It must be around 1 a.m. when I finally snap the lid shut on my 3DS. I snuff out the colorful collection of light beaming from the LED screen, and the room goes dark.
I don't know what had brought on the collection of heavy, stressful, and worried thoughts to my mind that night. All I know is that I had chosen instead to grab my 3DS, pop the lid, and start chipping away at dirt and rock. Perhaps it was the length of my unemployment getting to me. Maybe it was the fact that my car won't pass inspection unless I drop a brick of cash on it. Then again, maybe it was recent news about my family's drama getting exponentially worse. Somewhere a straw was placed upon the camel's back of my brain, causing it to split in half and just drown me in a suffocating panic about my future. This also tends to be the moment that I begin to consider my ever-decreasing longevity, the afterlife, and my faith.
I'd snagged my 3DS free from its cradle at that moment, dropping myself into the recently purchased Steamworld Dig. It was only nine bucks, so it was one expense I wasn't feeling guilty about in light of my car's costly demands.
As I close the DS, I marvel at how fast an hour had flown by while I performed some awfully monotonous and repetitive tasks, mining beneath a ghost of a robot town. It's not necessarily the sort of game I go for. There was no real narrative to speak of, no clever combination of mechanics, and there really weren't any levels. You simply chip away at the dirt, looking for minerals and materials that you can sell back in town in order to purchase new upgrades that make digging easier.
It's actually a pretty ingenious system, similar to one I had witnessed in a game my roommate played on his OUYA called Knightmare Tower. In fact, this sort of reward system is a commonly discussed topic. A constant cycle of rewards and progression systems will keep a player coming back, and potentially even addicted.
In Steamworld Dig, the process is simple: Enter the mine, fill your inventory by digging for materials, return to the surface, sell your findings, and purchase upgrades that allow you to do more and do it all more easily. As you dig deeper, your approach will change as you unlock upgrades and as creatures start to appear. The result is that the player is constantly being barraged by modifications that make the job of earning money easier and more convenient, even as the game is actually becoming more challenging. All it takes is fifteen or so minutes for a hazardous new foe to become just another minor obstacle — a small hurdle between you and that sweet glittering rock in the dirt.
If any one element of the reward/challenge system were to fail, the entire system would cave in on itself. If you didn't give enough money to purchase at least one upgrade upon returning to the surface, then the player would feel as if the game were being stingy with cash. If the upgrades didn't provide a visible or metaphysical change, then the player would likely not be so eager to drop cash on the next improvement. If the game didn't provide a variety of ways to make travel from the deeper levels to the surface easy, then the cycle of diving and returning would become tedious.
The simple mechanics hold the player's attention so tightly that they'll likely never notice how polished the experience is, even over a five-hour dive into the dirt. The cycle of finding treasure, earning rewards and buying progression is one that must be fine-tuned in order to trigger just the right response. It is the essence of video games as escapism, by bringing the brain back for that engaged and euphoric feeling of constant improvement in a short period of time. Effort is rewarded even as a new challenge is revealed, and thus we are encouraged to return again and again as we overcome increasing odds and achieve greater gain.
Suddenly game addiction makes a bit more sense to me. It is not unlike the feeling you might get from winning a simple game of pool, darts, or air hockey, and it's not unrelated to some more explicitly chemically-induced highs. You feel complete, whole, as if you can take on the world. Once the game has been put aside, once the effect wears off, there's just ... well, everything else.
Life is not a series of progressions and rewards systems. If I go to the fitness center every day and work my ass off, there is no guarantee I'll see visible returns on investment. If I complete a deadline on time at work, there's no upgrade available to make the next project easier or to guarantee more difficult yet more rewarding work. Sure, there are real-world gains, such as personal experience and knowledge, or a promotion, but these are subtle; they take time. With them come worry, concern and external pressures. They can be outweighed by the sudden increase in responsibility, and they often don't follow as direct results of our own actions and choices.
I complete Steamworld Dig the next morning. Of course I do. It is the first conscious thought I have after realizing I am no longer asleep. "I'm going to play more Steamworld Dig," I tell myself, ignoring the fact that I should be getting a shower. For the time being, my worries of the previous night, about where I'm at in life — why I suddenly feel as if the road is dropping from beneath me — those thoughts are gone.
The reality, however, is still there. I can dig as deep into this or any game as I want, but life will be waiting for me back up on the surface. And if I dig too deep, and I may find myself unable to climb back out.