The buttons in Pocket Planes feel so good to push. They are bright and cheerful. They make amazing things happen. The miracle of flight, the purchase of land, the glorious sound of clinking coins.
Pocket Planes released on a Thursday night. I was excited to see what the people who brought us Tiny Tower would do to convince us to pull out our iPhones and obsess over little details at weird, inopportune times. Like Tiny Tower, Pocket Planes is geared around the constant supervision of an ever-expanding enterprise. This time, instead of an apartment building that can only build upwards, we can take our enterprise to any major city on the globe. The possibilities are many; but on that Thursday night, I was stuck moving small planes between Detroit, Cincinnati, and Toronto.
The hook of Pocket Planes is possibility: the ability to buy larger planes that can hold more freight and more passengers, and the inevitable purchase of a network of airlines that stretch across the earth. “Soon,” I told myself, “I can fly people around the WORLD.” At least, that was the brief thought I had on that Thursday night before I went to sleep.
Friday and Saturday, I set out to accomplish that dream. I enabled notifications so whenever it was time to send another plane somewhere, I would get a little ding – the kind you hear when the fasten seatbelt light comes on in an airplane. It is a wonderfully unobtrusive sound, and for the first few days it was music to my ears. Another chance to press those bright, cheerful buttons! More face time with the cute pixel people who ride on the planes! And a chance to get even closer to the goal of worldwide airline domination.
These were good things, because I needed a distraction building up to that Sunday. Father’s Day. Earlier in March, my dad passed away from cancer. I wasn’t scrambling on Friday to mail my dad a card. I wasn’t considering buying him a Roku with a Netflix subscription (a gift I had considered several years in a row but never pulled the trigger on – I wish I had, he would have loved it). So I played some Pocket Planes. It was fun. I was going places!
I found myself building airports further south, toward Atlanta: the closest airport to my hometown in Alabama.
Sunday, I woke up and went to church. I wished my friends with kids a Happy Father’s Day and I meant it. I allowed myself to be joyful. I was thankful for many things in those few hours at church: friends, grace, life. I spent the day with my girlfriend – we did fun things, and we spent some time talking about how it felt. It felt fine. But I was pensive, and melancholy. I think the way I felt was normal.
Here are some things we did that day: we ate lunch with dear friends, we went shopping, we went to see a movie, we watched some Downton Abbey. I took my phone out of my pocket a few times, in the uncomfortable downtime, and tapped the Pocket Planes icon. It started up, and I closed it immediately. My phone went back into my pocket, and I allowed myself some time for basic sadness. The feeling was, I told myself, normal.
You could say that day broke me of my Pocket Planes habit. It quashed any ambitions I had to build a network of airlines across the world. The tiny people meant nothing to me. I didn’t care about getting a bigger plane.
Monday I tried to play it again, but every time I brought up the title screen and began to click around, I felt sick to my stomach. I am being literal: I felt a physical sensation as a result of starting an iPhone game.
I never got around to building that airport in Atlanta.
This is what I think happened: the game mattered, for those three days. It seemed neat – and it seemed like it would be even neater if I could expand my horizons within the context of the game. I pressed lots of different on-screen buttons to make those horizons expand as fast as possible. Then, I spent a day meditating on real life and real death. I spent a day thinking of what could have been. I thought of different kinds of regrets. Time lost.
I haven’t lost interest in games. I appreciate play – that elusive concept that involves the kind of suspension of disbelief that raises artificial stakes for the sake of exploring concepts, practicing skills, and interacting with people. Even “fun” is enough for me. But Pocket Planes is merely a goal generator. It provides me with plenty of plausible goals, and the means to achieve them. It is glad to help me feel rewarded for pulling off an impressive series of airline purchases. But that’s where Pocket Planes begins and ends.
I’ve spent much of my life chasing arbitrary goals for the sake of it. But the times I remember most vividly involve play, not goals.
I remember playing Combat on the Atari 2600 with my Dad one holiday season. I was maybe five or six. We lay on the shag carpet, rested on our elbows, and used the clunky joysticks to guide our sluggish tanks around an uninspired maze. We shot bullets that ricocheted off of walls. When we managed to hit one another’s tanks, they would spin wildly and reset. “Ha, you’re dead!” I would say. And we’d start again.
I still don’t remember who won.
About the Author:
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and a regular columnist at Unwinnable.
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