Table of Contents
I’m sitting here in my new (very small) study in my apartment in Gothenburg. We’ve finally gotten almost everything unpacked. Furniture built up. I was pretty pleased to find they had an IKEA in Sweden, because we left a lot of things behind. IKEA is doing pretty well if it can open up branches as far away as this. It’s December 15th as I write – the first thing I’ve really had time to write (save for Patreon updates) since we arrived. And right now I’m thinking about my Depth Year and how to phrase my review of it.
There’s still two weeks to go, but you know what – I’m calling it now. The next few weeks cover the Christmas period and by its very nature that’s a period of acquisition. I’m still going to honour the rules because I feel like they’ve become ingrained in me – but really the expriment is pretty much done now. There’s still a depth year diary to come for December – that’s for $3 p.m Patrons and I’ll go over some of the more personal stuff in there. From next month on, the depth year diaries series will be dropped down to $1 Patrons on a monthly basis so you can relive my year in hindsight if you like. For everyone else – here is my review of Depth Year 2019 and what I got out of it.
It was a massive success.
I never expected it to be – I expected to last maybe three months before buying a pile of unnecessary bullshit in a moment of reparative catharsis. That didn’t happen though, and I’d like to talk about what I got out of a year of engaging in this mindful experience.
For those interested, Mrs Meeple was also going through her own Depth Year and you can read her introductory post here. Her rules were very different from mine, so it’s interesting to see how we both approached it. She also has a few diary entries of her own that you can read, starting here. She still has to write up her final review, but I’ll link that in when she does. Her latest one is here though.
What was the Depth Year?
For those that may not have been with us at the start, in November of 2018 I wrote up a personal pledge for the site. Inspired by the Raptitude blog, I was going to engage in a depth year. I’ll quote the original author:
I keep imagining a tradition I’d like to invent. After you’re established in your career, and you have some neat stuff in your house, you take a whole year in which you don’t start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don’t need.
This idea struck me hard, because it spoke to something I’d been feeling for a while – a sense that I was owned by my possessions rather than the other way around. I wanted to see whether I could really seek out the depth in what I owned. I had shelves full of books I’d never read. Hard-drives full of movies I’d never watched. More unplayed video games than I’d like to admit. And yet there I was, still buying and buying and buying.
So I set myself the following challenge:
Here’s my goal: I want to develop a healthier relationship with consumerism by valuing what I have rather than what I (temporarily) want.
And I will do that by: Not purchasing unnecessary things while I have other unnecessary things already available.
I gave myself a couple of exceptions. I let myself accept a handful of review copies of games if I was going to get them reviewed in a couple of weeks. As it happened, I don’t think I ever made use of that exception. I made a similar exception for Amazon Vine, but as luck would have it I was removed from the program about half way through the year so it wasn’t an issue. I also made an exception for my Humble Monthly subscription (affiliate link), but I’ve always used that mostly as a source for keys to give away to people. As it happened, keeping that subscription ensured I ended up on the most preferential version of the new version of it they have. I haven’t claimed a single key from the year except for some I have sent away to others.
Here were my set objectives:
No new physical books while I have unread books on my shelves.
No new ebooks while I still have unread books on my tablet.
No new board games unless I play all the ones I already have. Some limited exceptions, as above, for review copies.
No new video games unless I play all the ones I already have. This goes for Steam, Switch and mobile. No new software in general unless I genuinely need it to accomplish a specific work-related task.
No new movies or TV shows until I’ve watched the ones I have.
No new hobbies. Full stop. No pretending a new musical instrument will finally be the one that shows I’ve secretly been talented all along.
No new albums until I have listened to all the ones I own.
One other exception I permitted myself was format shifting – I could get ebooks of paper books I already owned, or Switch versions of games in my Steam library. I permitted myself to make things more convenient.
What were the failures?
So, let’s begin with the negatives. I broke rule seven so hard because this year I have also been exploring a whole new world of tremendous music on Spotify. My original post sort of gave me some flexibility there in that I haven’t bought any new albums but I have massively expanded my various playlists and favourited artists. I genuinely only realised I’d promised this to myself in about September though, and it feels like it was a good move to not conform. Compare my Spotify suggestions list from 2017 to the one from 2019 to see just how much my tastes have evolved. That then was, strictly speaking, a failure but honestly it was for the best. My year would have been much darker without discovering some of the wonderful artists that now regularly feature on my playlists.
