I finally picked up Zoya Street’s mini-book1 Delay: Paying Attention to Energy Mechanics. I’d been meaning to pick it up since it came out in June, and finally got my hand on it as part of a recent StoryBundle. Street’s work is always worth reading. He’s a clear and precise writer who balances academic precision with personal asides and straightforward language. Delay is carefully cited and precisely defined, yet it never becomes an incomprehensible mess of quotes and jargon the way so much academic work often does. It’s accessible and definitely worth an afternoon of your time.
By “energy mechanics,” Street means the FarmVille-style rules which prevent you from playing a game for more than X amount of time in a sitting unless you pay for more time. They’re most common in social and mobile games, though they appear in other places as well. So much of the conversation around these mechanics and the games that employ them is polemical rather than precise. Many people say that they are exploitative, flow-disrupting, and serve only as a way to pull money out of bored people.
This is probably not entirely false, but such a focus fails to really examine why so many of these games are so successful. For all that it might make the rest of us feel superior to imagine the Candy Crush-playing masses as brainwashed simpletons being exploited by rapacious brigands, the truth is probably more complicated than that. So instead of focusing on this tired argument, Street suggests that by limiting the amount of time and attention a player can spend on a game in a given sitting, energy mechanics allow these games to fit better into the lives of the people who play them.
I don’t mean to suggest that Delay is a defense of energy mechanics, exactly, or that Street is unaware of the various criticisms and potential problems surrounding them. Delay is a thorough piece, and thus delves into issues of shame, the exploitation of app-playing children, and Street’s own lukewarm experiences with energy mechanics in games like Fallen London and Triple Town. But rather than simply condemning them outright, Street prefers to examine what they actually are and how they function. In this way, you might say it’s “objective.”
“Objectivity” is kind of a dirty word in games-crit, and I understand why. But if we understand “objective” to mean not “from the unbiased, unemotional view from nowhere” but rather “concerned with the object,” then I think there is a very important place for “objective” game-criticism. It’s important to write about trends in games-culture, and personal pieces about one’s relationship to games can be incredibly powerful. But it’s also worthwhile to focus primarily on the games themselves sometimes, to pick them apart, see how they work, and then talk about what that means for the rest of us.
In that sense, Delay is a fine piece of objective criticism, in that it is not specifically about Street’s experiences with energy mechanics. Instead, it is about how energy mechanics work and why they have become so ubiquitous in a certain type of game. It’s not concerned with attempting to draw a value judgment. It’s an exploration, not a polemic.
Of note is parts is Street’s take on the famous difference between “casual” players and “gamers.” But rather than simply reducing the question to one of self-definition (i.e., “gamers” self-identify as such and treat games as a central part of their identity, whereas casual players do not), he examines the patterns of play and the inherent structures of “casual” and “hardcore” games. He argues that the oft-touted gamer goal of “immersion,” which he characterizes more accurately as “abandon,” is inherently socially transgressive. Part of the joy of an “immersive” game like Skyrim is in letting go of that “bit of my superego that tells me I should be doing something else, that my partners’ feelings will be hurt if I don’t spend more time with him,” etc. This is “kind of revolting. And it’s wonderful.”2
This, he suggests, may be the primary differentiator between gamers and casual players: “the point at which they are willing to feel ashamed of their indulgence.”3 He also links the waiting periods between sessions enforced by energy mechanics to delayed gratification. “Hardcore” games have a tendency to be all about power fantasies and self-gratification, which is allergic to delayed gratification. It’s possible that if a player has to wait a while between sessions, he or she might enjoy those sessions more.
Thus, when used well, energy mechanics may serve as an indulgence-limiter more than a monetization scheme. By limiting the amount of time that a game can be played without spending money, they ensure that the game remains a quick way to recharge from the stresses of “real” life rather than a soul-consuming time-sink. It’s a fundamentally different design philosophy than you find in most AAA games, which demand the player’s full and undivided attention the entire time he or she is playing, and rewards him or her with instant feedback and approbation.
There’s a lot more to the book than this, of course, and Street borrows not only from games studies, but also queer theory and anthropology in his thorough analysis. You can buy Delay here. It’s a good book, and I highly recommend it.