Gordon Calleja’s article, Digital Games and Escapism, which challenges the validity of the suggestion that video games are a mostly negative form of escapism, caused me to further question the distinction between mobile and console games. Much of the article emphasizes the idea of the “magic circle” as a problematic binary that defines the “spatial, temporal, and psychological boundary” (340) separating games from reality. This is a concept that is used regularly when defining both physical and virtual games. However, in his video-game specific argument, he primarily situates these three worlds as being dependant on the physical placement of a human playing the game. His use of language asserts judgment over computer games or console games, which generally require a person to sit down for a distinct amount of time and focus their vision onto the screen until they’ve decided to stop. This physical necessity to play in a specific spot more clearly sets up a claim for his argument, which problematizes the suggestion that focusing attention onto a game is inherently “escapist”, but does not exactly explain what happens when playing a virtual game on one’s cell phone or otherwise portable device.
For example, when playing Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp on my iPhone, I can pretty much pull up the app whenever or wherever I choose, assuming I have sufficient wifi connection. What does this lack of real-life physical boundary add or take away to the game experience—or even to the way I experience life? In questioning the application of the magic circle concept to video games as opposed to socially-upheld boundaries of games requiring human interaction, Calleja quotes Juul as saying: “… in video games, the magic circle is quite well defined since a video game only takes place on the screen and using the input devices (mouse, keyboard, controllers) rather than in the rest of the world; hence there is no ‘‘ball’’ that can be out of bounds” (341). This quotation doesn’t quite suit the description of a mobile game, as I can carry my game with me when I go to get a snack, or talk to a friend, and continue playing. To test this theory I spent my 30 minutes of play for this round of logs playing Pocket Camp in the living room of my apartment while my housemates were around. In this “study”, for lack of a better word, I found that instead of Pocket Camp serving as an escape from reality, I was simply less invested in both my real and virtual surroundings. Some of this came with the fact that I could still receive text message and email notifications at the top of my screen: a constant reminder that life is going on around me and I am expected to interact with it. There is something I find inherently less escapist in the model of phone gaming because of this. Though cell phones get a lot of flack these days for supposedly distracting millennials from their real-world surroundings, unless you silence your phone and remove all notification systems from it and sit alone in a dark room (which, admittedly, as kind of nice to do sometimes), the purpose of a phone is often to remind someone of external obligations and interactions.
In Pocket Camp, specifically, there is also an element of real time that contributes to my assumption that the game makers purposely do not want their game serving as escapism. As I’ve mentioned in previous logs, there are 3-hour rotations in which animals come and go and give the player requests. The background animation in the game changes in these three-hour time slots as well (primarily daylight, to sunset, to night time), serving as a reminder of the time of day in the real world. The time that has passed while playing, and the time a player must wait for certain things to occur, is consistently in the forefront of the game’s design, as is visible in the screenshot below.
Ultimately, I came to wonder what it does to a player’s investment in a game to know that they are ultimately reliant on real-world time to reach certain accomplishments. This is a model I’ve now realized occurs in most of the phone games typically in the Apple store top 20: games that are often dependant on limited stamina systems and real-time refresh loops of said stamina. It is almost as though mobile game designers have purposely inverted the assumption of the “magic circle”, by creating a game that constantly reminds you that you are choosing to play instead of tending to real world responsibilities by having an in-game clock as a central mechanic. Often, this system serves as a method of frustrating the player enough to make them want to spend real-world money on stamina so they can continue playing as much as they want, and is therefore takes on a transparent capitalist agenda, but it also makes the game—and others like it—less escapist.
Calleja, Gordon. “Digital Games and Escapism.” Games and Culture , vol. 5, no. 4, 7 May 2010, pp. 335–353., doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412009360412.