After 5 or 6 years of playing, I've made the decision to give up my Game of War: Age of Fire account.
Those of you who are well familiar with the game may read that and think, "Gee, Bill, I didn't think anybody was still even playing that game. You may as well tell the world that you've stopped using A.O.L. for the Internet!" Those of you not so familiar with this the game may wonder why this personal event is worthy of a blog entry.
Before I go any further, let me be clear about one thing: I'm not saying video games are all inherently life-draining and evil. We do a lot of things that may seem to have no immediate real-world benefit to our survival: playing a game, watching movies, watching sports, gardening, stamp collecting, whatever. There's nothing wrong with having something you like to do in your spare time. Life would be pretty dull and pointless if we weren't allowed to have some fun now and then. As with any pleasurable things in life, it comes down to responsibility and one's true net enjoyment. And even within the realm of games, there may be benefits:
- Maybe playing Monopoly with your family proves to be a interactive bonding experience.
- Maybe playing chess helps keep your analytical mind sharp.
- Maybe you learn new words by playing Scrabble.
- Maybe you learn something about listening and teamwork by playing an RPG or co-op game.
HOWEVER, if you find yourself...
- ... spending so much time and money on a game such that it significantly cuts in on other things you'd like to (or need to) do with your life?
- ... having lost most of the initial appeal you had in the game, and are now just playing out of habit?
- ... driving loved ones up the wall because you're paying more attention to your smart phone than to them?
- ... playing mainly because you'd feel guilty about quitting? And it's a game with no definitive ending?
- ... ultimately just looking at advertisements on your phone for hours at a time, interrupted by opportunities to play some spin-off of "Bejeweled" or "Minecraft"?
- ... using your game scoring as a substitute for real-life accomplishments?
Then yeah, maybe it's time to stop and reevaluate whether you're still really "playing" this game, or if the game makers are playing you.
In reading Scott Adams' 2019 book Loserthink, I was introduced to a concept known as the "sunk cost" fallacy. As I understand it, it's basically the human tendency think, "Right now I have options 'A' and 'B'. I've already invested a lot into 'A', therefore that's the option that makes the most sense to continue with." The reason this is fallacious thinking is because how much you've invented in something doesn't necessarily determine whether it's the right decision. Whatever time or money you've invested into option A is now "sunk", and doesn't change the fact that option B might be better for you or more desirable in the long run.
For example, "This $1800 suit I bought no longer fits me well, and I'd actually look better in and feel more comfortable at the job interview tomorrow if I wore one of my cheaper suits. But hey, I paid $1800 for this, so I should wear it." Or to cite an example from my own career: "This device we use is hard to maintain and breaks down all of the time. We could hire somebody to just spend two months creating a replacement that would work ten times better. But the company already paid some contractors in India a ton of money to create what we use now. Therefore we need to keep using it."
So it goes with some video games. What was it that was really driving me to log in and play "Game of War"? Was the gameplay still really fun? Was it the game's aesthetics? Was it the social interaction with other players, especially those on the same team as me? There was a tiny bit of truth in all of those ideas. But what mostly drove me to tap on that icon and launch the game, was this subconscious need to keep it afloat. To justify my investment. To justify my progress in the game. And of course, the longer you play and the more you invest, the harder it is to quit, because the more that would feel like throwing it all away. It was a spinning plate on the end of a pole that I had to keep spinning because, well, I just had to. And whatever tiny reward of fun or escape, or the hope for more fun, was also just enough fuel to continue too.
"Just one more level! One more fix!"
What makes these games so addictive in the first place? For me, it's a couple of different things. There's always a need in life for occasional fantasy and escape. So there's incredible appeal in being able to procrastinate from stuff in the real world, and instead be a sword-swinging, dragon-fighting, gold-plundering hero of your own empire. Granted, a good fantasy book or action movie can have that same sort of effect. But what video games additionally provide is the illusion of accomplishment.
See, unlike most other skills or challenges in life, video games provide you with a numerical measure of progress, and typically a clear path from one path to the next. "If I just get enough gold pieces, I can buy this piece of armor. Then I can kill the boss at the end of this level and advance to the next level!" What's the next level after 33? 34, of course. How close are you to getting there? Just look at the progress bar. "Hmm, I've been stuck on this part for a while and it's tedious. But if I pay $4.99, I can get a boost that will get all of my buildings up to the next level, and the game will be more fun then. Well, the game is otherwise free and I've gotten a ton of hours of play out of it for nothing, so I suppose dropping five bucks won't hurt."
