Many of us find ourselves reaching the heights of endorphin released excitement while playing our favourite video games. However, for a small portion of the population tapping away at their screen provides no joy, only resentment and self-loathing. Bronwyn Bent is one of these players. This is her story.
I am a anthropomorphised pea pod, endlessly ejecting peas from my mouth. I am an angry orange, spewing flaming balls. I am a “electric berry” fatally zapping all who touch me. I am a mindless automaton, jabbing at a screen over and over again until I’m finally sated, or until I’ve at least finished just one more level.
A world key is spinning out of a conquered stage; I use it to skip ahead to the final world. It’s a stupid decision, as it means I haven’t yet collected all the plants that would be most useful; instead I play through using a meagre selection and relying on the tools provided for inferior players. I’m finally done, I think. Except, I look at the map; there are two worlds marked with the number of levels I’ve played in them: “4 of 30” and “6 of 32”. Fuck. How can I leave this incriminating evidence here, this symbol of my failure?
There was some pleasure in this game at the start: like lots of phone or tablet games, it has a low barrier to entry; it’s easy to start and provides enough variation to be good fun. Eventually the limits of the format kick in; there’s only so many ways some plants can kill a zombie. It’s at this point my pleasure turns to desperation; the terrible set of hurdles of all the remaining levels stretch out in front of me, but I press grimly on, determined to see them off. By now, several weeks after downloading the game, I’m beginning to resent it. I may as well be a mariner with a dead bird around my neck, toiling on, trying to prove my worth. It’s a stark contrast to the cartoony nature of the game, and the more “mystery prize boxes” I win, the more cartoony it gets; my plants are increasingly adorned with jaunty headwear, none of which I care for: I’d rather that the mystery boxes were bombs that could destroy the whole thing and release me from all of this.
Even whilst doing this, I know it’s futile. I wish I had ability to just delete this game and spend my time doing something, anything, more productive. It’s not just Plants vs. Zombies 2; I once determinedly finished the one of most tedious and poorly made phone games in the world (Where’s Wally), which apart from often crashing, simply looked like someone had scanned the pages from a book at a 64px. resolution and then applied a thick layer of dust to it all. I hated almost every second of playing it, yet I had to get to the end. Before Plants vs. Zombies I devoted several hours of my life to a ridiculous game in which I gave a panda items to wear so it could take a selfie; I never bettered an early high score and eventually concluded it was some sort of fault in the game that I couldn’t. (It wasn’t).
I try to justify playing these games: they’re relaxing; they build hand-eye coordination; help develop strategic thinking skills; and improve my response time in stressful situations. This is all true but I’m supposed to be using my spare time to learn Portuguese, and I still can’t say anything beyond muttering the names of various animals, and even then only in their singular versions. (“I like a butterfly”).
These games are designed to lure players in; they hope that we’ll commit to them so deeply we won’t mind spending a little bit of money on them; (my Plants vs. Zombies bill so far: $7.99) they stimulate all the reward buttons in our brain. If I just keep stabbing my fingers at a screen, every few minutes I’m told that I’ve achieved something.
These types of games are meant to be lighthearted, fun, the type of thing that might get described as “bubbly” if it was a person. Underneath this apparently innocuous exterior is a beating heart of darkness: it’s all freemium this, and instant feedback that, and before I know it I’m a desperado carrying around the game like a fractious baby that needs attending to every few minutes. I’m slightly ashamed of myself, and how much time I’ve devoted to playing this game, and mostly because I know very well that it’s been designed to do exactly this: my brain is apparently as primitive and easy to manipulate as the game designers hope; and this combined with a terrible inability to leave something unfinished means I’m the perfect target for the type of player they want. Beyond the sheer bloody tedium of the game, it’s this aspect I’m most perturbed by: the fact that I’m not a special snowflake, just another person giving over their leisure time to a corporation making money from my weaknesses.
Finally, I’ve finished all the levels. I’m free. Except: I’m not. There’s a special “pinata party” level. I just need to play one level a day for the next five days! Then I will get five ticks in a row, and it occurs to me what this is: it’s the adult version of the star chart employed so effectively in my intermediate school classroom. Just like my 11 year old self, the levels are a visible sign I’ve achieved something, something other people can see. When I get enough stars I will get a prize, yay! Then I’ll just need to start again to get from Level 49 to Level 50 and win five gems. It’s not much of a prize compared to the 11 year old animals-obsessed me getting a copy of All Creatures Great and Small.
This morning, I delete Plants vs. Zombies 2. I don’t feel much apart from a slight sense of relief.
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