I wish that I could travel back in time and tell my ten-year-old self—the one currently frustrated that Mom was playing World of Warcraft and Dad was playing Civilization and laptops didn't exist yet, so you'll just have to wait your turn at the desktop computers, sorry—that someday soon everyone would have video games tucked into their back pockets. I'm not talking about Gameboys and the 3DS though, consoles that mark you as A Gamer and can be uncomfortable to use in public past the age of sixteen. No, what would have made my ten-year-old self positively squee with joy is the wonderful, versatile cellphone.
Most people text. Even more listen to music. But plenty of people play games on their phones too----and have been for a long time now. For years we've heard about how addicting Candy Crush is, or we embrace brief moments of utter rage as fads like Flappy Bird fly by, but it's rare that I read about just how influential the cellphone has been on our gaming landscape. I mean sure, we've acknowledged that iPhone games have gotten more and more people into the medium, but all that really does is lead to repetitive discussion about how the forty-year-old playing Angry Birds at the dentist isn't a real gamer. They haven't adopted the specific (read: stereotyped) lifestyle, the jargon, or the merchandise associated with that title. They're just someone killing time.
Now there's a whole dissertation's worth of material on the gaming community's history of gatekeeping, often tied up in a misogyny that leads to labeling the guy playing Halo as A Gamer, but the old woman playing bingo as Definitely Not, and while all that is important and fascinating, it's not the purpose of this post. I'd simply like to take a moment and work under the assumption that anyone engaging in some form of electronic recreation is "a gamer" and acknowledge that, by this wide and equitable definition, we've created a culture positively saturated with gamers. And within that culture has arisen cellphone games in particular: pure perfection in terms of catering to the average adult.
Think about it. These are games already using a 'console' you're required to have with you----there's no stigma attached to carrying a cellphone and you never risk being without entertainment while stuck in that dentist's office. There’s also no stigma if you’re a new or casual gamer and want to try something without navigating the complexity that is something like an MMO. Cellphone games are a great introductory text. Most of the popular games are free and many others are under $5----a far cry from dropping half your week's grocery money on something like The Witness. (Okay side note, you can't tell me this game is "the new Myst" and then make it $40, my grad school stipend can't handle that and I'm crying). With the staggering improvement of graphics over the last decade we have iPhone games looking as gorgeous as anything you'd play on your laptop, and combining those graphics with the versatility of cellphones as a medium has resulted in enthralling, highly addictive augmented reality games like Pokemon Go. Who doesn't want to turn their boring commute into a journey through a fantasy landscape?
It's that 'walk to work' aspect that really fascinates me though. Games, like any other form of entertainment, are a leisure activity that takes up our time; and most of us don't have much of that to spare. Even if you manage to carve out a few hours for TV or books or playing your X-Box, chances are you're going to feel at least a little bit guilty about it. All our knowledge of mental health won't combat the fact that we've created a culture that despises "laziness." No matter how much you might need a break or how desperate you are for some downtime, it's always going to be tainted by the knowledge that you could be doing something productive instead.
Not so with cellphone games.
Many of them----not all----but many are designed specifically to fill up those awkward moments throughout your day: waiting in line to buy coffee, riding in an Uber, killing time before the meeting starts while you're trying desperately to avoid small talk with that colleague you only sort of like. We've all been there. When you're out of people to text though and all the feeds you normally scroll through are dead, we turn to games, and unlike booting up a your X-Box there's no guilt attached to that choice. You're already in line and you're going to remain in line until you get that coffee. All the guilt in the world won't change that. The time is already taken up, so it hardly matters if you do something "unproductive" with it like gaming or just stand there thinking about your grocery list. In fact, the ability to fill these moments with an accomplishment----even one as simple and silly as beating the latest level of Candy Crush----adds meaning to what were previously just dead moments in our everyday lives. Using that time for enjoyment is using it well.
Lately, a personal favorite of mine (along with millions of others) is Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. It's a mindless game that still manages to be addictive. Markedly uplifting for when you're having a crappy day. It saves automatically so that when you do get to the front of the Starbucks line you can exit out without having to worry about losing any precious progress. Most importantly though the narrative is designed for short gameplay. You fulfill the requests of your animal friends in order to gain money/resources, which you then use to expand your campsite, but each friend only has three requests per two hours. And with only five friends out at a time, unless you have a staggering number of request and call tickets you'll inevitably reach a point where there's nothing else to do. Pocket Camp simply isn't meant for long-term gameplay, which makes it perfect for the sort of casual play we've developed while running errands or waiting in line.
Other games are similarly constructed. Pokemon Go is (imagine) best when played on the go rather than at home for hours on end where the spawn rate sucks and you can't reach a pokestop. 旅かえる (Travel Frog) is the latest obsession in Japan and China, requiring that you wait patiently for your frog to send you cute postcards of his adventures and eventually return with souvenirs. Surely it's better to send him off during your morning commute and then check on him later in the day, rather than actually waiting for him to come back. After all, staring at a mostly dead screen would be pretty boring. Non-narrative games like Candy Crush or Subway Surf have levels that can be completed in just a few minutes. Still other games like Words With Friends are turn based and thus require you to adhere your opponent's schedule. Our cellphones are mobile devices and luckily game designers have taken the medium to heart, designing mobile games that function as gaming hors d'oeuvres rather than full-course meals.
Personally I think it's wonderful. There are a lot of "real" gamers out there who like to sneer at this development, but all I see are more people enjoying games and making their daily routine a little more bearable. So download to your heart's content and if it leads you to getting a console or checking out Steam? Great. If not? Also great.
You're still a gamer though, so keep playing.
#3: Personal screenshot
#4: Personal screenshot