[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]
On a couple of takeaways from a couple decades or so of app gaming.
The lives of my two sons, now 16 and 15 years old, have correlated almost exactly with the rise and dominance of the smartphone, so it’s probably no surprise that it is through them that I have experienced the brave new video gaming world of app games. Indeed, I’ve listened to my boys excitedly go through phases focused on most of the games on the top ten lists of both the most downloaded and the most spent-upon app games of the last decade-plus (among other games they’ve loved that didn’t quite make those lists, such as their first app game addiction Spy Mouse); and for a solid year or so they got me similarly obsessed with one of the games that ranks high on both lists, Supercell’s smash hit Clash of Clans. While it would be easy to see app games as occupying a fundamentally different genre (and even perhaps a different medium) than other video games, I think that would also be largely if not entirely inaccurate: every gaming console or system has its differences, but every one still allows gamers to play video games; and most app games have direct parallels to other popular and more traditional video games (#1 download Candy Crush Saga to prior shape stacking games like Tetris, Clash of Clans to prior worldbuilding games like Civilization, and so on).
Thinking of app games as video games allows us to consider a couple of interesting 21st century gaming trends that they both reveal and have helped popularize. Perhaps the most obvious is seeing video games as a constant activity and part of the regular flow of our day-to-day lives, rather than a distinct or separate use of our time. That is, to game on a system or computer generally requires turning on that console and game, and thus making a conscious choice to enter into that space for some particular period of time; whereas an app game is present on the device on which we’re already spending so much time, and generally requires barely a second to open and play (and a similar second to stop playing or pause in order to do other things, on or off that device). Of course some past games have already been able to serve that purpose—I used to play at least one game of Minesweeper religiously before starting any writing work—but I would argue that those were one small subset or niche of the gaming world, rather than the central category that app games have become. Obviously it’s not just the games that have become utterly tied to our moment-to-moment lives; but this particular change in gaming both reflects those broader technological shifts and represents an interesting specific effect within the world of video gaming.
The other thing I want to highlight about app games is less of a definite trend and more of a question, and one tied to broader questions about smartphones, social media, the internet, 21st century society, and other such small issues. It’s possible to see app video gaming as one more way we’ve become more isolated from each other, linked more to what’s happening on these devices than to those around us (as, for example, we’d be if we were playing a video game with a group of friends, all staring at the same screen at least). But it’s equally possible to see app games (like video games overall, of course) as a way that we can and do connect to each other—my boys have shared every app gaming experience with each other, and as I mentioned also shared at least one extended one with me; and they similarly have connected to friends near and far in the same ways, both literally through online gaming and figuratively through discussing these shared worlds and experiences. The answer, of course, lies in a combination of these two poles, along with many other effects along the spectrum. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t or won’t ultimately be possible to assess app games as creating more isolation or more community, and those are worthwhile and important questions to ask of this new gaming form, as well as of the technologies to which they connect.
November Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?