Playing Pokemon Go for high and low stakes

The game app unites the two extremes of mobile gaming - the rank-obsessed and the score-free

A Pokemon spotted at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
A Pokemon spotted at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

NEW YORK • All around the world, millions of smartphone users are preparing for war. Pokemon Go has sent players scurrying outside their homes to hunt cartoon critters, chuck virtual balls at them and then groom their captured characters into a digital army.

Advance far enough in the game and players are invited to join a Pokemon team and stage face-offs at designated gyms - basically, virtual forts - where battle-ready competitors descend to hold their phones with a white-knuckle grip, stare unblinkingly at the screen and tap furiously on one another's Pokemon in a bid to seize control of the territory.

Or not. Users can also just lazily check for Pokemon as they proceed throughout their days, stopping occasionally to scan the app for nearby characters and snapping screen shots on their commute or evening stroll. Marinate on this lower level of game play and Pokemon Go feels less like a competition and more like a charming little interlude.

In this way, Pokemon Go has become the rare app to unite the two extremes of the mobile gaming universe. One is the compulsive, rank-obsessed land of Candy Crush and Clash Of Clans. The other, its antidote - the serene, score-free world of so-called slow games.

Slow games are less ubiquitous and straightforwardly tantalising than traditional mobile games. They often seem to lack any point at all. Instead, they invite players to engage in simpler virtual pleasures - taking a stroll, watering plants, feeding stray cats.

In the game Mountain, the user plays God, designs a world, then watches powerlessly as "time moves forward", "things grow and things die" and "nature expresses itself".

Download Viridi to start a succulent garden in your pocket. Then just check in every few days to collect new seedlings, water thirsty plants and watch them grow. And with the Japanese mobile sensation Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector, you can fill a little yard with toys and kibbles that attract stray cats. It is like installing a window into a cat cafe on your phone.

In these games, the stakes are lowered to nearly imperceptible levels, eliminating the weight of responsibility involved in actual caretaking.

Barmark, a mobile app that invites users to play groundskeeper to their own virtual ecosystem, promises "no goals, no points and no death".

And it is no coincidence that many slow games are set in a virtual backyard. If Pokemon Go has brought the thrill of video games into the great outdoors, slow games bring the feel of nature into offices, grocery aisles and subway cars. My succulents and strays grow and play for me in exchange for just a few screen taps a day.

While the shiniest, most successful phone apps are designed to push our competitive buttons and light up our pleasure centres with quick rewards, slow games seek access to a different part of our brains. They soothe rather than excite. Author and game designer Ian Bogost has referred to this genre as video game zen, the mobile equivalent of running a tiny rake across a desktop Japanese garden.

Neko Atsume is my coping mechanism of choice. Six months after downloading the app, the simple act of checking in on my cats a few times a day has relaxed into a mindless habit embedded amid all my others - check e-mail, check Twitter, feed cats. I've already collected each of the app's 56 cats - the ostensible point of the game - but I keep playing. It's evolved from game into ritual or even atmosphere. It's the new smoke break.

The app store is sprinkled with dozens of tranquil smartphone portals that are antidotes to the maddening intensity of traditional video games and the quickening pace of online life.

But in another way, slow games are less a rejection of high-octane Internet culture than they are a capitulation to it. By freeing up gamers from the burdens of extreme concentration and physical control, slow games allow us to fit a mobile game into every spare moment, to seamlessly multitask among Facebook monitoring and texting and the game play.

Slow games offer a release, but their escape is on a screen too. Run out of lives in Candy Crush and you can check on your aloe plant, tend your garden and feed the cats.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Playing Pokemon Go for high and low stakes'. Print Edition | Subscribe