidequests to finish, new areas to explore, and custom equipment to craft. If you’re a completionist like me, you want to finish every mission, find every secret, and unlock every trophy/achievement before the final credits roll. Problem is that the obsession with getting that 100% means I usually never actually see the credits roll, and I end up frustrated with my experience.

I’ve talked before about open-world games before, though I don’t know if I quite touched on why I don’t play them: Sidequests are shiny objects that distract me forever from my purpose. Games like Skyrim drive me crazy because I can never complete my checklist of quests: just walking into town means I’ll inevitably overhear a rumor about a woman who lost her Great Aunt’s Fabled Salami Pot in a spider/wolf-filled cave halfway across the map, and next thing you know I’m traipsing across the map, ignoring the main storyline because I feel like I can’t proceed with the major plot until all the minor plot points are resolved. I’ll admit, this is also how I’ve gone about real life from time-to-time, but there are ways to fix these aimless habits with a good bit of ingenuity.

For me, the issue is focus: I don’t stay dedicated to a particular task in-game, and it allows me to get distracted, wasting time and leaving me disappointed when I’m done. To fix this, I’m going to try combining my gaming with a skill I learned from working in project management… I’m going to start SMART gaming.


No, SMART Gaming isn’t some sort of Intelligame reference (though it does sound cool). I’ve talked about SMART goals over at my personal blog: objectives that are Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-Based. SMART Gaming means that you’re not just thinking about the finish line, but also about the race itself: can I really unlock that bonus level before bedtime? Do I even care about getting that sidequest completed before dinnertime? Should I practice this fighting game if my sparring partner isn’t online, or would I rather play The Walking Dead: Season One by myself? By SMART Gaming and attaching questions of relevancy and time to your objective, you’re forced to prioritize what you really want to get out of your play.

Need to study later, but really want to run that mission you just read about online? Set a goal to complete that specific mission in 60 minutes, and commit to shutting the game off after the time runs out; you’ll naturally try to play more efficiently to complete the quest in your allowed time. Want to level up your character so its ready to raid with your friends? Dedicate 90 minutes to grinding experience out for levels; sure, you might not get as much money or get to mess around in PvP with your friends, but you’ll be a lot happier when the party isn’t forced to carry you through the raid because you’re under-leveled and wanted to play Capture the Flag for a couple hours.

For me, focus and goal setting is becoming more important since there are so many games I want to play, and increasingly shorter amounts of time I can play them in. Also, open-world gaming is influencing way more than just role-playing games: narrative puzzler The Talos Principle leaves you open to complete its puzzles in almost any order and explore multiple realms, and Call of Duty: Black Ops III maintains separates stats and unlocks for each of its three gameplay modes, each one allowing you to open content in whatever order you prefer. All this freedom of choice can lead to a phenomenon known as “decision paralysis:” being presented with so many choices that it becomes overwhelming. By setting your own goals ahead of time, you minimize the decisions available to you, thus removing the opportunity for paralysis.

Sidenote: a critical key to success with goal setting is to adhere to stopping points. We’ve all played the “five more minutes/one more level” game before and ended up tacking on another three hours of play; when we let that happen, we let the game play us instead of playing the game. If your deadlines don’t have an effect on your play, you don’t gather the resolve to stick to them and the system falls apart. Force yourself to walk around the block when your time is up, make food, read a book, or even just watch a show or switch games: taking breaks is healthy, and it’ll help you set more accurately timed goals in the future.

Of course, you don’t just have to be SMART about your gaming; these skills work in plenty of other situations, too. I’m going to try SMART Gaming over the next two weeks and see if it makes me more comfortable with open-world gaming. Let me know if you think this IG Protip will help you, or if you decide to try it out for yourself.