Idle Threat: What Incremental Games Say about Our Relationship to WorkGames Features game design
I have a new job, though I’d be the first to admit it doesn’t look like one. Nevertheless, it’s important to me: I click and click at little squares until coins come out, and spend the coins until I get more squares. The job is a game called Garden Galaxy, and I’m its newest employee.
Garden Galaxy is an idle clicker that sets you in a zen garden floating in an indistinct, monochrome background. A mysterious pot in the center spits out a random object when you drop a coin in, either a piece of terrain, a plant, or furniture from a themed set. Every few seconds a little spirit pops up, ready to give you another coin if you click on them. In this way, you expand your garden by scrolling your mouse around, searching for glowing sprites, and then investing their drops into getting random items and redesigning your garden.
I know that games aren’t work, at least if you’re not explicitly playing them for money. And I know about the intricacies of simulating work. I’ve written about it.
But you don’t understand: I need to finish making my garden. This is why idle games (unlike Garden Galaxy) are often pay-to-win; if you’re impatient, like me, for the next thing to happen, that’s easy to take advantage of. It’s why I am currently replaying Stardew Valley for the millionth time but always bounce off of Animal Crossing after a few weeks. I don’t want to do 15 minutes of chores every day. I want to do as many chores as I want, when I want, and get a dopamine rush from seeing the results. In all these games I’m anything but idle, which makes a game like Garden Galaxy stop me in its tracks. The sounds, the aesthetic, even the gameplay tells me that by playing, I should be relaxing—so why does it feel like I’m doing something else?
The word idle entered English via proto-West Germanic, originally meaning empty, void, vain, or useless. In Old English, the meaning of idleness as “not employed or doing work” referred to human beings; in the 1900s, it became used as a verb for machines. So from the beginning, idleness has always been directly connected to work.
According to Anthony Pecarella, the first game to be described with the term idle was Progress Quest, a 2002 incremental RPG that played itself. In 2010 researcher Ian Bogost parodied the type of incremental game that was then-popular on Facebook and other social platforms with Cow Clicker. Two years Cookie Clicker became a minor sensation, with its creator calling it a “non-game.” All of these are games that progress themselves in the background, hence the name idle.
Generally, idle games tend to be about producing something. Cookie Clicker’s atmosphere resembles an assembly line, in which you pay to make the process of generating cookies easier and faster for yourself, eventually building banks and mines to do so. There have certainly been cozier idle games before; in 2020, I played a fair amount of Cats and Soup, in which you run a cafe staffed by cats who make different types of soup (yes, you guessed it already). But even in this aggressively cute atmosphere where your only responsibilities are making sure cats rest and get better at making soup, there’s still an improvement structure based on paying coins to improve statistics, unlock machines, and make more product. And of course this game includes microtransactions, so you can buy a mountain of virtual currency and watch as your soup pots grow and your cats become soup making machines.
Contrary to their name, idle games actually manufacture vigilance, to the systems you’re building and the game itself. That doesn’t necessarily mean that vigilance is unpleasant. Gabrielle De la Puente has written about the idle game Tap Tap Fish through the lens of addiction. The game provides a space for mindless play. “It felt very important to me at the time,” De la Puente writes. “I really, really liked watching all of the angel fish swimming about inside my phone.” While she acknowledges the potential dark side of this fascination, De la Puente frames the appeal of this game as having something to fix while keeping her hands busy.
De la Puente’s essay points towards a new genre that at first seems like it’s skirting the productive roots of the idle game for something more relaxing, and maybe more radical. The question of how a genre is tied up in capitalism has been discussed heavily in relation to city-building games. Terra Nil, which releases this week, is an answer to this that involves rewilding a landscape that’s been polluted. This impulse feels similarly reflected in Garden Galaxy, which leans so heavily away from the fluorescent visuals and grating sounds of an idle game like Cookie Clicker, or on the other hand the barren spreadsheet-like interfaces of Progress Quest or Melvor Idle. A similar game on itch, plant daddy, lets you build a garden in another tab, minimal clicks required.
This new-ish genre combines the nature sim and the decorating game with the idle clicker, making something slower and less flashy. But coming back to my original question, even if these kinds of idle games give us the relaxation they advertise, are they truly breaking with the idle game’s ethos of production? Tony Tulathimutte writes of pay to win mobile game Clash of Clans that “art, even bad art, is richer, deeper, more meaningful than what’s available under certain shitty conditions of life”. Wasting one’s time on these timed assembly lines of content isn’t the worst possible way to spend it, though just because something is preferable doesn’t mean it’s good. The nature sim idle game not only obscures the original genre’s production methods a little bit, but it coats those methods in something more relaxing and slow paced. Building a garden rather than a factory gestures at a more eco-conscious goal a la the slow-building or rewilding city game genres, but also one that refuses the mechanisms of work that other games in the genre embrace: getting to a place where the mechanisms you’ve built do everything for you. You will never have employees in Garden Galaxy; it’s just your hand, clicking, for eternity.
On the other hand, Mat Jones asks in his essay on free-to-play Let It Die “What even are videogames if not perverse, unintentional exercises in alienation?” Idle games situate us in patterns of production, and nature sim versions take that one step further by implying that the process of producing things that produce other things is relaxing. You’re focused mainly on development and accumulation, two processes that have been troubled in the city-building conversation. This is the darkness at the heart of my floating zen garden: at its base, Garden Galaxy is a (one-time payment based) gacha that is framed as a zen garden for relaxation.
To play any game, you need to do something to progress. You can walk around and look at flowers or talk with NPCs all day, but the majority of the time you have to wake up and participate in some system or another. The difference is that Garden Galaxy and games like it use loops that were created in much more work-centered, sometimes even predatory games. Can these more pleasant versions ever get out from under that shadow?
None of these questions takes away from the fun I had with Garden Galaxy. But as we’ve done with genres like the city builder and the strategy game, it’s worthwhile to examine the roots of the idle game and treat its descendents to the same examination, so we can reimagine how to really use games to trouble processes of work and production—and maybe, in the spirit of idleness’s earlier definition, truly relax.
Emily Price is a former intern at Paste and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine. She is also a PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.