Wasting Time to Waste Less Time
June 25, 2023
Since the popularization of the internet, attention has become the currency of the modern application. With millions of pieces of media being uploaded to the internet every day, it has become impossible to keep track of it all. This has made our attention, and our choice of what media we consume, an incredibly valuable product. The idle-game genre is designed to capitalize off of our desire to save time by creating games that appear to have very low time commitments, but eventually take up a significant portion of our attention. Through the use of gamification techniques and behavioral psychology, idle games are major time sinks for anyone who becomes invested in them. Furthermore, by advertising themselves as low-commitment games, idle games paradoxically promote highly compulsive playstyles.
Even before the invention of the internet, consumer attention has always been a valuable asset. When someone is paying attention, you're able to sell them products, promote political agendas, and targeted messaging. This desire to gain (and eventually exploit) consumers' attention is the driving force behind every social media application. By creating a platform for users to produce and distribute interesting content on, social media invite us to spend our leisure time on their applications. Once we're on a platform, it can bombard us with advertisements and collect more data on how to optimally exploit our time. Yet, as a direct result of our usage of these platforms, it has become increasingly difficult to keep users' attention. With more outlets for media to be uploaded, there has been an exponential growth of content to consume. This overflow in media has led to a lot of meaningless content and garbage being uploaded. The responsibility of combing through this content is therefore put on the consumer, who has to filter through videos during their precious leisure time. To combat this, consumers delegate their enjoyment of most media to others through a called interpassivity (Fizek 24). Instead of sifting through the infinite digital haystack of content, consumers now rely on reviews and critic scores to determine whether something is worth consuming. There is no need to risk your time on a new game when you can watch someone from IGN give it a score out of 10. This fear of missing out, or FOMO, on good content, is a core feature of the modern consumer. Since we value our time so highly, we become fearful of not using our leisure time 'effectively'.
Recent social medias understand this FOMO, and the value we place on our time, and paradoxically exploit our desire to waste our time effectively. I see TikTok as a prime example of a time-exploiting medium. By forcing videos to be less than 2 minutes long, users who consume content on TikTok never feel bad about watching one video. After all, two minutes isn't that much in the grand scheme of a day. Yet, this justification results in users watching video after video, till our meaningless two minutes become three hours a day. I believe that idle games operate in a similar, paradoxical manner, utilizing players' desire to save time to make them spend even more time in the game.
Most scholars agree that the origins of the idle genre is Eric Fredricksen's Progress Quest (2002). Progress Quest is a web-based game that follows the adventures of an online fantasy hero. This hero, generated by random dice rolls, goes off on adventures without any guidance or input from the player. In fact, beyond the character creation process (which is largely irrelevant) Progress Quest has no input from the player whatsoever. The only thing a player can do is watch XP, Gold, and Loot accumulate in their character's inventory. Since Progress Quest, the market for idle games has grown significantly, both in the mainstream (Cookie Clicker (2013), AdVenture Capitalist (2014)) and indie (Cow Clicker (2010), A Dark Room (2013), Universal Paperclips (2017)).
While each of these games have different narrative elements and specific features, they all rely on similar core mechanics. To begin, all of these idle games remove the need for a user to actively watch them. With some exceptions (needing to purchase auto-clippers and wire buyers in Universal Paperclips, and keeping the fire stoked in A Dark Room), these games can be left for hours to operate on their own accord. This allows players to leave and spend their time doing 'better things' than playing a video game, forgoing the guilt of wasting precious leisure time on a game about clicking cookies. Similar to the reasoning that consumers use with TikTok, idle game players can justify spending a few minutes here and there to help grow their resource-generating empires. In her book Playing at a Distance: Borderlands of Video Game Aesthetic, Sonia Fizek states that this reverence for time is one of the core features of an idle game (Fizek 22). By allowing players to leave the game and come back to in-game rewards, idle games appear to show respect for their players' time. Anthony Pecorella, a producer on AdVenture Capitalist, echoes this sentiment in his 2015 GDC talk titled “Idle Games: The Mechanics and Monetization of Self-Playing Games”. Pecorella says that idle games appeal to players because of the agency that it gives them. While players could finish the game in a single sitting, Percorella says that players won't, reasoning that their "time is more worthwhile than this [the game]" (Pecorella 17:47). When players do finally return to an idle game they are greeted with a colorful summary of their earnings, inducing a large flood of dopamine in our systems. These new earnings can then be used to produce more money even faster than before, growing exponentially as the game progresses.
