Something in my pocket is killing me: a suckling tick, a phone-borne horde of barbarians. Have you played Clash of Clans? It’s a smartphone and tablet strategy game in which you cultivate a base of tiny soldiers to destroy other people’s bases of tiny soldiers. Developed by the company Supercell in Helsinki, which puts the Viking-pillage mechanics into some kind of approximate cultural context, it’s free to download and nominally free to play — yet in 2015 it pulled from its 100 million daily users $2.4 billion in revenue, $9 million of which they spent on a Super Bowl commercial starring Liam Neeson.
I want to talk about how this happens, but first let me take you around my base, where at this very moment flea-size people are teeming around in an isometric village, dominated by a palette of nuclear green, concrete gray, mustard yellow, and turd brown. Little tunic-clad builders swing teensy hammers at scaffolded barracks, while info bubbles importune me to brew spells, research upgrades, and collect resources. Every tap of the screen brings on a new funny plip or jackpot chime or orchestra hit. My defenses are a mix of military industriousness and high fantasy: house-sized mortars, pink-haired archers in flak helmets, wizards poised atop mountains ready to send fireballs streaking from their fingers. My wealth is housed in enormous bins of gold doubloons and globes of magenta elixir. I will spend it all today and get it all back again tomorrow.
Not everyone is your enemy
Clash isn’t especially addictive (I know what that looks like), but it puts me in constant low-grade anxiety — about my depleting shield, whether my builders are idle, which upgrades to pursue. It is a persistent itch that feels good to scratch. Every fifteen minutes or so I get a notification informing me that my troops are ready for battle, or that my cannon has upgraded, or that my village was wiped out by someone called “dank nuggs” or “rektum.” The threat of invasion from other players is constant, as is the opportunity to invade them; a “Revenge” button appears after someone attacks you. Pressing your fingertip to the battlefield makes a gush of wriggling troops surge out, absorbing bombardments from the enemy’s defenses. Your troops either get wiped out or successfully raze your enemy’s base; the more total the destruction, the greater the spoils of gold, elixir, trophies, and sadistic glee.
Not everyone is your enemy. You can join clans of up to 50 other players, enabling you to request reinforcements and wage war against other clans. Little distinguishes one clan from another besides stats and names, names like Pinoy Guns, $DA BEASTS$, BLOOD FOR WAR. In an aspirational mood, I searched for any clans called “Happiness,” but they were all either empty or invite-only. Clan Prestige kicked me out immediately; Clan Friendship kicked me out for donating weak troops; Clan Love communicated mostly in Arabic. So I stayed awhile in the dead-silent Clan Maturity, left a week later for Clan Corgi Butts, and ended up where I always suspected I belonged: in the Trash Clan. Never mind. Everyone is your enemy.
Clash belongs to the subgenre of “resource management,” aspects of which franchises like SimCity, Starcraft, Civilization, XCOM, and the latest Metal Gear Solid each incorporate to some degree, and others like FarmVille and Tiny Tower have networked and miniaturized. Resource-management games have you balancing various types of currency and resources. Construction and warfare leads to more resources, which leads to more construction and warfare: Clash’s simplified mechanics boil the resources down to troops, gold, and elixir (read: oil — you extract it from the ground).
There is a trite-and-true political argument that’s often made about such games: how they’re capitalism simulators, models of military-industrial neoliberalism, ideologies encoded as entertainment—SimCity favors regressive taxes, while Molleindustria’s To Build a Better Mousetrap requires you to automate, incarcerate, and otherwise exploit your laborers. In Clash, absolutely everything can be purchased, every building and troop is military and replaceable; the battle reports tell you how many troops you “expended.” Unlike other cartoon-styled games, where characters are “knocked out” or “eliminated,” there’s no ambiguity about death. When mowed down, troops turn briefly into ghostly skeletons, then gravestones, and tapping on the gravestones converts them into elixir (read again: oil).
This capitalist angle gets a lot more interesting when you consider that Clash’s purpose is to extract the world’s most important resource from its player base (this time, read: money). Gameplay largely involves waiting for things to finish building. If you don’t want to wait, you spend. Gems allow you to bypass the wait times for constructions and upgrades, which ordinarily take hours, days, or even weeks to complete. The bright green color of grass, greed, and envy, gems can be earned a few at a time through gameplay but can be purchased with real money to the tune of $4.99 for 500, or up to $99.99 for a 14,000-gem war chest; each gem is worth somewhere between one and 20 minutes of time.
Once you’ve arranged your base — and there’s no end to the arrangements you can make there — a typical session of base maintenance and raiding lasts about five minutes, and the wait times to train new troops enforce a limit on your gameplay; without gems it’ll be another 15 to 30 minutes before your army is ready for battle, and that will suit most casual players fine. One user calculated that it would take about 952 days — just over two and a half years — to fully upgrade your entire base (provided you have only one builder; more builders can be purchased with gems). He also figures that it’d take 343,000 gems to rush the whole thing, which comes out to roughly $2,450. Many of the top players are wealthy, disproportionately Middle Eastern folks who’ve spent upwards of $16,000 on the game; game developers call these high-spenders “whales,” and one Saudi whale in particular was rumored to have spouted over a million dollars on the game.