I do listen to things other than Tegan and Sara BTW. Check out the playlist, it’s linked above! Also if you want the full, unedited playlist of my favourite stuff from the past year or so, you can get that too.
Rule three also got broken reasonably hard, but for different reasons. I had permitted myself an exception for review copies, but I had unaccountably forgotten to sync up my depth year with the UK taxation calendar. All of the money that comes in to Meeple Like Us goes towards running the site, and part of that is a budget for buying games. I’m not opposed to review copies, but I prefer to keep the site decoupled as much as is feasible from relying on publisher indulgences. As I keep saying to people, we’re not really a media site. We’re a research blog. I value the authenticity of our viewpoint and regardless of the angry and defensive denunciations to the contrary I also believe review copies introduce biases into coverage and effectively controlling for that is an extra burden I don’t often relish.
So when the end of the UK tax year came around in April, I realised that there was some money in the MLU account I’d earmarked for ‘buying games at the end of the depth year’. That was going to be taxed in a way that it wouldn’t if I was buying games regularly for the site. So I made sure to minimise our tax liability because games are necessary material for the blog – we can’t run a site like this without games. Most of them stayed in shrink wrap on the shelves until it was time to review them, and some of them took the place of the review copy exemption I had set myself.
So, those were the broken promises and I don’t feel bad about them. One seems like it would have been a mistake, the other was driven by factors largely outside my control.
What were the Successes?
Honestly? Everything else.
I did not buy a single physical book this year that wasn’t already part of a series in which I was invested (specifically, I bought Tiamat’s Wrath, the latest Expanse book, and read it the same week I bought it). I did not buy a single ebook that wasn’t a version of a physical book I owned (at the start of the year), with a couple of exceptions which I will talk about in a little bit. I did buy plenty of video games as a consequence of being on the Humble Monthly plan, but I didn’t add a single one to my Steam library. Every game I added to my Switch was one that already existed on my PC. I didn’t buy or watch a single movie I didn’t have available to me at the start of the year. I did not start any new hobbies, with one exception. I only watched one new television show, and the exemption for that is the same as for the books and hobby.
I made this promise in November of last year (2018), and a lot can change in a year. For me, one of the things that changed was my job. And because my job changed, my country of residence changed. And because my country of residence changed, I had a necessity that had to be addressed. A work-related task you might say. I had to acclimatise myself to my new country – Sweden.
So, I bought some books on Sweden’s culture. I watched a television show (Welcome to Sweden) – that’s a ‘fish out of water’ sitcom about an American learning how to live in the country. I began a new hobby – learning the Swedish language. All of these were necessary – they weren’t driven by consumerism, which is what I was trying to avoid. I still count all the rules as successes even with this. If I wasn’t moving, none of these additions would have been necessary and I didn’t know in November that it was going to happen. Life comes at you fast.
However, there’s a counterbalance to this – in addition to making some exceptions as a result of the move, I also got rid of massive amounts of stuff. I’d estimate over the past few months I have shed a couple of hundred board games, about 1500 books, about 1000 DVDs, and much more besides. We’ve got from about 140 square meters of space spread over five bedrooms (yeah, our house was ridiculously big but it was also ridiculously far away from work. Swings and roundabouts) to about 67 square meters spread over two and a half.
My game collection is considerably more svelte. My book library is positively emaciated. My collection of DVDs practically non-existent – I’d long ago shifted all of that onto my media centre anyway. It’s been a massive purge, but it’s also been a process of refinement. I may not have nearly as many books or games now, but the ones I do positively sparkle. There is so much compressed quality in there that they all shine like diamonds.
I feel pretty chuffed with myself really – I didn’t know I had it in me to be quite this disciplined about consumerism, and it honestly feels like a reboot of my system. I feel like I’ve developed new, healthy habits that will carry through with me for the next year, and hopefully longer.
What did I gain out of it?
So, it turns out – I had some fantastic things already that I might never have gotten around to had I just bought new things whenever I felt bored. I have discovered some wonderful things through trusting Past Michael to have made some good decisions on acquisitions in the past. He is rarely on my side, but in this he and I have very strongly aligned tastes. For example, I’ve owned A Canticle for Leibowitz for decades and never read it. It instantly became one of my favourite books of all time. It’s a joy.
