Here’s a link to an interesting article by Ben Jackson about the difference between the games you play and the games that play you. If you’re looking for some thoughtful online reading this afternoon (as opposed to the usual, read-it-in-1-minute, forget-it-in-2 internet candy bar), I recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a habitual gamer.
How do I definite habitual gamer? If you spend an hour a day fiddling with Farmville or Words with Friends or flinging pissed-off birds at towers, that’s a habit… and it’s a habit I think more people my age have than not.
Nor do I necessarily think the game habit is inherently bad in-and-of-itself, just as I don’t assume an hour spent reading every day is inherently good. For example: there’s a huge difference between spending an hour reading political blogs, and getting yourself worked up in a lather over people who disagree with you, and spending an hour with your feet up, reading Adam Smith’s the Wealth of Nations, or David Mitchell’s The Cloud Atlas, or Elmore Leonard’s Raylan.
So too, as Ben’s article, “The Zynga Abyss,” suggests, not all games are equal: some are as intellectually refreshing as a good hard jog, while others amount to the mental equivalent of eating Doritoes in your underwear in front of reality TV… a sad, maybe even vaguely destructive waste of your limited time on the planet.
“The Zynga Abyss,” did get me thinking about what games I play, and their impact on my life and imagination, so I thought I’d run down my big digital time sucks, and rate them on their relative “evil”-ness. These all refer to iPhone/iPad games, which is where I do 98% of my gaming these days.
1) Considering that Ben Jackson singles out Zynga as the main offender when it comes to creating “evil” games, it’s worth a snicker to note that my own favorite game is a Zynga creation: Words with Friends.
I play Words with Friends the way Nickelback plays power chords: pretty much all the time, everywhere I go, to the point of forehead-smacking monotony. But while I agree with Ben’s criticism of Zynga games like Farmville, I’m inclined to feel Words is one of the good guys. It is, at bottom, a reinvention of Scrabble, just different enough to keep Zynga safe from Hasbro’s copyright lawyers. The chat-feature is lurvely – a great way to connect with a friend or family member – and the game itself involves a lot of wrestling with vocabulary and tactics. And because it can be played in short little bites – a few minutes here, a few minutes there – it isn’t intrusive, but is available when you need to take a break from work or the household chores. Zynga can go and feel guilty about making people Farmville junkies, but they done good here.
Rating? Not-evil. Also very fun.
2) Samurai: Bloodshow is a weird Franken-game for iOS… part-tower defense like Plants vs. Zombies, part chess match, part card trading game like that staple of the early 90s, Magic: The Gathering.
The object is simple enough: build an army (using different kinds of soldiers drawn from the legends of feudal Japan), and battle to overwhelm your enemy on a grid-like board. Gameplay allows for both single-player and online matches. Within these tightly constricted limits, the game allows for a lot of creativity, as you build different armies with different abilities and different methods of assault and defense.
There are deficiencies, however. Because the game offers no way to chat with your friends during play, you might as well be playing the computer’s AI; for a social game, it isn’t very social. Also, you win cards by defeating opponents online, or by conquering levels in single-player mode. But anyone with a few bucks burning a hole in their wallet can just buy the cards they want, and I’ve often run into dudes online who obviously built their mercenary armies the old fashioned way: they paid for ‘em. It can be a bummer to get trampled by someone who clobbered you not by virtue of their winning strategy, but by way of their momma’s credit card.
Rating? Maybe a little evil, actually, but only if you feel the need to buy your way to the top. Oh, and probably playing an hour of Samurai: Bloodshow online is not as great for you as, say, playing an hour of rummy with an actual friend who can talk to you.
3) Then there’s Tilt to Live.
In Tilt to Live, you play a chrome pointy thing, racing around avoiding red blobby things, and destroying them with zappy-explody-shooty things. It’s a twitch game, not a thinking game, and it is addictive – seriously addictive. Also, as far as I can see, it has no point beyond surviving as long as you can. It’s also repetitive, but not in a way that has ever led me to tire of it. I love this at least as much as I loved playing wallball when I was nine… dodging that fatal crushing blow is its own simple pleasure.
It may be stupid – it may be addictive – but I’m not sure it would meet Ben’s definition of evil… not, at least, if played in moderation (I usually have a dozen games a day, but given the rapid nature of game play, that’s still maybe only comes to twenty minutes). A “Good” game in Ben’s article would be a game that allows you to pursue your own agenda, building a skill set to achieve mastery, and accumulating satisfaction and happiness along the way; an “Evil” game is one that rewards you for pursuing the game-maker’s agenda, adding to their customer base, buying items for success, and playing the game on their schedule instead of your own.
With that in mind, I feel like Tilt to Live is only evil if you aren’t mainlining this mother. Oh, and it’s fun. It’s so fun.
When I started writing this, I wasn’t sure how my own gaming habit would rate. But I feel like maybe I’m not doing too badly… especially considering that I don’t give any one of these games more than twenty minutes a day (you may disagree – you may think I’m a hopeless slob – and if so you should use the comments thread to tell me. I can take it. Go on, lay it on me).
But my feelings about these games would shift radically, I think, if I felt compelled to play an hour of Tilt to Live a day, instead of just 20 minutes, or if I had spent $20 – 40 building my armies in Samurai: Bloodshow. My basic notion here is that your gaming should be a nice break from the daily struggle… it shouldn’t be the daily struggle itself. If that’s how you feel, you’re probably doing it wrong (Oh, and I’ve done it wrong, for sure – but my days of playing Contra until 2 AM are well, well behind me).
What about you, guys? What are you playing? What’s good? What’s to be avoided? Anything in your gaming lifestyle making you feel skeevy about yourself? Let me know in the comments thread. I’ll check back in a little while to see what you said. Right now I have to go and make a move in Words.