Most teenagers will have heard it in some form or another. “Why do you keep on wasting your time with those things?” Last weekend, following a Halloween Steam sale I found myself the owner of PopCap’s Plant Vs Zombies. Several hours later I was left asking myself, am I just wasting my Sunday?
To begin with the initial question begs another: what isn’t a waste of time? It implies that there’s some sort of objective for the use of time which should be pursued. As far as my beliefs go, there isn’t a greater purpose apart from maximizing your own self happiness whilst respecting the rights of others. Reading a book, learning a language, picking up women at bars – whatever makes you happiest! They all have the potential to be as equally productive. It just depends on what you want from life.
Playing some video games, at least for me, most definitely isn’t a waste of time then. I’ve had some fantastic moments, too numerous to recount in this blog post. The excitement of playing a competitive Team Fortress 2 match with others, the joy at completing The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time and delighting in the stories conclusion. Yet I didn’t feel like that last Sunday.
You see some games are a waste of time. The last time this realisation came to me was whilst playing Pokémon Soul Silver. The aim of the game is to collect a bunch of monsters (Pocket Monsters = Pokémon. I’m sure you see what they did there) to battle against an enemy team. Initially this seems skill based, you have to choose Pokémon who will have a collective move set that can beat a wide range of alternatives, train them up, etc. After 20 hours or so you’ve beaten the main game and are left with training to beat a human opponent. It’s here we start getting into time wasting territory.
Pokémon have levels, to get between them you need to fight an exponentially growing number of enemy Pokémon. In most RPGs this is known as “grinding” and is as enjoyable as it sounds! Hours fighting battles you’re destined to easily win just to get Experience Points. That’s before you get into the world of hidden stats..
The killer time waste component in Pokémon is the rarity of some items and Pokémon. Trying to “catch ’em all” is a futile exercise in pointless diversion. The chance of encountering some pokémon is just 1 in 100. Let alone actually catching the bloody things before they die, or run away. When you do catch the elusive bugger.. what have you proved? It’s here I can see the frustrated parent’s side of the argument. It’s just a bit of computer memory, spending several hours doing this:
(Yes. That’s three GB SPs running at once. For hours) just. isn’t. fun. No matter how excited he gets at the end.
So with Plants Vs Zombies.. why was I wasting my time? Because there’s no challenge. I was easily blasting through the levels. Either I’m unbelievably awesome.. or the game is just fairly easy even after 3 hours where a decently designed challenge curve should have resulted in at least some challenge. It was just a time sink. Hours of my life just drifting away to achieve a literal achievement: You’ve completed Plants Vs Zombies!
With that realization I stopped playing and went for a walk. Achieving my steps for the day on my pedometer.
Ah. that warm fuzzy glow at achieving something today!