3 Reasons to Hate Casual Video Games
There was a Flash game I got into a while back. Armored Tank or Shoot Gun or Tank Tank or something like that. You know the type of game I'm talking about; you've probably got your own Tank Tank. Maybe it's Angry Birds or Bejeweled or TankVille or whatever. Some cheap, simple little video game that you play when nothing else is going on. Mine was Tank Tank, and for two or three months, I played the hell out of it, in the process getting really, really good at tanking.
And then I realized that I hated it.
It Was a Waste of Time
It should not surprise you if I reveal that playing Tank Tank for four hours every day did not make me a better person. It did make me an older person, and thus legally a wiser person, though that benefit I mostly credit to the local topography of space-time. For example, I'd be just as wise if I'd crammed tanks up my ass for four hours a day instead, and certainly a lot more famous.
Maybe you don't see what the big deal is; it's something that might come with perspective. You see, now that I'm over a tenth of the way through my expected 300-year lifespan (Canadian health care), I have a certain appreciation for the value of time. I don't like wasting it, especially when I know there's something better I could be doing. And there was always something better to do than play Tank Tank. Whether it was reading or writing or simple duck harassment, I have any number of other hobbies and pastimes that provide greater lasting joy than playing Tank Tank.
No, I couldn't see that program, because I don't have a television. What's that? Oh, I was out molesting fowl all night.
Just to be clear here: I am not an efficiency fanatic, nor demanding that everyone lead the clean, productive life that I do, because that life is a fiction. Indeed, I know how to procrastinate; this column took about five hours longer to write than it should have, purely because of the Wikipedia entry for ALF. I get that not everything has to be productive. There's value in simply having a good time.
Which brings me to my next complaint about Tank Tank ...
It Wasn't Fun
Fun is obviously a pretty subjective quality; what's fun for one person may not be fun for another. Nipple clamps, for example, get a very divided response depending on which fun-centric event you bring them out at.
If you haven't been to a Chuck E. Cheese After Dark, you don't know the meaning of pleasure.
So maybe Tank Tank would be fun for you. But for me, it was an almost mindlessly idiotic game. There were three or four controls and a few tank widgets, but fundamentally, every single action in the game was identical to the previous one. Tank, tank, repeat. With so little variation in the basic gameplay, the overarching strategy was also trivial. Tanking your tank at an expert level takes about an hour to figure out, less if you've seen this type of game before, which, thanks to a childhood spent avoiding the sun, I have, many many times.
I've played video games for too, too long now, and basic stuff like headshots and getting a shotgun for your second weapon and tank tanking is all old hat to me. What I crave is originality. Games that show me something new. Whether it's a new type of gameplay, or a massive new world to explore, or the ability to be more like Batman than I normally am. (I basically never want to play anything that isn't Arkham Something ever again). I'm generally a sucker for big single-player games, anything that required a couple hundred level designers to not see their families for months on end. Especially the ones written by actual writers -- there's nothing like an intelligible narrative to get me semi-hard.
Nothing about Tank Tank was new; I've been playing variants of it for decades. And most of the little casual games are like this. I've played at least two or three games identical to Angry Birds, there are a hundred fucking iPhone games that mix Scrabble and Boggle in some ratio and Fruit Ninja is ... I've admittedly never played anything like Fruit Ninja before. But that's because I think Fruit Ninja was made for idiots.
You just slice the fruit? Again and again? Did it kidnap the president or something?
(I know some of you don't like originality so much as you like games that are challenging, and I won't knock you for it; I used to be hardcore!!! once myself. But challenge isn't a big draw for me anymore. Most games simply aren't that hard, and the ones that are seem to derive their difficulty via horribly artificial means -- one-hit deaths and over-armored enemies, and anything that can only be solved by memorization or rote learning. It feels too much like work to me, and if I'm going to work at something, I'd like to actually have something to show for it at the end. Like a diploma, or a bitchy column about video games, or a new feathered friend.)
So if Tank Tank wasn't fun, and was a waste of my time, why'd I keep playing it long enough for the fucking seasons to change?
It Was Addictive
For some reason, addictiveness is considered a favorable quality when talking about video games, kind of the same way we use it to describe potato chips or getting high on life. That certainly sounds reasonable; after all, unlike alcoholism, or crackoholism, video games have never killed anyone. Except when they have.
Yes, it was StarCraft. It was always going to be StarCraft. Don't look so shocked, Blizzard.
But even if we have more self-control than Koreans, it's still wrong to celebrate how addictive games are. "Addiction" implies compulsion, that the urge to play isn't an entirely willing or rational one. As established, I wasn't playing Tank Tank to improve myself, nor because it was fun. I was playing it solely because I was addicted. And even though I didn't keel over in an Internet cafe, or suck off a drug dealer for my next hit, or write a country music song, this was not a good thing. Once I realized how much time I was putting into this piece of shit, I got kind of pissed off about it.
More so when I realized that this addictiveness was completely artificial. I had been deliberately manipulated, tricked into continuously playing this colossal turd burger.
Overlying the basic (and piss-simple) Tank Tank game mechanic was an even more primitive mechanic, one I guarantee you're familiar with. Depending on how long and effectively you tanked, power ups, upgrades and larger, more virile tanks could be earned. Although this all felt very important at the time, none of these upgrades affected the strategy in the game in the slightest way. You just got a slightly better Tank Tank, and, more importantly, a new upgrade to strive toward. This is a well known game design called bar filling, which is basically an upgrading mechanic borrowed from RPG games. It's since been applied to nearly every other genre in the industry, entirely because it seems to make games more addictive.
In RPGs, bar filling is a reasonable way of spreading out the upgrading and character building aspects of the game. And because this upgrading will affect how fast and fun the bar-filling gameplay is, a kind of feedback loop is established; there's strategy and fun to be delved into here. And when the central mechanic that "fills" the "bar" is fun, you've got yourself a good game; it's been at the heart of RPGs for decades. But in Tank Tank, every bar I filled changed shit fuck. The difference between low-level Tank Tank and high-level Tank Tank was nonexistent. I was filling bars just because they were there. Tank, tank, repeat.
(thinking) "I am so fucking bored right now."
And Tank Tank isn't even the worst offender for this kind of shady gameplay, an honor that falls to well-known Freemium games like FarmVille and VilleVille and SituationTown. Those are the colossal pieces of shit that keep flooding Facebook with spam whose gameplay consists entirely of clicking on things. After several days' worth of clicks, more clickable things are "earned" and the cycle repeats itself. Most importantly, it seems that after two or three clicks, an email, text or fucking telegram is sent to every person the player has ever met, asking them to join the fun. It's a potent combination of left clicks, spam, pyramid schemes and endless human suffering, and the fact that someone's making a lot of money off of it is just the worst.
Please, people, follow my lead, and stop playing these shitty little manipulative games. Free yourselves! Stop killing time! Have fun! Expand your horizons! And if on the horizon you happen to see the police wrestling a duck away from a pantsless man, then stand up and start clapping really slowly, for that man is the freest of us all.
For more from Bucholz, check out 7 Video Game Healing Methods Least Likely to Actually Work and Chatting With Mario During a Game of Super Mario Brothers.