In his book This Gaming Life, Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper, Shotgun argued that one of videogames’ major reasons for being was to ward off boredom. I was immediately resistant to this notion. “No!” I thought, “Video games should be about so much more than that–I want my time playing videogames to carry some cultural weight!” And then I find myself playing Pocket Planes, a game that lives in those boring marginal spaces between doing more important things.
The nature of Pocket Planes’ gameplay makes it impossible to play the game for extended periods of time. Being tasked with running a small airline, the game mimics similar mechanics of other simulation-style iOS games. Your resources are limited, and you can generate more resources over time or quickly by ponying up real dollars for in-game currency. Still, most of your decision making involves choosing each plane’s cargo and passengers (depending on what it can carry), sending it to its city, waiting for it to arrive, and then repeating the whole exercise.
In some ways, Pocket Planes’ purposeful invasion of marginal moments is what makes it so insidious. You never feel as if it has stolen the chance to read a good book or watch a movie, because no single playtime can really exceed more than a few minutes. And as with anything of this nature, by spreading out these moments, I never feel as if I’ve spent much time playing. This is what I love about Pocket Planes; the game’s design won’t allow me to get pulled into a long playing session. At the same time, this is what I hate about Pocket Planes; when my resolve is weak, it’s too easy to whip out the game, schedule a few flights, and check my progress toward a new airport. Meanwhile my children sit forlorn on the floor waiting for me to build a Lego tower with them.
See, I just scheduled some flights between finishing the last paragraph and starting this one–that brief pause in the writing process was a perfect moment for Pocket Planes. The game itself is a kind of collection of marginal activities. In addition to scheduling flights, players can upgrade aircraft, build new airports, and buy parts for new airplanes. Every so often the game will flash a message indicating that new parts have been placed in the item shop, encouraging players to take just a moment to check their inventory, which is randomly generated and regularly changed. Each small activity has a way of sneaking into the experience. While the game may begin on the margins, its ambitions won’t keep it there. As your airline grows, it becomes easier to spend more time combing through a variety of tools that can optimize your profitability.
One aspect of Pocket Planes that I am thankful for is that it does not engage in the kind of heavy-handed micro-transaction salesmanship to which many similar games are prone. I have not yet even been slightly tempted to spend real money to jumpstart my progress, whereas other games have a reputation of making the experience nigh unbearable without coughing up at least a few bucks. As such, Pocket Planes feels much more like a free game with optional transactions, which will help to keep players in the game long-term, rather than forcing them to choose between a diminished experience or an expensive one.
What concerns me most about Pocket Planes, I suppose, is the extent to which it underscores my own hypocrisy. As with my reaction to Rossignol’s discussion of boredom, I would like to frame my enjoyment of videogames in a vocabulary that aspires to greater cultural and artistic significance. I want to resist the moralistic naysayers who constantly trot out the “don’t you have better things to do?” argument against videogames. And yet, I sometimes wonder if I do have better things to do when I open Pocket Planes. Perhaps I should simply relish those marginal moments spent daydreaming, or contemplating trees in my front yard, or listening to steady summer rains. No matter what we do, in retrospect, it seems there was always something better we could have done with our time. Come to think of it, now would be a great time to take a moment and enjoy the singing cicadas–but first I’ll just schedule this cargo flight from San Francisco to Dallas.