Future Tense

Summoners War Is the Absolute Worst. Why Can’t I Stop Playing?

Can’t … stop … playing.

Summoners War (sic) is not a good video game. I should know; I play the free-to-play title from Com2uS daily, mindlessly clicking through repetitive scenarios for hours on end. I do this in spite of knowing that the game is irredeemable. I can offer no justifications for this behavior because I don’t think there are any. The game is tedious. It’s derivative. It’s dumb. It lacks substance. It’s uncreative. It’s a cynical machine designed to trick fools into parting with their hard-earned money. No one should ever play it. So why the heck can’t I stop playing this thing?

If you’re a gaming snob, like I am, then you already know that the sort of “game” you can get for free on a tablet or a smartphone is hardly even worthy of the name. The “gameplay” consists of poking dumbly at a tiny screen. The “story” is forgettable to the point that I can barely bring an outline of it to mind. If it stands out, it is for being even more packed with tedious minutiae than your average MMORPG. If gaining competency through the accumulation of useless knowledge is your bag, then there are certainly enough tiny, boring, mundane, verging-on-incomprehensible details to master as you advance in Summoners War.

If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry—unlike more popular freemium titles such as Clash of Clans or Plants vs. Zombies 2, no one else has either. But the basic outline will seem familiar if you’ve ever played Pokémon: Collect monsters, help them grow stronger, fight them against others. It’s not exactly breaking new ground.

Perhaps part of the appeal—though I don’t exactly mean appeal, per se, I think I really mean potential for compulsion-forming—is that there’s a built-in measure of automation in the game, allowing one to play it all the time. You can grind scenarios and level-up evolution fodder at work. You can farm for high-level runes or awakening materials while doing the dishes (sort of—be sure to have a dry towel at hand for wiping off your touch screen finger). You can even write an article for Slate while farming the Hall of Light for a rare inugami secret dungeon. In fact, you can do just about everything you normally do in a distracted, mediocre, half-aware way, all while obsessively replaying whichever level it is that you’re currently grinding. Do this for enough hours (or days, or even weeks in some cases), and you’ll eventually earn a reward. This will briefly satisfy you, and then you’ll forget about it completely in your hunt for the next absolutely useless must have thing you need for your advancement.

[Totally Unavoidable Interruption]

During the writing of this piece, the author actually did find the rare secret dungeon for a light inugami. It was therefore incumbent on the author to cease all non-SW activity for the duration of the hourlong secret dungeon period, in order to accumulate the 40 summoning pieces necessary to summon this important monster.

[Interruption Ends]

Anyone who’s taken an intro-level psych course will be familiar with the concept of intermittent reinforcement, whereby a reward for the desired behavior is given … occasionally. I’m no psychologist (just a former psych major), but I have a dim memory of cocaine-addicted rats endlessly pressing disconnected levers and ultimately starving to death. That image keeps surfacing as I write about the experience of participating in free-downloadable gaming. There are ancient levers in our brains, and once these have been activated they will channel our behavior in certain predictable directions. Even knowing what a cynical trap I’m in, I find myself still looking forward to bragging about the secret dungeon I found to my friend Drew next time I see him. I know Drew has already spent hundreds of dollars on the game and that there are countless other people like him who have been convinced that $30, $50, or $100 at a time was not too much to spend for a package that would increase their chances of summoning a rare and powerful monster. This isn’t just a harmless diversion for semi-unsuspecting fools like yours truly—it’s big business, and the way it works is quite insidious. Although you can play for free, indefinitely, and get quite far along, the temptation to spend money for an upgrade is repeatedly dangled in front of you. And while all of the content can be accessed, the highest echelons of player-vs.-player combat are practically unattainable for free-to-play customers.

Thus far, my frugality has kept me from wasting my money in the same cavalier way I’ve been wasting my time. But you, gentle reader, may not be so lucky. I must therefore encourage you, in the strongest possible terms, not to start playing Summoners War or any of the other games of its ilk. It’s too late for me, but perhaps my cautionary tale will help you save yourself.