Clashing on the cheap imposes a discipline on your life. I like to start upgrades right before bedtime so that my builders can take advantage of the natural eight-hour waiting period called sleep. One high-level player on YouTube stresses that the most important element of fully upgrading your base for free is scheduling. “Yes, you actually do have to do something in real life to farm a fully maxed-out base,” he says, and continues:
Can you clash at work? Can you clash at school? Do you have breaks? Are you your own boss? Do you have long periods of inactivity, just because that’s what happens—can you raid there? The first thing you do when you wake up is you play Clash …You can clash in the shower, on the toilet—not recommended, if you don’t want to damage or get your phone dirty, but you can do that.
Not recommended, but also not hypothetical: the former No. 1-ranked player George Yao would bring five plastic-wrapped iPads into the shower with him to keep multiple Clash accounts going.
So the most interesting thing about Clash isn’t how it’s an allegory for late capitalism. (Isn’t everything? Isn’t that the point?) It’s that Clash makes especially clear how everything is interchangeable under such a system. Time is life is work is death is money is property is time. Technology fuzzes the distinction between real and virtual. Like almost every game with a death mechanic, the true currency of Clash isn’t virtual gold but actual time. Dying in a game forces you to waste your time trying again, “spending” part of your limited lifespan on a failed effort. Money can help you enjoy your time in the game more, but there’s no changing that every session brings you five minutes, a hundred thousand coins, and dozens of deaths closer to your death.
Anyone who grew up playing as many video games as I did wonders at the life they might’ve led if they’d learned to speak fluent Thai instead. When we call something a “waste of time,” we usually mean something outside of the narrative of whatever you’ve called your real life, some menial and unproductive activity that doesn’t amass wealth, deepen your relationships and quality of life, or improve you. Something that makes time pass without changing anything else. Clash lends itself to being played casually in moments when you’re captive or idle — train time and toilet time — and thus positions itself as a better way to waste time.
It is some wonder how a decades-old, $21 billion industry that outperforms Hollywood could still be considered culturally marginal, but there’s no games editor at the New Yorker — is there? One can discern in mainstream game writing a common strain of anxiety, quick to either reassure us of gaming’s artistic legitimacy and utility, or else its corrupting effects (recall the “hand-eye coordination” vs. “Nintendinitis” think pieces of the ’90s). Most efforts to make games respectable noisily advertise their seriousness: conferences called Serious Play and Serious Games; a college degree with an emphasis in “games and meaningful play”; or the irreverent theme of Kill Screen’s inaugural issue, No Fun.
All this defensiveness seems awfully unnecessary. These days, video games are a 30-something with a steady job and a New York Times subscription. They’re used mostly to entertain, but also to train surgeons, soldiers, and pilots, to alleviate pain in hospitalized children, to fundraise for charities; I can also personally attest that I achieved peak fitness from playing an hour of Dance Dance Revolution every day in college. (It wasn’t worth it.) Games are just too broad to generalize about.
You wouldn’t know this from watching TV or movies, though. It’s always instructive to hear one medium’s opinion of another, but it’s especially interesting how TV and movies treat video games, given that the latter were until recently the whipping boys of culture. Loneliness and video games have been juxtaposed almost wherever they appear on camera. In movies, a character playing video games alone is understood to signify that he — always “he” — is lazy, neglectful, depressed, antisocial, unambitious, and/or emotionally stunted. (A few games have cheekily internalized these archetypes—consider Grand Theft Auto V’s insufferable gamebro Jimmy De Santa, or Uncharted 4’s Nathan Drake, who dismisses the PlayStation as a “little TV game thing.”) House of Cards stands as an exception: Frank Underwood demonstrates range, erudition, and hipness in his fondness for both Call of Duty and Monument Valley, though he also demonstrates being a multiple murderer.
The suggestion is that virtual life is an immersive escape fantasy, one in which your humdrum assigned existence is exchanged for other, more interesting, powerful, or liberated ones. This is no more true of Clash than it is of Tetris or Bejeweled. As your village’s Chief, you have no backstory or identity, your troops don’t speak or have relationships with one another, and there is no motive to destroy other than destruction itself; your adviser, a concerned-looking brunette, is all business, and so are most of the other human players.
But more often, video games, in the way they structure our behavior and obtrude into our lives, are less escapes from reality than they are metaphors for it. If modern life often seems like it’s about making money for large corporations just to pull in enough resources to buy things, collect experiences, form good connections, have fun, and improve yourself, all against a backdrop of nonstop worldwide violent conflict and plunder (especially in the Middle East), then Clash is more lifelike than life itself.
In that sense, it’s not just a war simulator played on your phone but a success simulator played on your life, one whose achievements can be more consistently rewarding than what our suboptimal social reality offers. Is it at all surprising that some people would decide the play’s the thing and use their lives as resources for the game? “My day job was a means to an end, paying the bills, and my real life was the game,” George Yao said of his career pinnacle. The more time, money, effort, and emotion you invest in the game, the less sense it makes to separate it from life — especially if Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk are right and we’re all living in a more advanced civilization’s video game anyway.
