The Psychological Shortcomings Of Mobile Gaming

For the longest time, I had no idea Kick the Can was an actual game. I thought it was just a thing that the Black Power Ranger quipped in the first movie as he literally kicked a can into an easily subdued henchman. As it turns out, Kick the Can has been a childhood staple for quite some time, predating even a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone that featured the game and was called—unsurprisingly—”Kick the Can.”

Perhaps as the value of cans and the kicking thereof has been lost on the youth of today, the traditional neighborhood game has fallen to the wayside. With the massive rise of smartphone usage taking hold on our daily lives, do children even know what to do when given a pair of soup cans and a string? Did they never see how useful that can be in 3 Ninjas? Rocky loves Emily, dammit!

It was a primal form of long-distance communication, but it worked. While you worked daily on convincing your parents that walkie-talkies or a second landline would be a worthwhile investment, the tin can telephone turned into secure red phone of top secret cables. That Campbell’s label, peeling and worn from overexposure and overuse, was just as big a part of your personal life as the other end of the line.

So I guess it’s not surprising to see that today mobile phone usage has skyrocketed. Not only that, but we’ve become severely attached to our little $300 bricks of technology. There are six billion(!) mobile subscribers out in the world today, and according to a 2012 Going Mobile study, it was found that 63% of people felt as if their smartphones were “alive” and “an extension of their own body and personality.”

And, undoubtedly, an extension of how we communicate with the people in our lives. Almost every utility on a phone from the actual dialer for phone calls to text messages to every single social media app you have installed is a way to connect yourself with other people (mostly those that you care about). It has become our anchor to everything real in our lives, an ironic development given that the things we interact with on the phone are mostly intangible.

So how is it we’re expected to use it for something as unessential as gaming?

Don’t get me wrong about what I mean when I say “unessential;” hell, I write about video games just about every day of my life and play them just as often. I mean unessential to that particular platform. Asking someone to game on their smartphone is tantamount to asking a child of the 60s to cut that string and kick that newly unfettered can around with the other dozen or so other kids on the block. You’re asking them to watch as their lifeline to emergency late night communications—long after their parents think they’ve gone to sleep—is being booted around the curbs and gutters.

And all those rounds of Jack Lumber or Super Hexagon will eventually drain your phone, rendering it either useless or in such a dire state that you dare not use it save for life or death situations. Of course you can charge it back up or get another can and stick in the string again, but for that short amount of time where you are disconnected from the world, you feel lost. Or at least, 63% of you will.

The trade-off is too personal to be shrugged off. You are using this intermittently limited but ultimately renewable resource as a currency for fun. It’s a roll of the dice every time you drain down that battery in the middle of the day to get your Slingshot Racing fix or cut the cord to get in some pre-dusk can-kicking; will you regret that cavalier use of your major comms resource?

That’s the difference between gaming on your phone compared to gaming on a handheld console like the PS Vita or the 3DS. Those handhelds are purely dedicated for gaming and gaming-related threads of communication. When those die and an outlet isn’t in sight, the worst that happens is that you can’t play LittleBigPlanet PS Vita until you get home. When your phone dies or someone accidentally crushes your cream of mushroom soup can, that’s it. No one not in your immediate vicinity can reach you. You have been cut off from any indirect and incidental contact less forward than someone coming up to you, stopping face-to-face, and saying “hey, I need to talk to you.”

But that’s not to say the allure isn’t there. The point-and-shoot category of cameras is slowly dying, making way for entry-level DSLRs and the upcoming wave of mirrorless cameras, mostly due to the rise of smartphones. They say that the best camera is the one that’s with you, but who’s to say that doesn’t also apply to gaming platforms? Your phone is likely always on you or at least very close by, so does that make it the best platform with which to play games? Why carry around a point-and-shoot in addition to a DSLR when you have a perfectly capable iPhone in your pocket? Why carry around a PS Vita and lug around a 360 when your Android phone can run SNES emulators?

So maybe it’s true that the best gaming platform you have is the one that’s with you. Maybe it’s not. Maybe all you need is love, I don’t know. But the fact of the matter is that there’s a very real dissonance in choosing—consciously or not—between using your phone for gaming or communication. You are trading your ability to be a part of your social world to waste a few minutes at the post office. You are spending your battery on getting more stars instead of fostering personal relationships. Is it worth it?

Oh crap, hold on, I need to save this draft. My phone is dying.

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  • Sean

    Great article. As someone who uses his phone primarily for games and websurfing, it’s something I’ve never considered!