Pretty much all of the time I’m busy and people often ask me how much time I spend playing games. The answer is usually: “A lot less than you think.” This, of course, makes sense, because if there’s one marker of adulthood, it’s complete and total collapse of your free time. I have work, a wedding to plan with my fiancé, a new apartment to furnish, friendships to maintain, limitless culture to consume—and then there are games.
When we are young, we have free time. Lots of it. And when I was young, I spent much of that time playing games. Not necessarily with the discerning taste that I have now, but I played games simply because I could. I downloaded NES and SNES titles by the hundreds. That meant finishing Aero the Acrobat, twice. And then there was time spent murdering my Sims over and over again. This was often performed with friends with whom our mutual Venn diagrams of uninhibited time were completely eclipsed. If you were curious who has been fueling the spectatorship of Let’s Play videos and Twitch streams, hours of time spent watching others play, it is those for whom time is a luxury: children and, later, college students.
I mean no pejorative here. Time playing or watching games can be time well spent, but I hope only to point out that games demand much of us. They dominate our time. They complete our attention. They are so total in their commitment that nothing else can be performed while playing them. You can listen to music while reading. You can converse lightly with friends during a Broadway show. I find with games, I can literally do nothing else but play them.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve playing a lot of David O’Reilly’s Mountain. And by “playing” I mean letting it run quietly at my desk, occasionally tending to its slopes as if pruning a garden. Mountain is a game that fits into my life, and not the other way around. O’Reilly’s core proposition is that Mountain exists for you, but also can live on without you. It does not carry the high cost of your commitment.
It is human-centered game design.
In the case of games, that problem is time. I griped years ago that games were too long and that we have defaulted to length as one of the key defining principles of games as a medium. This has not changed dramatically; in fact, the introduction of “procedurally generated” universes like the endless Minecraft has presented a new dilemma. Behind the fervor of infinitely generative systems like the boundless worlds of No Man’s Sky lies a deceptive promise: you can play this thing forever.
But even Gone Home requires a literacy of moving about 3D space. In outlining his love for the Fullbright Company’s tale of adolescent awakening, writer Robin Sloan makes a big caveat. “Gone Home dispenses with most of the mechanics of video games, but it does still require its players to navigate through 3D space using a mouse and keyboard. That’s easy and natural for those of us who have racked up hours of 3D play time, but difficult and disorienting for those who haven’t.”
Sloan’s suggestion is sharp. Find someone who can be “your guide” and a group of friends can play together with a bottle of wine. It’s a lovely workaround but still speaks to the wide gulf between those who’ve played—that is, invested time in learning how to operate a first-person game—and those who don’t. It suggests that we need to adjust our social environment to accommodate a very large ask from the game itself.
Time spent is also a proxy for maturity, a stand-in for adulthood. A common refrain from my friends with children, many of whom grew up playing games, is that joys and responsibilities of parenthood often belie their love for the medium. For my friend Tom, a 45-minute match of League of Legends can prove impossible with a one-year old as he can’t step away from the computer to tend to his child in the middle of battle. This is real life.
SimCity creator Will Wright once famously said that good games “easy to learn, but difficult to master.” Too much attention has been spent on the former and not the latter. I long for a human-centered approach to games that takes the life you have and builds experiences around them, and not the other way around.
Mountain is an excellent first step.