In Defense of Idle Games

Finding choice in its absence

I don’t stop what I’m doing for less than a bazillion coins now. I’m deep into this transcendence of Clicker Heroes, so I’m grinding souls until I feel like I can’t handle it anymore, and then it’s time to ascend to another plane of existence and start this whole dance over again. I gotta time this just right because the first few minutes of a new ascension are pretty active until I get my economy going again, so it’s probably best if I can tick over when I’m on my lunch break or home for the night or something. Meanwhile, I can head over to my NGU Idle game and see how it’s doing before my timer dings to signal the end of my study break. 

Idle games (also called “incrementals,” or the less popular “clickers”) are everywhere, and as most are free to play I can’t even say they’re “a dime a dozen.” They all start the same — you click on the screen, or tap your phone, to generate currency. With enough currency, you can buy something that generates currency for you automatically, with enough of those you have the money to buy something that does it more efficiently, and then something that makes your money-per-click stat stronger.

On and on it goes, ever growing, this engine of exponential addition, until the numbers ascend into scientific notation, and then most idles have a third act turn of sorts: you can “Ascend.” Start all over, throwing your gold into a dumpster, and in exchange get some kind of premium resource (“gems” or “rubies” are popular) that enhance your now-reset economy, allowing you to get a running start at even greater heights. But nothing makes you ascend.

It’s possible in most idles to let the game run long enough to overcome whatever cost barrier is between you and the next upgrade, or maybe you switch from passive to active play, managing your idle realm with a micromanagerial hand, or you might even shell out a few of your hard-earned real world dollars to skip a reset and keep playing with a better economy than you had a moment ago. But what attracted me to these games is how they let me decide when I’ve had enough.

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There was a moment in the early days of this sea change, this new Age of Idles, when I began to resent Kongregate and other flash game sites for hosting so many of these things. I felt this somehow diminished the value of the thousands of free games they offered, or maybe steered new developers in a direction they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I remember a public board game night I went to one time where a fellow snorted while he called a fun simple game “more of an activity, really,” somehow managing to say that word aloud in italics just like that, and for a while I felt the same way.

I felt entitled to my self righteousness: in accordance with my ordnung of game understanding I had not clicked the cookie, nor the cow, confident as I was that these games were somehow intended only as parodies of games or that Ian Bogost’s essay about Cow Clicker presented the final word on the subject: “these challenge-free games demand little more than clicking on farms and restaurants and cities and things at regular intervals… It seemed like little more than a provocation, a concept that need not be further elaborated. A nod and a chuckle would do.” More of an activity, indeed. And then in 2015 I started playing Realm Grinder while I was snowed in and couldn’t leave my partner’s grandparents’ house.

Good and Evil

Realm Grinder does some things that help it fit into the more traditional mold of “a game” that I could understand right from the start. You get to make a choice between Good and Evil, with each utilizing a different playstyle — Good is more active, supporting a click-and-special-ability based playstyle, while Evil is all about slow burns for max gains over time. Most idles, I’ve since discovered, have these kinds of choices bubbling under the lid, Clicker Heroes has you trading damage now for rewards later, for instance, but Realm Grinder puts this choice right at the top of a new game.

This went a long way toward convincing my still-maturing brain that Realm Grinder is a “game” (in the sense that a game is a series of meaningful choices towards a goal) and I could start to unravel the idea that different playstyles meant I could, in this blizzard-cursed house, reincarnate as an Evil Undead (concentrated on offline gold multipliers) before bedtime and then again as a Good Elf (specialized in clicking bonuses) upon waking. Reincarnations are Realm Grinder’s ascensions, unlocking more options for ever more gold and gems, gems being that prestige currency which boosts all your passive income.

As a new convert, I found this progression of unlockables quite pleasing, fitting well into the game studies vocabulary I thought I’d mastered. I believed I had this figured out: the Numbers go Up, which is Good. These games had distilled the very alchemical essence of engagement down to this key truth, it was just a more sophisticated dopamine generator that I thought I’d encountered before. Having intellectually bested this whole family of games, I moved on to headier pursuits while keeping this game of Realm Grinder, and picking up the moody Armory & Machine on tablet, and allowing myself to be swept away by a dark room. There were others, over the years, but those are the standouts.

“All we do anymore is click on things”

I’m now four years older and many, many idle games wiser. Realm Grinder is the go-to still, though Clicker Heroes and Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms are close behind. There’s even a few of these on Steam now, and I must admit my position has evolved. At first I saw a parody of the way we choose to spend our time — as Cow Clicker’s creator Ian Bogost puts it, “of course people would click on a cow every six hours… all we do anymore is click on things.” Then I saw a cynical and cheap cash-in on the modern idea of engagement, albeit a cynical and cheap cash-in I greatly enjoy. But now I understand what’s going on.

Idles, clickers, whatever you want to call them, offer more than “activity.” A regular video game makes your player-self-insert avatar more powerful because you’ve put work into its systems but idles make you stronger by just spending time with them. Like I mentioned before, the Numbers Go Up, and that’s Good, but there’s something that propels the systems of choice from idles past any triple-A game on the market: Idles let you decide when you’ve gone far enough.

The Myth of Sisyphus

I read somewhere one time that people who value time over money are happier on average, and maybe that’s part of the appeal of these games, that they reward time input more than labor input. You get more results just by having the app open and buying upgrades with a tap, which is a tiny rebellion against the 120 hours of big budget games want you to explore, and it feels good that your clicker heroes are out there earning you money or your buildings are producing gold while you’re in bed. But I think there’s something that goes a little further here.

Idles are games with hundreds of tiny inconsequential choices about when to upgrade, when to start over, and how to spend your premium resources, and at no point does the game make you do any of this. There’s no minimum levels, there’s no NPCs telling you “I think it’s time to ascend, boss!” There’s not some kind of narrative completely divorced from the mechanics. In the absence of these things, the presence is what remains: a game that you get to take at your pace. You set your own goals, and decide when to abandon them at your leisure — maybe you didn’t get as much offline gold as you thought, no problem!

Pick it up tomorrow, you don’t need to reload a save or nothin’, nor do you need to scroll a wiki to remind you what the plot is if you put it down for a week. In a world where we’re all encouraged to maximize our productivity at all times forever always, when I feel guilty at 11 each night on the dot for wasting the day no matter what I got done, it’s easy to imagine we’re pushing that boulder uphill eternally like Sisyphus. Idles do what all games do, what all games must: they offer escape in the form of choice. Only idles among all games let you make your own goals, and decide on your own terms when you’ve met them. One must imagine Clicker Heroes happy.