Turning and turning in the widening gyre

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been playing video games. It’s something of an addiction of mine. It’s not an addiction that’s taken a lot of my money; I don’t have any game consoles or game-dedicated computers. For the most part, I play browser-based games, and recently, free or very cheap games on my iPad and phone. The games I play are usually categorized as “casual” games, the sort of game that you can pick up, play a level or two, and then put down. Good games to play while waiting in line somewhere. That’s not to say that I would call myself a casual gamer. While I play casual games, I think I get too easily caught up in them for what I do to be called casual. In fact, as I write this, I’m bouncing back and forth between this tab and a tab in which I’m playing the game Keep Craft.

Screenshot (1)
I’ve come a long way since Pac-Man. Err…no, maybe not.

Like I said, I haven’t spent much money on video games, but boy have I spent a lot of time on them. And if it’s true what I hear about multitasking (that it actually significantly diminishes your efficiency with both (or all) tasks), then I’m really in trouble.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed a fondness for games involving upgrades. I enjoy games where part of what you’re trying to do is beat a level to earn money (or some other in-game currency, like “energy” or whatever), and then spend that currency on upgrades for your character, which thus enables you to beat ever-higher levels. For a while, I spent most of my gaming time at Kongregate, a website with probably forty-five million upgrade-style games.

But of late, I’ve been very attracted to a subset of upgrade games that are called incremental games, or sometimes idle games, or sometimes clicker games. These games take the idea of upgrades to its limit, as the entire game is almost literally just one upgrade after another. The gameplay of an incremental game is quite simply:

  • Gain currency through clicking something, or just patiently waiting for the currency to slowly accrue,
    • in order to buy upgrades,
      • in order to gain currency more quickly,
        • in order to buy more expensive upgrades,
          • in order to even more quickly gain currency,
            • in order to buy even more expensive upgrades.

Sometimes there are multiple forms of currency (see the photo above from Keep Craft for an example with dozens of currencies), but for as complicated as that screenshot might look on first glance, the gameplay is really the same.

Some incremental games also have a feature called “prestige” or “legacy,” wherein you can reset your game after you’ve played it for a while. Depending on how much of a particular currency you have when you reset, you gain some special upgrade for the next time you play it through. This enables some incremental games to be played for months on end without reaching the end. Really, prestige is just another layer of upgrades added to a game that’s like an onion…peel back the layer, and there’s no core to it: just more and more levels of upgrades. The games that I find to be favorites are the ones that don’t even have the pretense of graphics or storyline…just a whole bunch of raw numbers and data.

There’s not a whole lot of skill involved in these games. There’s not really a way to lose. Every tick of your computer’s clock increases your currency, and all you do is every now and then click something to make that increase even better. It’s like an endless march of progress, like the promise of the modern era. Progress could not be stopped, it was said. From Wikipedia: “The modern era is closely associated with the development of individualism, capitalism, urbanization and a belief in the possibilities of technological and political progress.” Individualism, capitalism, technological progress. That’s incremental games in a nutshell. And I think I know why I’m so obsessed with these games these days.

It’s because I’m not a modern person at all; I’m postmodern through and through. I have no belief in progress. I have no expectation that I will be “better off” than my parents, nor that my kids will be “better off” than I. I don’t even really understand the concept, to be honest. The modern period is over. Progress has been shown to be bunk. Things aren’t better today than they once were. And they’re not worse either. They’re just different. Every generation has to deal with its own set of garbage. Yes, we have extraordinary medicine today compared to fifty years ago, which is awesome…but we also have more terrorism. Yes, we have an obscene amount of prejudice in America against certain groups of people, which is terrible…but we don’t have legal slavery anymore. Some things improve, some things get worse. And it our generation’s turn to deal with our particular set of crap, and to use our generation’s particular blessings to do so. We’re all born into our own existence, right now, right here. It’s all we have to work with, and it’s all we have to do. And it all feels so risky and dangerous. I’m not scared of “the world today.” I really don’t give much thought to crime and terrorism and such “getting me.” The sheer odds against it are staggering, despite the prevalence it’s given on news programs. No, what I find dangerous is choices, decisions. I have a huge fear that my choices could be catastrophic, and being as postmodern and existentialist as I am, I find little foundation on which to base my choices. There is no foundation to stand on. There never really was. There is no handbook. (Sorry, fellow Christians…the Bible never was a handbook. It’s a story of God’s steadfast love and covenant with God’s people, not an instruction book for how to go to heaven.) All choices are ad hoc choices.

This image just makes me happy.

But sometimes I think I want to escape from that. Sometimes I want to pretend that I’m in a world where things do get better all the time, where progress is real, where there is no real risk. And incremental games do that for me. I have to be careful how much time I spend there, so I don’t get so inured that I forget that there is a world I need to live in, and work for. But I think that’s why these particular games are important to me right now…they show me a dream world where things always get better. And in which my actions make a difference. And in which there is very little question about what the right actions are.

And if these games are a dream world for me, at least they’re a safer and better dream world than the one I enter at night. Sometime this week, I dreamt that I was driving down a road trying to avoid getting hit by not one, but two, tornadoes. (In an incremental game, the tornadoes would never get me, but I would slowly, slowly grow strong enough that I would be able to destroy them with mind bullets.)

One thought on “Turning and turning in the widening gyre

  1. I play word games and those hidden object games where you need to solve puzzles to get to the next level. But they end and you feel great cause you completed the quest! Yet you say ok now what do I do, I’m done?
    But I feel yes we have a ton of technology and they say it makes things better but I agree with you, technology doesn’t cure cancer, or terrorism or death and poverty. And hate, I could go on and on.
    Sometimes I feel technology creates frustration, feelings of being inadequate, techno-stupid. I love working on the pc, I do all day long…but when that pc doesn’t work…argh! Your picture of post modern explains just how I feel!
    Happy gaming!


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