I’d owned the movie Inside Out for years and when I actually finished with it it was like finding a piece of myself that I didn’t even know had been missing. Birdman is an amazing movie I just hadn’t gotten around to watching, but it was astonishing. Hotline Miami – a game I have never more than idly pawed at – turns out to be phenomenal. And hey, did anyone ever mention that Undertale is exceptional? I’m not sure if anyone has noticed that yet. Let me be a trend-setter there.
There have been a lot of moments like that.
Really though the thing I feel like I’ve gotten out of it the most is a healthier relationship with consumerism. My reflex is no longer ‘I’m bored so buy something’, or the more harmful, ‘I’m sad so buy something’. It’s stopped being automatic and it’s now conscious. People have been asking me for months some variation along the line of ‘What should I get you for Christmas?’, and you’d think after a year of capitalism detox I’d be full of suggestions. I’m not though. Wanting things is no longer something I do without thought. In RPG terms, desire is no longer a free action.
Over the year I’ve been tracking things I wanted at the time and then seeing how long I cared about them. A few things would be added on a monthly basis, and hardly any of them would stay on the list longer than a few months. In January, here was the list I published in my depth year diary:
So, this month I wanted:
To watch the Marie Kondo tidying up show on Netflix, because it seemed appropriate for my interests at the moment.
To watch Sex Education on Netflix, because having Gillian Anderson as a sex education teacher was basically my teenage fantasy.
To buy the Humble Bundle photography bundle, because maybe I’d take the time to learn how to do photography properly?
To watch Bird Box on Netflix, but it turned out I already had the novel so I read that instead.
To back Shipwreck Arcana on Kickstarter, because people have told me that it’s like Hanabi but good.
Do you know which of those is still on the list? That’s right, it’s none of them. The half-life of enthusiasm for buying things is surprisingly short. I have a list of eleven things that have survived until the end of December, and I could dispense with eight of them over the course of a long weekend. That’s not to say temporary tenants on the list won’t get their chance, but rather that they don’t merit any sustained desire.
Part of this whole process though has also been a realignment of myself with public discourse. I’ve largely disconnected from Twitter – conversation there increasingly made me feel like I was being left out because I couldn’t let myself be influenced by the hype. And the more I stepped away from it the better I felt. I keep the Meeple Like Us account there because I have some blog plugins that autotweet some stuff from the archives, and I announce new content there. I occasionally ‘do a tweet’ but it’s now measured in days between tweets rather than hours or minutes. I just track my notifications and little else. In terms of larger engagement – I just don’t want to go back. I don’t like it. I don’t like how the board game community there functions. Every time I read through my feed I feel sadder than I was before I started to read it, and that’s a pretty convincing review on how much it enriches my life.
I also took the pause in spending as an opportunity to sink some of the savings into my community in Brechin. I won’t say how much I donated to our local foodbank but every month that I succeeded in this challenge I bundled up a chunk of the money saved into an envelope and handed it off to a friend who works on the organizing committee. In my post on Top Ten Tips to Cull a Game Collection, I noted a chilling stat regarding the cull we had done at Tabletop Scotland 2019:
A lot of games in the cull had never been opened. For some, I hadn’t even removed the shrink wrap. Of the eighty-four games I brought to the TTS Bring and Buy, I hadn’t played 28 of them. At their lowest current retail price, that’s a total of about £700 to buy. Not all sold – some were donated to the convention for them to do with what they will. I got around £270 back. I basically paid £430 for games to come into my house, sit on my shelf, and leave. I could have given that money to a food bank and I would have been no worse off at all.
That observation has haunted me a bit, and this depth year has hopefully shaken me out of the habit of this kind of thing. I don’t want to rent possessions I never get to enjoy. What a weird way to live a life.
What do I feel I missed out on?
Here’s the interesting thing – at this point I can’t think of a single thing that I actually feel like I missed out on. Now, some of that might be explained away by the fact that, for tax reasons, I had to buy a pile of games that I might have otherwise been thinking about. But really… I don’t think so. The weirdest thing for me is what I don’t feel like I missed out on, say, any board game from 2019. There are plenty I would have been interested to play, but none that come to mind right now as being an absence from my life. All the things that survived my depth year wishlist intact are things I’m looking forward to seeing and doing, but if I never did I wouldn’t actually be all that cut up about it.