Though you lose battles quite often, in Clash there is no concept of loss
Non-gamers never fail to be bemused by people like Yao. Why spend dozens of hours chasing a rare armor set or decorating an in-game house when you could be burying real gold in your backyard or achieving orgasm? Then again, why achieve orgasm? You expend all your sexual energy today and get it back tomorrow. Sure, the stuff of Clash is intangible, but so is most wealth today, not to mention status, college degrees, and the concepts of God and the nation-state. The pleasure of games like Clash is not joy, excitement, or catharsis, and certainly not material gain. It’s focus and achievement — the steady drip of progress, of constantly gaining and spending currency. Like cultivating a bonsai, building your base is a means of externalizing self-improvement. Though you lose battles quite often, in Clash there is no concept of loss. Destroyed buildings are rebuilt in seconds, troops can be replaced with identical ones in minutes, and your looted resources can be easily regained with a bit more warfare.
Clash guarantees that your property only improves, nothing ever breaks or obsolesces or depreciates. Upgrades are highly conspicuous, inviting you to compare your dingy stone walls with other players’ purple crystal bulwarks, or your rickety wooden towers to another’s iron parapets — here, luxury is not just power but military power. The only thing that’s irreplaceable is the time you spend, the time you kill, playing it.
Maybe it is a waste of time. Yet there are many pursuits we could call wastes of time that instead are classified as leisure, despite seeming to me intuitively pointless: camping, going on walks, going to the beach, team sports, lawn care, swimming pools, house decoration, fishing, owning a house, and having children. Then again, by the same standard, I also think reading fiction and playing games are wastes of time, and those are mostly what I do. If I were to defend myself, I could wax poetic about how games and novels offer vivid vicarious experiences and broaden your worldview by putting you in the minds, bodies, and circumstances of other people, but that’s disingenuous. I read and play games because I want to and nobody is making me stop.
The fact that people still do make utilitarian cases for art is a good example of people’s need to rationalize their preferences. In a Wired profile, one wealthy “whale” reasoned that spending $1,000 a night on Clash actually saved him money, since he’d otherwise go out and spend $6,000 drinking with his buddies. I suspect this attitude has something to do with the human fallibilities of sunk cost and cognitive dissonance: if you’ve already spent hours and maybe some cash on a particular activity, you might keep playing because you don’t want that effort to “go to waste,” and then you might imbue that activity with all sorts of heavy meaning and nobility to assure yourself that your time was well spent. Then compulsion gets reframed as passion, hobbies become identities, and life is more than the process of becoming a beached whale.
Is calling myself a writer or gamer just a way of dignifying my habits? One reason the loser-gamer stereotype persists is precisely the notion that games are easier than reality—that people who play lots of them can’t cope with the real world’s challenges, risks, and uncertainties, and opt for the soft electric blanket of an impoverished simulation. Or they can’t do human interaction and have to settle for the companionship of weak AI. Or they’re addicts who lack imagination and purpose. Sounds good, except: Games, especially online competitive ones, are way hard and failure-prone and full of tedious chores and total assholes. Game addiction is real enough, but there’s a difference between simply preferring to spend your time gaming and being unable to stop, though not a mutually exclusive one. It’s a lot easier to call gamers (or bookworms) weak-minded misfits than it is to countenance the idea that art, even bad art, is richer, deeper, more meaningful than what’s available under certain shitty conditions of life: poverty, oppression, exclusion, illness, or even plain old distaste.
What I’m saying is, either Clash is as good a way to spend your time as any, or that everything is equally a waste of time. Make sure you enjoy wasting it.
The other day I was getting blood drawn. I hate needles, and to distract myself as usual I was reading a book, in this case Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia. As the second vial was drawn I hit a scene just a few pages from the end where a major character dies, and the nurse started wiggling the needle in my arm, asking me to open and close my fist. “Nothing’s coming out,” she said. “It was coming out fast before, and now it’s stopped.” After a few more nauseating wiggles she withdrew the needle and told me she’d have to try the other arm.
When the needle went in again, my forehead went damp and my hearing cotton-balled; from somewhere I heard a shrill distorted remix of a Beach Boys song, then I came to with my clothes soaked, a pair of latex-gloved hands supporting my head by the mandible, and a nurse fanning me, saying, “You’re waking up. You passed out. What’s your name?” My mouth replied, “Was I dead?”
They’d moved my book and glasses out of reach, and I was made to sit tight for half an hour, infantilized, sipping a cloying orange electrolyte solution and sitting in the phlebotomist’s high chair with my legs elevated. I got bored immediately, annoyed that my stupid vasovagal reflex was eating into the time I could have spent at home playing video games instead of writing. I asked my nurse if there was anything I was allowed to do; she said I could use my phone. With ash-gray hands I took out my phone and went to war.