Need for Speed: Most Wanted (Electronic Arts, 2012)

In Motion: On the Emptiness of Progress

Nils Pihl calls it, "Newtonian engagement", that is, when "an engaged player will remain engaged until acted upon by an outside force". That's "progress".

I press start, and I’m in motion. I’m playing Need for Speed: Most Wanted and the game opens in medias res in an Aston Martin motoring down the freeway. The camera swings around and locks into position behind the car, at which point I instinctively squeeze the right trigger.

I am in control.

“DRIVE TO THE JACK SPOT”, reads the all-caps text in the center of the screen. In the lower-left is a map with a green highlighted route and in the upper-left is a distance marker. In time, I will reach the jack spot. I will press Y to drive a new car. I will win my first race.

I will pull up the EasyDrive menu to select one of eight different event types for the 73 cars available in the game, search for the 45 billboards and 47 security gates strewn throughout the map, and zip past the 16 speed traps. I will earn upgrades to boost my cars’ stats. I will accrue speed points. I will rise through the titular Most Wanted list. I will watch the colored bars fill up, the completion percentage inch closer towards one hundred, and the in-game timer will tick off second after second after second. I will think about the time that I have spent progressing through this game and the time that I will continue to spend, seconds piling up into hours, stretching out into the future indefinitely.

In the meantime, I move in the direction that the game tells me to: forward.

An Object in Motion

Momentum is key. Newton’s first law of motion states that an object in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force, will remain in motion. Behavioral engineer Nils Pihl called this relentless momentum “Newtonian engagement”, a term that he used “sort of in jest” in presentation at GDC China: “An engaged player will remain engaged until acted upon by an outside force” (“GDC China 2013 – The Psychology of Freemium”, YouTube, 21 September 2013). The term is useful for analyzing content-packed open-world games, to engage players with a glut of stuff, and to goad them forward with counters that tick up and progress bars that slink towards completion every time that players find more stuff.

It is not particularly original to observe that open-world games have grown bloated in recent years. Phil Owens identifies the trend as “feature creep,” a term usually applied to consumer electronics and software (“Some Games Should Have Fewer Features”, Kotaku, 3 July 2015). Feature creep, according to Owens, is how the tightly paced Arkham Asylum eventually transformed into the sprawling Arkham Knight, complete with “flying drones and Batmobile tank battles and Alfred urging you to prevent some bank robberies while the city is under occupation by a mercenary army.”

It is how the original Assassin’s Creed morphed into a tower defense game, an abstract first-person puzzle-platformer, a naval combat simulator, and so on. It is a map jam-packed with side quests and collectibles and secrets an interface that takes up half the screen and tells the player what they are doing, how much more they need to do, and all the other things they could be doing.

Austin Walker put it succinctly in his review of Far Cry 4: “content is king” (“Far Cry 4 Review – Content Is King”, Paste 24 November 2014). Throw players as much stuff as possible to do — give them towers to climb, outposts to liberate, endangered animals to hunt — then reward players with even more stuff when they complete an objective. Give them skill points and weapon attachments and audio logs. Encourage them to keep going, to maintain momentum.

Then there are games that strip away this additional stuff and consist solely of progress itself. Consider the disturbingly addictive Time Clickers, wherein you click on blocks, which nets you points, which you can use to buy helpers, which then automatically click blocks for you, which then earns you ever increasing amounts of points that can be spent on more helpers and upgrades and abilities — a perpetual motion machine of a game. A game that simplifies the work/reward/repeat cycle to its very core until nothing remains but progress for progress’s sake.

What happens when this obsession with progress bleeds into reality? Consider Habitica, a time management app that turns your life into an RPG. Complete tasks and maintain good habits to earn XP and gold, which can be used to level up your avatar and buy rewards. Fail to meet your standards, and you lose health. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something depressing about an app that explicitly converts the grind of daily existence into the grind of an RPG, as if life were nothing more than a series of progress bars to fill.

An Object at Rest

Speaking of life: a few weeks ago I was studying engineering at a public university. Not because I particularly wanted to, but because I’d made too much progress to stop. I remember talking to a friend of mine about how I was already two years into the program and might as well stick with it because it was just for another two years, and then…

“And then what?” he said. “For the rest of your life?”

I remember days when I’d wake up and lie in bed and think about everything that was going to happen that day: brush my teeth, go to class, eat food, do homework, go to bed. And I’d get up and the day would turn out exactly the way that I imagined it would. And I’d lie in bed at night and think about the days to come, days upon days, arranged one after the other in a straight line to oblivion.

There’s a passage in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in which a recovering drug addict compares quitting cold turkey to Evel Knievel jumping over cars on his motorcycle: “I’d bunker up all white-knuckled and stay straight. And count the days. I was proud of each day I stayed off. Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I’d add them up. Line them up end to end […] As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear.”

At first, this seems manageable to the addict. One or two cars wasn’t too bad. But at a certain point, the number of cars seemed insurmountable: “By the time I’d get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them.” The secret, of course, is to not think about a succession of days, but rather one day at a time: “I can really do this. I can do this for one endless day.”

These days, I live with my parents. I withdrew from school, changed my major to English, moved back home. Some days I wake up early, and some days I wake up late. Some days I read a book or watch a movie or go for a jog. There are occasional days when I’ll meet up with a friend and talk about how quickly the days go by.

But most days, I sit in my childhood bedroom and play Need for Speed: Most Wanted. On loading my last save, the game displays how much progress that I’ve made, my ranking on the Most Wanted list, how many miles I’ve driven, how many hours I’ve played. The camera swings around and locks into position behind the car. The engine’s off. To start the ignition, I have to press the right trigger.

Some days, I don’t press anything. I sit at the side of the road. The sun streams through the trees. The skyline shimmers in the distance. The traffic whizzes past. If you stay long enough, you can see the shadows shift.

I’m not going anywhere.

Boen Wang studies English at Penn State. You can read more of his work on his web site.