Kingdom, Cookie Clicker, and Addiction in Games

Kingdom was released in 2015 and published by Raw Fury

I got out of bed to write this. In bed, I was of course watching a youtube video. For a moment, I had done nothing but sit in bed, but thinking quickly got too loud and I had to pull up a video on my phone to drown it out, which brought me to this good video about Kingdom by Cool Ghosts.

In the video, Matt Lees praises Kingdom for the meditative rhythms that the game will lull you into. Talking about the head space that Kingdom puts players in, Lees says “Emotional experiences don’t need to be bang pow or Jesus on a jet ski I’m really sad. Again, video games have a tendency to make everything binary. In Kingdom, the emotional experience is muted; it’s mostly just about chilling out, sometimes with mild fear, sometimes with mild melancholy.” He talks throughout the video about the game’s goal of bringing you into its world and how that world can be all-encompassing. It is a game that occupies the entirety of the player’s mental energy, despite being quite minimal aesthetically.

Between Kingdom and its expansion Kingdom: New Lands, I have 101 hours in the two games. That is more than 4 days. Not one of those hours was healthy for me. I would play lengthy stretches of the game, and felt like I could not get out. The sinister ‘one more turn’ mentality — something the Civilization series has turned into a marketing strategy — sunk its talons deep in me while I played Kingdom. I would not eat. I would not sleep. I would not go to the bathroom. I would not return messages from friends. Kingdom consumed me. I knew it was, but I couldn’t get out from under it. I love many the look and the feel of the game, it makes a lot of design choices that I think are fantastic, but despite the superlatives it is a game which hurt me in its way.

As I wrote the last sentence of that paragraph, I heard a ding and quickly tabbed over to click the golden cookie in Cookie Clicker. Cookie Clicker is a game which has lived with me for some years now. My current run is at 49 days, 2 hours, 56 minutes, and 38 seconds. It is hardly my first run, and I doubt it will be my last. In December, I had a run that got particularly unhealthy — I felt a similar pressure to the one I felt with Kingdom — so I opened the cheat interface, got myself every achievement and upgrade and wiped my hands of the game. March was stressful though and I relapsed. Relapse is not a word I use lightly, but it is the word that fits cleanly. My return to Cookie Clicker is “a deterioration in someone’s state of health after a temporary improvement.”

The most productive building in Cookie Clicker, the “Privatized Planet”

Often I use games like these to fill a hole. I started Kingdom because it was a game that occupied the right amount of space so I could listen to podcasts and audiobooks while I played. I started Cookie Clicker again as a way to give myself periodic short breaks while I study. They are games designed to use as much of your time as possible. Capitalism has created a video gaming industry where time spent is seen as the ultimate measure of value, and these two games are indeed quite valuable. Cookie Clicker even tries to critique itself, and by extension other games, for this. However, the critique is hollow because it merely draws attention to the addictive design it uses. There is no statement beyond “the thing we are doing is bad.”

In December, Kingdom was free on Steam and I advised friends not to get the game. As I think back on this though, I wonder what other games I have recommended to friends that were ill-considered. I have played a great deal of Slay the Spire this week and have felt a little bit of that ‘one more turn’ biting at me in that game too. In my opinion, Slay the Spire is more responsible with this design because it gives players clear goals and clear stopping points. But who knows, maybe if I recommend you try Slay the Spire, you will fall into the pit that I fell into with Kingdom.

As an industry and as a medium, video games need to consider more carefully time spent as a metric for quality. Many of the most popular games in the world lean on this: League of Legends, Clash of Clans, and Fortnite are games which players to play in perpetuity. It is a design goal most prominent in the free-to-play space, but games like Civilization and Kingdom show that is prevalent at every level of the culture. None of this is new — Cookie Clicker and many idle games have drawn attention to it for years now — but it remains as a problem which is detrimental to the health of countless players.