Review: Zoya Street’s “Delay: Paying Attention to Energy Mechanics”

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.

  1. Monograph? essay? col­lec­tion of essays? I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s about 12,000 words long. []
  2. Delay, from the sub­sec­tion titled “Indulgence.” []
  3. Ibid. []

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!