After spending a solid 20 minutes on one battle Draw-ing 100 Blind spells for each of three characters in Final Fantasy VIII on my PSP last night, I realized something. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize it sooner, like when I spent a solid summer playing nothing but Animal Crossing: Wild World – even then, the playtime was largely on the toilet until my legs fell asleep – or that time I had to teach Ultima to everyone in the Game Boy Advance port of Final Fantasy VI, one Cactuar at a time, to prepare for the final battle. I don’t play handheld games for the riveting story, or “meaning,” or immersion (although finding those things is great). I use handheld systems, including my smartphone, as a time suck. I play them to waste time, or kill time, or do any number of other unspeakable acts to time because – to me – they are merely a stopgap until I can get back to my “real” games on my home consoles.
And that’s okay.
With the advances made on our mobile systems like the current 3DS/Vita/smartphone triumvirate, it’s easy to see them as on par with the home consoles of yesteryear. I mean, most of the PSP launch lineup was PS1/PS2 ports, and the Vita still doesn’t contain a lot of experiences you can’t get elsewhere, albeit with the added bonus of portability. But the actual experience of playing them is often so much more… less than ideal. Instead of sitting in the comfort of your own home, reclining on the couch or hunched over your computer screen, portable systems are often used on the go (because how often to we play portables when there are bigger and better options available?). In the back seat of a car. On the train during your morning commute. On the can. Not the most comfortable, home-y places to game. It’s almost like we’re playing out of necessity.
Unlike many working adults, I have a lot of opportunities for mobile gaming. I have to leave my house for work by 8:00 p.m. five nights a week to catch the 8:12 train into San Francisco. Until 8:53 p.m., it’s nothing but me and my thoughts (and one time, a homeless person that robbed another homeless person halfway down the train car). Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, but most often, I play games.
Similarly, at my office job I have time to play video games 2-3 nights a week. And why not? I’m not allowed to work on anything that might make me money somewhere else like a freelance gig, and it’s a lot easier to pause a game to do some work for a while than stop reading a book in the middle of a paragraph. I talk to my co-workers, sure. We talk about movies, and Ryan Gosling, and (ugh) soccer, but how much attention does one need for that kind of mindless prattle, anyway? So it makes sense that I’ve kind of gravitated toward the more “zen” games – those games that don’t require a whole lot of focus to make real progress. My most-played handheld games are ones that I can play with one hand while surfing the internet with the other, or play rudely in the middle of a conversation that I’ve somehow been lassoed into.
Reading back that last paragraph… I sound a bit anti-social, hmm? Maybe it’s just that at 3:00 a.m., I’m not really in the mood to chat. I do, however, find a great solace in the fact that I have gigs upon gigs of five-year-old games that never got the attention they deserved because my real life (or, sometimes, other games) took precedence. But at work, or on the john, or on the train… there is nothing else getting in the way. I can zone out without consequence, and the biggest upside is that all the games I ignored for reasons like “tedious,” “repetitive,” and “asinine” are now fair game. The competition for my unavoidable free time is now, more than ever before, a real contest, with many B-games and pick-up-and-play titles vying for the attention that I just can’t place anywhere more productive.
The best part? I’m actually beating games now. I have a whole folder of games on my 3DS where I store the “Beaten Games,” and RPGs that previously felt like too much of a time commitment now feel like not enough of one. I devour games (especially those long, Japanese ones) with an urgency that just doesn’t exist in the comforts of home. “How much longer is the train ride?” becomes “just one more level,” and, “Do I have time to beat this boss before the shift is over?” becomes just one more challenge.
Every once in a while, my eyes will focus on what I’m doing. The zen will fall away and I will gaze with wonder at the technology held in my fingers, taking in the fact that I am holding what just a few years before wasn’t even possible on a machine ten times this size. But then I’m back. Killing time. Having fun. Keeping my hand/eye coordination sharp until I can get home to my “real” video games.
The weirdest part is that, even if BioShock Infinite was on a handheld without any loss in quality, it’d still feel like a lesser game than the one I can play on my 51″ plasma screen. At home, I can get sucked into this world the developers have created seemingly just for me. Out in real life, playing handhelds, well… I’m out in the real world. It’s easier to pull yourself out of reality and into a digital world when the reality around you isn’t moving around so much.