One feature that makes some idle games differ from others is whether they have a finite ending, or can be played forever. Some idle games, such as Universal Paperclips and A Dark Room, have distinct narrative endings that players can reach. After obtaining enough resources and progressing the narrative far enough, the player "beats" the game. In contrast, games like Cookie Clicker and AdVenture Capitalist allow their player to progress infinitely, racking up more and more resources as they're played. In fact, the leaderboards for AdVenture Capitalist use a logarithmic scale to keep track of the massive scores that players amass while playing (Pecorella 16:38). Yet, Infinite idle games still offer closure to their players through the use of a new-game-plus feature that Anthony Pecorella calls "prestiging" (Pecorella 22:07). Motivated by the impossibility of programming endless upgrades and progressions for players, Prestiging refers to the process of offering players the chance to restart the game when they reach a certain resource threshold. In exchange for their hard-earned progress, players are given a global buff on all future playthroughs of the game. In Cookie Clicker, this takes the form of acquiring Heavenly Chips, which are a currency that can be used to purchase upgrades on future playthroughs. Heavenly Chips are often quite hard to obtain, (in Cookie Clicker, prestige level one starts at 1,000,000,000,000 cookies, and increases cubically for each subsequent level) and give the player a great deal of power. After ascending, players can turn their hard-earned Heavenly Chips into permanent upgrades that will affect their future runs. In idle games without distinct endings, prestiging gives a sense of ending, albeit possibly temporary, to the idle gameplay loop. By resetting themselves to the beginning, players must restart the long process of regaining all of their mesmerizing, dopamine-generating, factories. This also leads to a moment of calm for the player, since the thought of taking a step back from the game doesn't feel as daunting when the numbers are smaller. This sense of completion can give players a moment of respite before returning to the "grind" of idling. Despite rewarding players for their time away from the game, idle games necessitate frequent interaction to play them 'effectively'.
By construction, most idle games operate in an exponential nature. A great example of this is the Mega-Clippers in Universal Paperclips. Up till roughly halfway through the first act of the game, players in Lantz's game use Auto-Clippers to turn wire into paperclips. These Auto-Clippers each generate up to 3, depending on a player's upgrades, clips/second. That means with 75 auto clippers the player can generate 225 clips/second. Yet, when the player purchases their 75th Auto-Clipper, they gain access to the Mega-Clippers. Mega-Clippers generate 500 more clips/second than a normal Auto-Clipper. This difference makes just 2 Mega-Clippers better than all 75 of the Auto-Clippers, making a player's idle time worth 500x more after they've been purchased. This style of growth is at the core of all idle games, relying on upgrades that blow previous ones out of the water. They help keep the gameplay interesting and give players a reason to buy more upgrades. This mechanic of exponential growth is also where idle games sink their teeth into players. A player who idles for a long time may collect a large payout when they return, but the player who frequently makes purchases, and pushes their exponential growth, can collect drastically more. The more frequently a player checks on their game, the more frequently they can make purchases and further their growth. To fully optimize their idle time, players actually can't be idle for that long. The need to purchase upgrades motivates optimizing for when purchases should be made. For every minute idling without the most recent upgrade, the player can be missing out on millions of potential resources.
