Idle games – also known as incremental games, clicker games, or clicking games – are videogames whose ‘gameplay’ involves performing simple actions, such as clicking, repeatedly in order to gain a measure of progress. This usually takes the form of a fictional currency. You play a little, you accumulate a little. Then, after a while, you can use your currency to purchase upgrades that automatically garner more currency for you. You can then spend this to garner more currency, faster and faster. That’s the game.

So far, so futile? Just you wait. This is essentially about supervising a computer while it plays a game for you. And, if you want to do it properly – if you’re interested beyond just clicking and waiting – the step you’ll eventually take is outsourcing the mechanics of your supervision to other pieces of software, to ensure that the computer you’re watching is doing as well as possible.

“Soon, you’ll be learning the names of numbers only astrophysicists usually worry about: undecillions, duodecillions, tredecillions.”

First of all, you need to decide whether you’re going to get drawn into the game or give up. Do sparse options, crude graphics, and ceaselessly ascending numbers scratch a psychological itch, or bore you senseless?

Let’s assume you’re playing. If clicking is involved to any substantial extent, you’ll want to install an auto-clicker program: something to get your mouse clicking a frightening number of times per second automatically without the paralyzing pain of trying to do this by hand.

Then, bit by bit, you’re likely to enter the community of discussion around each idle game. Beyond a certain point of popularity this will run to tens of thousands of posts – sub-Reddits, forums, interlaced comments on Flash gaming sites. This will center on strategy, which means math. And this in turn will mean enthusiastic/dedicated/addicted members of said community writing their own scripts and miniature programs, into which you can input your game’s save data. The optimum order for upgrades, clicks and decisions will be hotly debated, with spreadsheets and equational inferences to match.

Eventually, if you become an advanced enough player, you may download and deploy a program automatically to take optimal decisions for you – or write one yourself. The limited interaction and clicking of the game will evaporate entirely into meta-play. All that is left will be watching, waiting, tinkering – and perhaps badgering the game’s designer for updated mechanics. By this stage, you may well be ‘playing’ several such games in parallel, which is to say that you won’t actually be playing anything at all, but will be watching a good number of stats with an eerie eagerness considering the absence of risk, randomness, interaction or active skill – all traditionally considered part of gaming’s appeal.

Clicker Heroes

Clicker Heroes is currently the 18th most played game on Steam. It used to be 6th.

Does this sound bonkers? In fact, it’s most of the fun. There’s something serene about watching a game play itself. Especially if you’ve set up a mod that will play it perfectly, upgrading everything at just the right moment. Your screen pulses with passive data telling in incremental detail how much better your performance is getting every moment. Forever. Soon, you’ll be learning the names of numbers only astrophysicists usually worry about: undecillions, duodecillions, tredecillions.

It all cleaves pretty closely to the cliché of what male computer scientists get up to if you let them: a geek apotheosis engineered to eat itself. Create a proposition that’s by definition entirely amenable to elaborate mathematical analysis and optimization, then let your community get the hell on with optimizing. Yet this is by some measures the most significant new genre of games to arrive in the last few years, not to mention a bone fide global phenomenon. Millions upon millions of people are playing idle games every day. Why?

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“It’s 2016 and automation is a part of everyday life: even gamers are automating themselves out of an occupation.”

Novelty is prized amongst idle gamers – intricate variations on the basic formulae – but what’s desirable above all is a certain reasonableness when it comes to pacing and progress. Waiting 24 hours to get over a particular ‘hump’ in progression is acceptable – these are idle games, after all – but finding that you have nothing mathematically meaningful to do beyond log in once a week, click once and then go back to waiting is against the spirit of meaningful idling.

There has to be both waiting and stuff to do: a version of the central challenge faced by games designers of all stripes, given the rate at which millions of players versus tens of creators can consume content. In fact, you could think of idle games as an extraordinarily cunning technique for dealing with the way that computer games get played in an internet age. Content created by the few gets used up by the many at an exponentially faster rate than it can be made. In even the biggest budget of video game worlds, every secret is soon going to be found and revealed, every inch of an in-game mechanic or environment explored. And the greater your game’s success, the more relentless the hunger for novelty and updates and patches and fixes becomes. A vast MMO like World of Warcraft is, among other things, an ongoing customer service and maintenance nightmare, with attempts to keep the community happily engaged a kind of game design hell that can lead to burnout.

How to handle this mix? Multiplayer modes, downloadable content, procedural mechanics, simplification, user-generated content: titles like Minecraft have supremely trodden this route. But there’s another, darker course. Ditch the time-consuming business of crafting fine graphics, animations, characters, controls, plots, settings. Ditch the quest for innovative mechanics and inspirations. Instead of all that consuming, creative stuff, let there be numbers! And almost nothing else.

