I have given myself over to the world of small, quick, easy-to-learn games. I have indulged myself in the easily digestible world of agitated birds, bouncing balls, endless runners and esoteric puzzles. These games have five-star ratings on the app store for a reason. They are expertly designed for their medium: small, tight, quick experiences that evaporate with a click of the sleep button.
It’s about time I admitted this: they are all very fun, but they mean nothing to me. Not right now. Not anymore.
The truth is, I’m not addicted to novelty, but resonance.
I have nearly a hundred games just sitting on my iPhone. I have them in folders like “favorites” and “classics” and “classics2”. Every month or so, I comb through those folders and delete them. As accessible as they are and as easy as it would be to simply launch and play them for just a minute or two, I never do.
Instead, nearly every night I impulsively launch the Touch Arcade app, searching for the latest new app. I want another quick fix. But gosh, gross, the last thing I want to do is make that same tired “games are like drugs and encourage an addiction to novelty” argument. It’s too easy. It’s too false.
The truth is, I’m not addicted to novelty, but resonance. In every app I download I’m looking for something that will meet some deeply felt need, whether it quell a temporary loneliness or instill a sense of empathy for someone unlike me. It’s not that I’m looking for a new mechanic or a new graphical innovation. I’m looking for a new way for meaning to be made and conveyed.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me; my life is full of meaning. Every Sunday, I go to church and worship with a building full of people I genuinely consider to be family. I leave there every week with a renewed purpose and focus.
Every day or so, I have conversations with people about the things we fear, the crap we hate, the joys that make our lives feel substantial and the things that inspire us. Sometimes I talk to them about games, but not too often.
Why then do I almost always go home and attempt to find solace in the app store? I collapse in my bed, more nights than not, convinced that I don’t have time to read great books or even play more substantial games. Then I spend thirty minutes attempting to beat my Game Center buddy Brendan’s score in Time Surfer. I fail, again and again, and go to sleep. I have nothing to show for it. I suck at coping, sleeping and Time Surfer. Great.
Having nothing to write about isn’t so much a professional crisis for me as it is a personal one. Not having anything to write about means not having anything to say. I don’t know. That just feels wrong. But maybe I could start listening for a while. And maybe that might result in some original thought. At least, that’s what I have been told happens.
But I have been having a really hard time relaxing. I can’t bring myself to simply take in a book. I can’t bring myself to sit still and think, to consider the day that passed. I can’t bring myself to spend significant time merely playing a game, unless I’m committed to review it. Not lately.
For the most part, games in the app store don’t ask me to listen, or invest. They don’t want me to step back and wait. Few of the games that I can purchase for .99 cause me to consider. They indulge me with rewards and feedback loops that encourage me to do little more than to keep striving.
I’m not one of those people who is always desperate to climb a career ladder or move on to another town. Instead, I have very specific personal goals, (some of them bleed into the career sphere) and I have always been laser-focused in attempting to achieve them. Every day is organized around two or three Ultimate Visions and everything I do revolves around my ability and desire to achieve those things. If one goal becomes unattainable, I keep trying for several months before I replace it with another.
I suck at coping, sleeping and Time Surfer. Great.
Maybe that’s why I’m tricking myself, as I am settling down to sleep every night, into meaningless striving. Maybe striving is just what I do, and rest is merely striving that matters less. Maybe that inadvertent commitment to low-stakes attempts at high scores and virtual success is actually the very thing that keeps me sane.
But right now, wide awake and with my wits about me, I find it hard to convince myself that such a thing is healthy. Instead, it may be merely unavoidable. Whatever it is, I know that it keeps me from physical sleep, the kind of rest that makes a difference the next morning in a concrete way.
I know that it leaves me with little to say. I know that it sometimes leaves me frustrated and agitated.
These smaller, simpler games used to mean something to me, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Now they’re just a reflex – a knee-jerk reaction to a lack of rest. The truth is, I don’t even know what rest is anymore. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced it. I just know it’s a lot harder to achieve that merely clicking the sleep button.
Richard Clark is up all night on Twitter @DeadYetLiving.