Despite being marketed as games that don't require a lot of engagement, players keep on coming back to idle games. Numerical data shows that idle games have one of the highest levels of retention when compared to other mobile titles. Using data collected from Kongregate.com, Pecorella states that the D7-retention rate, the percentage of users who opened up the app 7 days after starting, for AdVenture Capitalist was around 35% in 2015. In the mobile games field, retention rates in the range of 15% - 20% are considered quite good, making AdVenture Capitalist a positive outlier in the market (Pecorella 42:00). In his Game Design Blog, Civilization designer Soren Johnson famously writes that "Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game". Our desire to play a game optimally often ruins the game itself. Idle games and resource management sims like Factorio or Open Transit Tycoon use our desire for optimization to bring us back to the game time and time again. Bogost writes that idle games "abuse us while we are away from them, through obligation, worry, and dread over missed opportunities" (Bogost 2010). Our FOMO, and our desire to save time, lead us to obsessively over-optimize our games. Checking them on our phones as we use the restroom, or in passing to make sure we buy things at the correct and most efficient times.
I relate this to my own experience with the Do Not Disturb feature on my iPhone. Do Not Disturb is an iPhone feature that silences all notifications. You can't see them on the lock screen, and there is no indication when notifications arrive. I use this to help me stay on task when I work (I even have it on right now), and avoid distractions. Yet, I've found that Do Not Disturb paradoxically makes me check my phone more frequently than I do without it. The knowledge that there are important notifications or messages that I could be missing makes me reach for my phone. My fear of missing out on something important undermines the very thing Do Not Disturb is trying to do. This is the same case with idle games; our desire to optimize our leisure time, and play only as much as we need to before we can move on, leads us to an obsessive optimization mindset. A mindset that takes up more of our time and mental energy than we're trying to save. In his blog post about Cow Clicker, titled "Cow Clicker: The Making of Obsession", Bogost agrees that idle games "destroy the time we spend away from them" (Bogost 3). Even when we're not watching them or interacting with them, idle games exist in a subliminal part of our minds. This obsession is not about winning or losing. In fact, it's difficult, and in most cases impossible, to play an idle game in a way that prevents you from continuing (if the player runs out of wire in Universal Paperclips, they can beg for more). Yet it's the desire to play these games efficiently, and to spend our time optimally, that drives player obsession. Our reward for playing optimally is progressing faster, progressing faster helps us complete the game sooner, and completing the game sooner allows us to start a new piece of media. Motivated by FOMO, players want to play effectively so they don't have to play anymore.
As a supplemental feature to fuel our desire for optimization, idle games are often filled with a lot of game "juice", which helps create guaranteed dopamine releases when players check on their progress. In a Y-Combinator interview with Universal Paperclips creator Frank Lantz, Lantz says that there "is no external reason you would want to make this number go up in any clicker game, except that it’s fun to make this number go up" (Lantz 13:22). While I don't entirely agree with this statement, as I believe players are pushed to play due to their desire to stop playing, Lantz does touch on the power of gamification and polish. Players feel satisfied when they revisit their game and find their resources overflowing, even if there is no tangible reason it's enjoyable. Seeing the number of resources at a much larger number than they left it makes the player feel accomplished. Yet, as all addiction shows, the threshold for this dopamine rush only gets higher the more we play. Soon 1,000,000 resources isn't a large enough payoff for our idle time, and we must spend time playing for a larger payoff the next time.
Despite their paradoxical relationship with time, idle games have cemented themselves as a stable genre in video games (even earning their tag on the Steam marketplace). Through their ability to market themselves as a low-commitment, idle games can find their way into the pockets of most consumers. Through their use of gamification and behavioral psychology, idle games linger in players' minds. I don't believe that players should avoid idle games, I think they provide a really interesting point of academic study, but players should be more cognizant of the reasons they engage with them.
Bogost, Ian. “Cow Clicker: The Making of Obsession.” Ian Bogost’s Personal Website, 21 July 2010, https://bogost.com/writing/blog/cow_clicker_1/.
Pecorella, Anthony. "Idle Games: The Mechanics and Monetization of Self-Playing Games" Game Developers Conference, 8 May 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lu-RjxeDpU8
Fizek, Sonia. Playing at a Distance: Borderlands of Video Game Aesthetic. The MIT Press, 2022.
Lantz, Frank. "Frank Lantz - Director of NYU's Game Center and Creator of Universal Paperclips" Y-Combinator, 19 December 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-u4Jx4uuwMc