Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

Idle games are games that you don’t play: or rather, the form of play is managerial rather than physical. In a talk at the Game Developer’s Conference this year, Pecorella identified Progress Quest (2002) as one of the earliest idle games: a satirical project, Progress Quest was an RPG that played itself: the player set up a character, and the game would run automatically, levelling the character up and collecting loot until the final boss was defeated. The message was that most RPGs were so predictable that they could be entirely mechanised: the position of the human in the loop was not meaningful.

Other idle games since then have made similar statements about other genres of game, other forms of labour, and capitalism more generally. They simulate inescapable systems in which the player is just a tiny agent, at best able to fiddle with the numbers to make the system generate a little more value, at worst just a passive observer to something over which they have no control. This apparent hostility to player agency contradicts the orthodoxy that the thing that makes games special is their interactivity, but idle games are growing in popularity — as artistic statements about the lack of control we have in our own lives, and as enjoyable games in their own right.

While early idle games ran on the PC, more and more of them are being released as mobile apps. Most idle games invite (but do not require) a small amount of interaction once a day or so: players log in, harvest a resource, invest that resource in something that will boost yield, and then log out again — but by design, all idle games will run with no player action whatsoever. The difference between optimisation and total inaction is not whether or not you reach a particular target, but how quickly: and as with all online games, designers carefully balance the game so that the pace of player progress is predictable and controlled.

Idle games have continued to be primarily counter-cultural parodies of capitalism and games culture to this day (one of 2014’s most notable titles was called Adventure Capitalist) while also being a newfound commercial interest for Kongregate, the gaming platform for whom Pecorella works as a monetisation expert. Kongregate is interested in idle games because they rank highly on “retention”, a key performance indicator for free-to-play games — players of idle games are among the most likely to return to the site regularly over a period of weeks or even months.

This genre therefore seems to have a remarkably ambivalent relationship to capital. On the one hand, the content of these games is critical of capitalism and mainstream games culture, highlighting a sense of ennui with systems that seem to keep turning inevitably, regardless of the actions of the individual. On the other hand, players’ fascination with the spectacle of watching the system turn and desire for optimisation generates two things that are extremely valuable to Kongregate: long-term attention that they can sell to advertisers, and a hunger for accelerated progress that is satisfied through the sale of virtual goods that temporarily provide a boost to the system’s yield.

Narrative idle play ten years earlier

This managerial, labour-free style of play was central to an earlier form of game design tried in the avatar game Sora, lauched in 2003 and largely forgotten to history. The main difference between Sora and present-day idle games was that the gameplay loop was focused more on story beats than harvesting and spending resources. Founder of developer Tomo Software Rich LaBarca explained the basic concept to me in an interview last year:

“The idea was that you helped define a character with different traits, which were modified by items you configured it with — clothes, accessories, etc. And you’d make some decisions, like “go meet with X” or “go to the cafe” or “go swimming,” then leave it. And when you came back, it would have had meaningful interactions with other player characters on the server, and would keep a journal, and would have new messages and items, etc.

Within a couple of years, Sora had been repurposed into an advertising server, a more lucrative application of its core technology, which was built to quickly serve images to users with minimal storage on the device itself. There seems to have been little written on Sora from a gameplay perspective — most of the coverage that has survived focuses on the technology and Tomo software’s value to investors. Mobile games were not yet a topic of significant discussion in the games press: Pocketgamer, a site dedicated to mobile games, wasn’t founded until after Sora closed.

A possible future for idleness

One of the writers for Sora, Jennifer Hepler, has become well known for some forward-thinking comments that she made in an interview in 2006, just after Sora was shut down. She had expressed her own displeasure at gaming’s emphasis on wading through sustained, intense, repetitive gameplay in order to reach story beats, and suggested an alternative that would allow more people to enjoy story-driven games with RPG elements, such as those made at Bioware, where she worked for some time:

“Games almost always include a way to ‘button through’ dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don’t enjoy listening to dialogue and they don’t want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you’re a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can’t have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.” (read more)

The idle game format seems remarkably well-suited to implementing Hepler’s suggested feature of a “skip combat” button, and even resolves a problem she identified regarding resource management and character progression — giving the player a minimal level of growth without requiring sustained interaction, but allowing for optimisation through careful management and grinding. Pecorella’s GDC talk even proposed implementing ‘idle mode’ in games that are otherwise centred on puzzles or combat.

At first blush, and according to many game design theories, the problem with skipping combat seems to be that it’s not engaging enough — that there is not enough interaction happening, and players will be turned off. But the example of idle games suggests that, counter-intuitively, systems that turn without you can generate their own kind of pleasure, as well as being harmonious with a range of business models. It could even prove to be the most significant development in game design to happen this decade.

I livetweeted this talk at the time. Some examples:

“I say parody a lot when discussing idle games. It’s a genre that almost didn’t want itself to exist.”

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Companies have a lot of objections, such as how to calculate loot and experience points for a player who doesn’t actually play the combats, but these could be easily addressed by simply figuring out an average or minimum amount of experience for every fight and awarding that.

The biggest objection is usually that skipping the fight scenes would make the game so much shorter, but to me, that’s the biggest perk. If you’re a woman, especially a mother, with dinner to prepare, kids’ homework to help with, and a lot of other demands on your time, you don’t need a game to be 100 hours long to hold your interest — especially if those 100 hours are primarily doing things you don’t enjoy. A fast forward button would give all players — not just women — the same options that we have with books or DVDs — to skim past the parts we don’t like and savor the ones we do. Over and over, women complain that they don’t like violence, or they don’t enjoy difficult and vertigo-inducing gameplay, yet this simple feature hasn’t been tried on any game I know of.

Granted, many games would have very little left if you removed the combat, but for a game like Deus Ex or Bioware’s RPGs, you could take out every shred of combat and still have an entertainment experience that rivals anything you’d see in the theater or on TV.

See this 2006 interview with Jennifer Hepler for more detail.

Hepler’s ideas garnered attention again in 2012, following a misogynistic harassment campaign targeting her in part because her ideas were seen as threatening to a particular kind of gaming. I want to use this note to bear witness to what happened, without letting it overshadow the conversation about her work. It does a huge disservice to women in games when their work is overdetermined by the stories we tell about their pain. Hepler’s ideas are not important because of how they have been used against her: they are important because they challenge developers to think in new ways not only about how games are designed, but about how games fit into people’s lives.