Now imagine somebody who is typically a procrastinator, has not only an impulsive behavior but an OCD such that he (and it's more often a "he" than a "she") can't stand to leave things unfinished and asymmetric, perhaps lacks some certainty in their own career or other life endeavors, doesn't otherwise get to command much in life, finds most humans unrelatable, and has such an imaginative mind that they can easily tune the world out and hyperfocus on something appealing. Frankly I wouldn't be surprised if 90% of a mobile game company's income comes from exploiting the top 2% of its players who are, as people often nicely try to put it, "on the autism spectrum".
(On a related note, there's a common feeling that giving into an activity that serves no real purpose is just stupidity, and smug self-described "rational" people won't allow themselves to do such irrational things. But IQ has little to do with this. In fact, smart people with addictions are usually better at misusing their intellect to rationalize what they're doing. But that's a whole other topic.)
Fortunately, I've had enough sense of self-control and purpose not to go nearly as deep down that hole as I've seen others go. One attitude that I've long maintained, even before I owned my first cell phone, was this: I want to look back at whatever I've done in the past month, and have some kind of real accomplishment to show. By "real", I mean something besides "I got my Diablo game character up to level 99" or "I watched all 8 seasons of this TV show." Rather, something I can be proud of. Something that I felt was worth the investment. Writing an article, solving a complicated math proof, learning something on a particular musical instrument, publishing a website, whatever. Again, that doesn't mean avoiding video games or TV shows at all costs; it just means not letting those sorts of things being the only things I "accomplished" that month. I think was really drove me to having this attitude was hanging out with some of my friends who'd just finished college, and seeing how some of them had gotten into the disillusioned zombie routine of coming home from work, watching TV for the next several hours, going to bed, repeat. I promised myself that I wouldn't fall into that trap.
Alas, getting back to the question of why I quit playing Game of War: Age of Fire, it wasn't just a strong sense of resourcefulness that made me quit. Frankly, the game had really come to suck. Just when you thought you were getting a hold of things, they'd introduce some new feature that wasn't very clear at all. There were lots of old features of the game that grew to become useless, and you weren't always sure whether you just weren't investing enough in some particular thing, or whether you should be working on some other part of the game. And this isn't just some sour grapes rationalization on my part; you can read the game reviews.
Worst of all was that you spend a lot of time and even real money building up your kingdom, then somebody who had just spent more money and was thus at a higher level could come by and completely wipe out the army you'd been building up. Or once you got to a certain level of riches or equipment quality, they'd introduce some new tier of more things to get, which meant you'd have to start getting that if you wanted to have any kind of edge in the game. More and more people ended up leaving the game. So I'd log in, and it would be a ghost town. Not that there still weren't a handful of players who'd search around for anybody vulnerable to destroy, of course.
So once I decided this game was more trouble than it was worth, the next decision was to just delete the app, right? Unfortunately, it wasn't that simple. Again, I was haunted by the nagging feeling of, "You dumped all of this time and money into the game. You can't just DELETE it!" Then, "I know. You could SELL it!" Yes, there is a market out there for selling and buying game accounts where the player has reached a high level. There are sites where you can buy and sell high-scored accounts for particular games. Unfortunately, that selling price would be nowhere near the amount of money you may have dumped into the game. As time went on, it seemed that you'd be lucky to get anything in exchange for your game, as interest in Game of War rapidly waned. And you can't in fact delete your empire from the game outright; you can only transfer ownership. Frankly, I didn't want to leave a game that the high-paying bullies could rape when I was gone. At the same time, I also thought, "Maybe there's somebody would would actually appreciate this account of mine, and use it."
I did finally come to accept the fact that the sunk cost was sunk, and waiting to make any money back from a sell wasn't worth the time if I could give it away sooner. So I went to a Facebook forum that some of the local kingdom players had created some years ago, stated my account level and said, "If anybody wants it, message me and it's yours." There were a few jeering idiots, as well as a couple of other idiots who didn't realize that "message me" doesn't mean "post a reply on this thread". Regardless, one guy did message me. And now my old account is his. And I have a burden gone from my phone. The end.