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Get Yer Game On

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.┬áIf 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.

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15 Responses to Get Yer Game On

  1. Sammy&Mary+Mark says:

    How is Raylan?

  2. Games I’m playing:

    My family & I are addicted to the Animal Crossing series of games from Nintendo. Think “Sims” expect you dont have to worry about all the body functions or the jobs, its in real time, & all your neighbors are animals! Fun, relaxing game. The current one we play is Animal Crossing: City Folk on the Wii. Also playing: Mario Kart 7 on 3DS, Mutant Mudds on 3DS, & Gotham City Imposters beta on PS3.

  3. Ian Cooper says:

    In fantasy games for the iPhone, try King of Dragon Pass. Season by season allocation of resources as your clan tries to settle Dragon Pass, feuds, dilemmas to decide. Unique mix of storytelling and gaming

  4. BK says:

    I tend towards sports games for my fix (I’m the posterchild for vicarious living) but still manage to get my arse handed to me by pretty much everyone I know. On the plus side, whenever I jag a rare win the reactions make it all worth it (“This is bullshit!”, “Frigging controller’s not working”, “I wasn’t ready!”). I’ve gone full geek, too: drawn up (and played) entire seasons of rugby, soccer, b-ball and cricket at various stages. Back in ’06, my brother and I did up this enormous fixture list of soccer qualifiers for our own World Cup, taking in pretty much every country on earth. Thought it’d be fun to chug through a couple matches once a week or so over a few beers. Big mistake. More than 100 matches later we’re STILL going (doesn’t help that now we’re lucky to manage one a month). Could be a 2030 World Cup.
    At the moment, my preferred instrument of torture is NBA 2K12, though games like FIFA, rugby and cricket (yeah, they even make cricket games) also make frequent appearances. My oldest son is enjoying his current run of success a little TOO much (Ethan: “You SURE you want to play this one again, Dad?”) but he seems to have forgotten I’m ancient and devious.
    I’m not so hot on the platforming games – though I loved Ghouls and Ghosts as a kid – which makes me kind of an odd-geezer-out in the family. My brother and son both bond like crazy over Age of Empires-style games. And when I said I’d be getting the kids Skyrim next week … well of course they’d already heard of it and have been doing their chores at triple-speed (though with no greater accuracy) all week.

  5. BK says:

    PS: Couldn’t agree more about the bounders who buy their way to success. Kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Gotta be a way to steer them into their own high rollers-style chat-gaming room, where they can abuse their credit cards to their hearts’ content. Or better still: actually invent a game based on sacrificing credit cards on some Mayan altar.

  6. This_Girl says:

    I play words with friends, too. I like the Scrabble ap more b/c the computer responds instantly as opposed to having to wait on a friend. I play a lot of scrabble and my husband and I figured out how to play using “local network”. If my brother is here then I’ll toss him my iPhone and he can play with us. Gotta tell you all, though…I feel like a real jerk when our girl asks us why we won’t play the Scrabble in the box. It’s messy and I’m lazy!!
    I am highly addicted to Bop It Extreme. That’s not an online thing. It’s a loud, annoying, evil, time eating machine that makes me say the worst of words and phrases. So much that earlier this afternoon I was hiding in the garage playing so nobody could hear the vulgarity and my sucky scores!
    Back on point…I’m not much of a participant within the Zynga-nation. I feel like Tom Hanks character in Big a lot…raising my hand and shrugging about how I don’t get it.

  7. Christina says:

    I clock anywhere from two to four hours in on Zelda: Skyward Sword in a single sitting. This is probably why I’m single.

    Guitar Hero, especially Metallica and AC/DC editions would keep me up all night and the neighbors unamused. Rock Band is great when you have friends over.

    Animal Crossing: City Folk was like heroin when it came out. I traded fruit to people in France at 3am in the morning so I could buy a samurai suit and a bonsai. It was like a digital zen garden. Nothing bad ever happened inside the game. You just fished and watered flowers and collected art. Totally stupid, but very relaxing.

  8. Carrie's Younger Brother says:

    I play the Zynga triumvirate: Words with Friends, Hanging with Friends and just last night I downloaded Scramble with Friends. I justify these as being good for me since they all help me build my vocabulary and are “intelligent” games. Yeah, well that’s what I tell myself. As for when i play, I do so mostly for a few minutes before I leave for work in the AM and then a little bit more at night when unwinding after dinner. on the weekends, I send even a little more time.

    I also play all the different Angry Birds editions, but I’ve gotten over my obsession there and feel like it won’t be long before I uninstall them all from my phone and let those birds all fly the coop.

  9. Nerak says:

    I play Unblock It. I love it. My daughter actually put it on my nook and I can’t stop playing. I won’t let anyone else do any other levels. There are 3000 levels and I think I am in the 700s.
    Try it, it’s great!!!


  10. My addiction is Sudoku. I can play it for almost an hour at a time and completely lose track of everything else. Scary!

  11. Jen says:

    Mainly I play Set (on the iPhone) because it makes me feel smarter and it goes quick. I’ve had brief torrid affairs (PvZ) with games that just take too much time investment for me, and longer-term relationships with games that just eventually faded (Angry Birds, I’m lookin’ at you). I fear I may fall into Words With Friends on your rec, as I’d been considering it anyway. I am proud to say I’ve never touched Farmville and don’t play any Facebook based games.

  12. sari says:

    I’ve always played video games – since I was in my early 20’s. I love the Legend of Zelda series, I love Animal Crossing, I like the Professor Layton games. The thing they all have in common is you have a quest or goal, or there are puzzles to solve, which I like.

    On FB I like to play Words with Friends because I’m a huge Scrabble fan but I’m horrible. I swear, I play Words with Friends with my dad and he KILLS me 9 out of 10 games. It’s embarrassing so it makes me try harder because I want to beat him.

  13. sari says:

    And it’s not like I don’t know good words, I just get crappy letters or no place to put an amazing word. Really! ha

  14. Phill17Larry33 says:

    These games do take up too much time but are fun and what’s wrong with that? Batman Arkham Asylum, Arkham City are both great games that actually make you feel like Batman, but the Uncharted games are the best. By the way Contra is still one of my favorite games ever. Nice Contra reference Joe. I know you like zombies Joe and would tell you to keep an eye out for an upcoming game entitled “The Last of Us.” Look for it at the end of this year.

  15. Reuben Smith says:

    I don’t necessarily want to contradict, but Ben Jackson might have over-thought this just a tad. I think the problem of addictive gaming (and that includes ANY game) can be answered very simply: moderation. I play only Xbox 360 console games, because that’s what I have, and since I rent 98% of the games I play, I tend to play them straight through in 2-4 days, anywhere from 3-5 hours a day. But since I only select no more than one game a month–IF that–I’m not exceeding moderation. Now, are some pleasures more guilty than others? Sure. Fighting games, which used to be my favorite, have become unimaginative and monotonous. I don’t touch military first-person-shooters. Story-based thrillers have mostly run out of ideas, but you get a good one now and then, like Alan Wake and Dead Space. I’d like to see more things as innovative as Portal and Mirror’s Edge, which are first-person platform puzzles. But I think Bioshock is the most brilliant game to come out in the last 10 years, almost purely because of story. That’s my glib two cents.

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