Clickers: Liberation of the mind
And the art of clicking
Hello, my name’s Hex and I spend a lot of time making videos for Youtube about the video games that I play using Linux. My channel can be found on Youtube via the cosmetic HexDSL.co.uk where you will find that I have played more games than the average human. I also like to bring people together, I do this currently with Discord where I run a server of around 300 members. I encourage non-toxic conversation and a tight community atmosphere wherever I can. All of this is built around my love of gaming, Linux and friendship.
I’m here today to talk about the sublime joy of clicker games 😮
What is a clicker?
Clickers is a genre of game that essentially plays itself. They are often referred to as ‘lazy games’ and are very popular on mobile devices. The general idea is to set them going, tweak, tinker and tab until they begin progressing on their own, then you can come back at regular intervals and spend the hard earned resources on more upgrades and extras that help you progress further, faster. Often they have no end and very little actual ‘point’ outside of the soothing action/reward cycle. Because of this they have mild addictive qualities that evil game designers (let’s be honest, we all know its the publishers) use to suck you into watching advertisements and making micro-transactions in order to get a tiny increase in progression.
Most people who consider themselves ‘serious’ gamers (that term is a blog rant in itself, if ever I find time) think that they are pointless and predatory. They are correct. Given that all games are essentially experiments in making button pressing fun, I’m hard pressed to understand the hate. Perhaps they are a little too brazen in their honesty. Clickers are enjoyable for a great many people. Those people usually know these games are pointless, but if a game is supposed to be entertainment, then they sure check out to me.
Video games as a coping mechanism
So far in my life I have been pretty lucky when it comes to the topic of mental health. It’s not been all fun and video games though. About 15 years ago I started slowly developing a romantic love of alcohol. It eventually became an issue for me for a brief time until my partner and I separated just before the birth of my daughter. Being someone who doesn’t believe in romantic second chances I never revisited the affair, but I do think about it from time to time, and when I do it’s like a song that I can’t forget. It takes quite some mental effort to make it pass. When this happens I indulge myself in anything that is repetitive and relaxing. For a while it was episodes of Seinfeld and Star Trek (the ones with Kirk) but for the last few years, it’s been clicker games. For a while I was somewhat ashamed at how much I have enjoyed these dives into the clickiest of clicky things, but now I think I have a new way of looking at them. I will share this with you now…
Clicker games are unique to gaming in that they are (aside from passive visual novels) the only form of gaming with an implicit promise to the player that they will not for any reason ever face a failure state. Not that clickers will just let you keep going with no barriers; there maybe a boss fight that has to be faced a few times before success, or a timed portion of gameplay that needs a little more attention — but “no game over”, no stop to the experience. While there are individual titles outside the genre that have no failure state, and there are titles within the genre that do have a failure state, the general rule is that a game advertised as a clicker will not require you have have skills to progress. Every other game genre will at the very least require interactions until the end. That’s not to say that skill won’t help you in a clicker, it’s just not required.
When I find myself in the mood for a distraction (needing one?) clickers have a few qulities that other games don’t (aside from the aforementioned lack of a failure state) let me list them for you now:
- I can leave them alone for as long as I want to. If I want a sandwich, I don’t need to press pause, or find a save spot, I walk away or just close the game without a second thought. It’s quite freeing.
- They can be interacted with for literally hours if I want to. I can keep messing about with the upgrades, click stuff, min-max stuff, tinker, update and fiddle all I want with absolutely no end.
- They are visually stimulating. Yes, really. Clickers are pretty rainbows of numbers and colours (at least the good ones are) that are like little fireworks that go off constantly. No other games provide as much stimulation for such little effort.
- They are cheap! clickers are mostly free, there are one or two paid ones but they are mostly cheap. That said, one of the best clickers (Clicker Heroes 2) is around £20, and don’t worry, I’ll be talking about the perils of micro-transactions soon.
Even with all this delicate praise you maybe wondering what I actually get out of all this clicking. Honestly, I don’t really understand it entirely myself but as far as I can work out, there is a little monster that lives in my brain; a simple creature that sleeps a lot. It occasionally rises from its slumber and wants feeding. When it is awake it eats mental cycles. The mental cycles that my brain produces are usually used by me, used to play video games, used to write things like this blog, to make Youtube videos, to do my actual job and to be a person in the world. When the monster is awake I have to free up some cycles to feed it. I have never been sure if this odd needful feeling is a leftover from my days of drinking and smoking or if its a psychological tick that I have always had. Since realising that this is a thing that happens and needs dealing with, I have spoken about it with other people and it would seem that its far more common to have these impulses or moods than I first thought.
Yes, but WHY clickers?
As I wrote that last paragraph (and I was quite proud of that paragraph) I realised that many people will point out that there are better things to do with my time than click. I agree. However, if I had decided that when this mood next strikes me I will go running (lol, no) or do a jigsaw puzzle (or literally any other pastime) then I would be missing the instantaneous progression/reward element. Clickers offer me a sense of progression that sates my mood monster and frees up those required cycles without actually getting in the way of my normal everyday life. I can open a clicker, fiddle with it until it’s progressing on its own, and then return to emails, actual video games, socialising, cooking, you know — normal life stuff, and it will have only taken a few seconds (or a little more) of my day, while still feeding my desire for progression and reward. Upon my return it will reward me with whatever resource the current clicker gives and my actual presence is not required for 99% of the actual gameplay.