Let there be one central number for players to care about – pure quantity as protagonist – and then a host of investments for this heroically accumulating quantity to be poured into. The only ultimate property of these investments will be to increase the rate of increase of that one quantity you care so much about. If you’re feeling ambitious, make people care about a couple of numbers. Maybe give them cute graphics, a loosely medieval or fantasy vibe. But don’t feel like you need to. One of the best and smartest idle games around, Trimps, is as about as attractive as a spreadsheet.

Cookie Clicker

If you think that’s a lot o fcookies, you haven’t played enough Cookie Clicker.

It’s strange. It’s beautiful. It works. I’m playing three of these damn games – Cookie Clicker, Clicker Heroes, and Realm Grinder – in other windows of my browser literally while I am typing this sentence. My wife walked into my ‘study’ (actually, a bedroom with no bed and a massive heap of boxes half-filling it) at one point yesterday and saw a graphic of a vast, hovering chocolate chip cookie on my screen flanked by the evidence of my ever-increasing baked-goods wealth. I was up to about five quadrillion cookies at that point; by the standards of anyone who knows anything about Cookie Clicker, so few as to be laughable. “It’s just so sad,” she said. “With everything else that’s going on, to see you clicking that cookie.”

Did I mention we have two young children and things are currently a bit crazy at home? I kept playing the game as she spoke. Or rather, I kept watching it play itself, my mouse auto-clicking approximately 64 times per second. It’s 2016 and automation is a part of everyday life: even gamers are automating themselves out of an occupation.

What I didn’t say to her, but could have done, is that the fact that we have two young children (and things are currently a bit crazy at home) only serves to enhance the appeal of Cookie Clicker. Annihilating a little time into numerical flow is a pretty pure form of relaxation. And if you’re sleep-deprived to the point where reaction-based gaming feels like torture, it’s nice simply to let the machine get on with it.

“Let there be one central number for players to care about – pure quantity as protagonist.”

Gamblers talk about entering ‘the zone’, meaning the place where everything else in their lives simply drifts away and they themselves become something like a machine: going through the ritual flow of motions until all their money is gone, desperately scraping together enough money to begin again, and then duly doing so. Money isn’t the point. It’s just a way into the zone.

Idle games offer a mirror image of this. You’re also in a numerical zone where flow, of a certain kind, applies. But when you’re playing, you aren’t the punter – you’re the casino. You can’t lose. The only question is how much and how fast you win. Playing an idle game is like watching out through the screen of a fruit machine at someone else losing their money, endlessly, hopelessly, faster and faster. You can log on or log off any time you like, assured of incremental infinite progress. Or you can sit back and watch the numbers tick up. Either way, all it costs is time.

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The endpoint, usually, is boredom, exhaustion, moving on. Even an idle game can only sustain interest so long. Even it can only have so much content, in the form of upgrades, features, things to purchase and unlock. Once the rate of increase stops increasing – or you hit too long a hump between purchases and shifts of pace – you’re bumping up against the edges of the game’s appeal. Your time, not your money, has been spent. Wasted, even, depending on how self-critical you’re feeling.

And this, it turns out, is what was really at stake all along. Not arbitrary numbers, lashed towards infinity, but a single precious quantity that comes with the strictest limitations: time. Your time, human time – time idled away. Because every idle game is also a waiting game, in the strictest sense: your second, minutes, hours, and days ticking precisely past as you creep towards new upgrades, greater powers, faster rates of acceleration. Time, that one substance which all the technology in the world cannot conjure a single particle more. The ultimate limiting factor of the digital age’s suffusion.

Realm Grinder

Realm Grinder is about as aesthetically minimal as they get.

When you first begin to play an idle game, the upgrades and options unlock so fast that you barely notice there’s time involved. Wait one second, wait two seconds, and you can afford a new kind of clicker, a new building, a new enhancement that gifts you still greater rates of increase. Then things slow down. You wait a minute, two minutes, between purchases. You wait hours. Eventually, days may elapse between meaningful actions.

“The endpoint, usually, is boredom, exhaustion, moving on.”

Without the wait, there is no game. And – here’s the trick – if you cannot bear to pause your progress for too long, you may be permitted to deploy a dollop of actual cash to make time pass faster. You can buy your way into the future of that number you care about so much. For those who cannot afford it, or who possess superhuman patience, there is waiting. For those who can afford it, or who can’t afford it but are sufficiently entranced to pay anyway, there is rapid access to the higher tiers of in-game achievement.

In a sense, this is the model and the moral of much modern media. Those who can pay enough float through a realm of ad-free content-on-demand. Those who cannot afford it, or who can’t bear to part with hard-earned cash, have a price extracted instead in time and attention: adverts, waiting, thumb-twiddling, popups, surveys-for-access. The cost is a digital garbage patch of junk time, junk content, junk attention, turning their idle moments and glancing eyeballs into income.

Make them wait, that’s the motto. Make them all wait. A few will pay to skip the queue; others will let you sell them while they stand. Just so long as there’s a queue – and enough waiting, wasted human time to convince us we care.