I will say though that there were a few periods during this process where I was feeling pretty downhearted about a lot of things. The site. The country. The Internet in general. I honestly account a portion of that to lacking the dopamine high of getting myself ‘a little treat’ whenever I felt down in the dumps. Going cold turkey was hard during some of the early months – after the initial ‘Hey, this is easy’ rush there were some darker periods because I think I had turned buying into a therapy mechanism. That down period didn’t last long though, and it was perhaps for the best – it made me realise that a lot of what was contributing to my general state of contentment was access to disposable income and sinks into which I could throw it. But also – it did pass and now I feel about the same level of general contentment as I did before without the need to prop it up with reckless spending.
Some of that in turn though has to be linked to other changes in life circumstances. A lot of my depression during the early stages of the year was due to the ever present darkness in the political climate. Brexit in particular has been weighing me down considerably for the several years it has been an ongoing issue in the UK. I hadn’t been enjoying my job at RGU due to various organisational and cultural changes, especially linked to the research direction that the department had been taking. But now I’m in a country where Brexit is only a distant calamity, and I’m at a new university that, after two weeks, I’m already thinking of as ‘absolutely wonderful’. Between the dark times and now there was also the mere promise of those things. I’m not prepared then to say that losing out on the joy-lever of casual spending has no cost because it’s wrapped up in too many external things. I can’t decouple how I feel now from the major life changes that occurred in 2019.
But I honestly don’t feel at all like I have missed out on anything that mattered this year. That too is an unexpected result.
What did I learn?
I’ve learned that most of what makes new exciting is a matter of perspective. New to me is exciting because it feels nice to take possession of things. New to society is exciting because novelty has a hype to it. Bringing both of those together is seductive, and much of our cultural discourse is driven by it. When you remove yourself from that discourse, you become immune to the hype. When you become immune to the hype, you just become critical of the value that new things bring. As I say, the half-life of enthusiasm I had for new distractions over the year was only a couple of months. I suspect I could live a very happy life by focusing my attention a couple of years into the past. I think I could find real, lasting sustainable joy in living life through hindsight.
Another thing that living a life with patience provides a way to be optimal as far as expense goes. Over the past year, a number of things that I would have instantly purchased at full price have landed in my lap at a fraction of the cost. Books that appeared on Kindle daily deals, for example. A number of games from the Humble Bundle were on my wishlists until they simply arrived my way as part of the flat monthly purchase.
I also learned that I was using consumerism as a psychological crutch, at least to a degree, and I also learned that you can realign that. Don’t think of ‘new possessions’ but rather ‘new experiences’. A shelf of unread books won’t give you hit of the former, but the hit of the latter is actually a lot richer. It validates your past purchases and it builds optimism for the future. ‘If I had something this good already, what other treasures do I already have?’
Also, it’s good to think not just of the thing you could have, but also the obligation it puts upon you. I’ve felt that pretty intensely over our move – that every unplayed game on my shelf is a chore I’ll need to get around to at some point. You never buy time when you buy things, and I think I’ve finally internalised that vital life lesson.
However, that all also leads to some person clarity about this site. Since I don’t care about ‘new’ games, and that’s what most of the media culture is focused around, there’s a hard limit to how much success that Meeple Like Us can expect. That’s a sobering realisation, but it’s also a valuable one. We’ve probably already plateaued unless we’re willing to pivot in more popular directions. I’m not prepared to pivot. That takes a lot of the pressure off. The site is what it is and I can stop hoping it’ll be substantively more.
Would I recommend it to others?
Without a doubt, without question, and without hesitation. This has been a remarkable year for me, not just professionally and personally. It’s been a remarkable year psychologically and I feel immensely enriched by the experience. I liked it so much that I’m kind of sad it’s over. I don’t really want to roll into Depth Year 2020, but I am actively considering ways to bring some of the mindfulness of this approach into the rest of my life
My Depth Year in 2019 was an experiment – one that I didn’t expect to actually stick with. Going public with it as a promise was an important part of forcing my feet to the fire, and the regular diary series I did to accompany it ensured an ongoing audit that kept me on track. I have learned a lot about myself, and about my relationship with consumerism, and I honestly feel like I’ve come out of this changed for the better. I don’t know how long this change will last without the constant pull of public self-reflection, but I’m hoping a year of training myself to subdue the instant spend reflex will have lasting impact.
If not, well – Depth Year 2021 is already sounding like a pretty enticing idea.
There were a number of people that started a depth year journey with me in 2019 – I’d absolutely love to hear your final thoughts on the matter in the comments below! And if you didn’t, maybe you’d like to consider a depth year of your own in the coming months? I’m available for advice and support if you fancy taking the plunge!