The Anxious Productivity of ‘Temple Run’

I just deleted Temple Run from my phone. Not because the game is bad — far from it. Rather, I deleted it because it is perhaps the most maddeningly addictive piece of software that I have ever encountered. I would walk down the street staring into the screen, in the process bumping into people, stepping on cats, falling down stairwells, and yet still continuing to play. The premise of Temple Run is that you are an Indiana Jones-like character speeding away from what looks to be a pack of wild apes through a maze of ancient temple ruins. Along the way, you tilt the phone to collect coins and swipe left, right, or up to turn and jump.

While Temple Run is a “casual game,” it’s not a terribly casual experience to play it. Every moment requires your absolute attention. There are turns every second or so, and you must angle the character just so in order to collect coins. One second of inattention and – BAM – you’ve run off track and into a tree. After a month or so of non-stop temple running, I started to realize that the game was taking over my life in subtle and problematic ways. I would take a break from work and come back more stressed than when I had started. I would fire up the game every time I had a free 30 seconds, playing on the elevator, while cooking, while walking to the bathroom. As the anxiety and addiction melded and became more obvious, I started to question why I was even playing at all.

Writing in The New York Times, Sam Anderson recently explored the addictive nature of what he calls “stupid games.” Considering games like Angry Birds and Tetris, he weaves a narrative of his own experiences with these games before musing that they do serve a function, something along the lines of a “string of digital prayer beads that our entire culture can twiddle in moments of rapture or anxiety — economic, political or existential” (“Just One More Game… Angry Birds, Farmville and Other Hyperaddictive ‘Stupid Games’”, The New York Times, 8 April 2012). The notion of games as a quick escape from a fractured and hectic reality certainly accords with my own experience of gaming on the iPhone. However, I can’t help but wonder if these games are illusory escapes, more anxiety-producing than relaxing. Further, through the mechanisms that the player uses to progress, it seems that they might serve not only as diversions, but also to satiate a desire for a constantly productive life.

In Temple Run, collecting coins is a large part of the game. These coins can then be used to purchase upgrades for your character: longer boosts, an invisibility power-up that functions much like the magic star in Mario games, or an automated run-through of the first 10 seconds of a given level. You can also pay real money to buy more coins. Through the connection between game money and real money, the coins function with a certain capitalist logic. I am not just playing a game, I am advancing in the game, accumulating more digital wealth with which to buy more fun. When I switch my phone’s screen away from a work e-mail to a quick game of Temple Run, I’m still getting something done. My days spent poking the screen to collect fake money in The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Farmville provide a similar experience: something between play and imagined productivity.

Certainly, collecting coins and points isn’t anything new in video games, and such practices are not limited to casual games. Achievements and trophies for console games seem to serve much the same purpose: providing a psychological sense of reward for playing, imbuing the player with the feeling that they are doing something useful, as if the games themselves were unworthy of our time. The accumulation of coins and achievements (or even the photographs in a game like Pokemon Snap) appears to function something like Susan Sontag’s notion of the tourist with a camera: he desperately desires to possess the world, to bring something back to his colleagues, to show to himself that “my time in leisure has not been wasted.”

More striking than just a style of reward, however, has been the degree to which games have started to simulate work. Diner Dash, The Sims, Cooking Mama, and others games are built on the foundation of occupations not meant to be fun (with the exception of cooking perhaps). While I was never able to fully enter into the world of The Sims, I did lose several weeks to Diner Dash and PlayFirst’s other simulations: Hotel Dash, Wedding Dash, Cooking Dash and so on. Every week or so, I would start to notice the anxiety one of these games was adding to my life and delete it, only to return to the App Store a few days later to download another. To be clear, my issue with them is not the aesthetic of the games, which have been the topic of some controversy regarding gender norms after Ian Bogost labeled them “video game kitsch” ( “Persuasive Games: Video Game Kitsch”, Gamasutra, 17 February 2009). Rather, I’m more interested in their mechanics and what playing them does to us. I’m beginning to suspect that such games provide one more avenue to construct a lifestyle and a value system in which the main mode of experience is work, even if that experience is supposed to be fun.

And yet, somehow, they are still, in a sense, fun. Personally, though, I’m starting to realize that my preference in entertainment and art is more for the contemplative and the escapist than the frantic. Give me Lumines over Tetris any day. And yet, this preference — and by extension the particular set of values behind it — is not always where I wind up. I’m like a junkie begging my electronic pusher for just one more round before I hit the delete button. I wonder though, could the more euphoric experience of a game like Proteus be combined with the addictive quality of Temple Run? Or are a frenetic pace and some system of accumulation required for that addictive quality?