They know what they are doing!
As you read the rest of this please try to remember that I am a proponent of the clicker as a genre. If I sound a little salty in the next few lines, it comes from a place of love. I used to (up until recently when I considered my motivations) hate clickers with furious gusto. I hated that I enjoyed them, I hated that they soothed me and I hated that they were the most played things on my Steam account. My feelings towards them were quite valid too, still are. Many of them slyly show you the carrot of increased progression for a few real world golden coins (they usually take dollars or euros), this works extra well because in a clicker all you care about is minor increases in progression. Every level, every upgrade is just a number game, make them get bigger slowly. But those attack numbers get bigger slightly faster than the enemies’ health bars. The entire loop appears to be helped by spending just a few Paypal clicks. Its a false economy though, the reality is, no matter how large the numbers are on the screen, the foes will always get bigger because clickers have no tangible end. Once you realise this, once you really get it, deep in your soul (trying to avoid the word grok here because everyone I know who uses it is an arsehole) the micro-transaction lure stops working. The reason to play the clickers is to play the clicker, all progression is irrelevant because playing it for the bliss of playing it is the point. You also start to realise that playing for the bliss of playing is the reason we play everything. All of the high scores, loot crates, leaderboards and level ups are just part of the overall experience that should be luxuriated in, not rushed. Playing clickers eventually leads to a mindset of just enjoying the thing you are doing and not rushing it. Its pointlessness helps to enlighten you, eventually. I feel like most of the gaming population of Earth is still not at this point though, hence the lure of the micro-transaction.
The profitability vs. entertainment puzzle
Generally, in gaming, the publishers want to maximise profits and the players want them to go away so they can play the game. In most genres this manifests in the form of unwanted purchase opportunities. In the clicker, however, they are free to milk the player dry — or at least attempt to — because on mobile, the false lure of ‘watch an advertisement, get some gems’ works. You can then spend the gems on ‘20 mins of damage +whatever’ and it seems like a good deal, most players eat those offers up to the point where many mobile device games will actually limit the number of advertisements that can be consumed. They always offer the store if you want to pay for those gems though. This is a scam, they are actually ‘showing’ the player the monetary value of the advertisement videos. If 100 gems is £1, and an advertisement gives you 10 gems, then the advertisement has saved you money — around £0.10. A moment’s thought shatters this illusion though because it is the publisher who defines the values of the rewards and they literally have an infinite amount of gems because they are an imagined resource. I don’t think its entirely unfair to make the comparison of a heroin dealer giving you the first hit for free.
The real shame here is that most of these players will not pay for a clicker, but then go on to spend £10, £20 maybe even more because they dripfeed the payment ‘opportunities’. The clickers I’ve played that front-load this cost have been substantially better in every way, it turns out that they can let you progress more naturally, shower you in ‘gems’ (or whatever the alternative currency/resources is) and introduce finer mechanics when they are not trying to hook you in for a pile of micro-transactions. For instance, the wonderful Lazy Galaxy is more interested in offering you variety than addictive gameplay, you spend part of your time harvesting resources. Because there is no in-game shop they don’t just consume the resources generated. You use your resource to buy ships for the second phase of the game, an actual clicker based RTS, that you can be pretty good at if you plan and interact with it. It is almost a real game. But because its a clicker you can wait, become overpowered, and then let the game play its own RTS phase — it unlocks actual choices.
Speaking of paid clickers, someone recently gifted me a copy of Clicker Heroes 2. This is a game that sells for around £22 on Steam, making it the most highly priced clicker that I know of (maybe, but I’ll come back to this point). Its an endless run/battle down an ever-evolving road, you even have skill, energy and magic pools to draw from and boss fights. As its a clicker, repetition is the only form of failure. If you don’t succeed in a timed battle you simply start again a little way back down the road, eventually you will get enough gold to upgrade a weapon and you will progress as a matter of inevitability. The astute among you may have realised that this gameplay loop could pretty much describe Diablo 3, Torchlight or Titan quest. Then with a few more tweaks it could even fit about 80% of RPG games. It’s a microcosm of the level up and retry gameplay design evident, if less visible, in all RPGs, just look at Skyrim. If you paid £50 for Diablo 3 at release and ever used that auction house, you may realise quite how close to a clicker it is. That’s not to say that I’m criticising Diablo 3, I enjoy it a great deal, most people who play it do, but with no skills and a blind click you will eventually progress in that game too. If you fail, you die and are set back a little. If this has occurred to me. I’m pretty sure it has occurred to professional game designers and publishers. They just hope everyone else doesn’t notice.
In the moment
The more you ponder what it is that you like about games, you will eventually start to see how totally irrelevant all of it is. It is not productive to click things no matter how much fun you are having. None of the pointless rewards you get in any game will keep you warm when you are old and grumpy. But do you really play games to produce, to create, invest? In reality I think the reason we play games is simple. We play games because there is a bliss in the experience, in the act of interacting and experiencing. In a clicker that joy is in an endless battle for imagined glories. In a first person shooter it’s to get those kills confirmed and feel like a badass. In an RPG its the story or the characters. In truth its simply the experience. To play. Everything from making a zen garden to kicking a ball or clicking a mouse, it’s all a narrative that we, as humans, need. There is joy in pointlessness and its beautiful.