I still love Hero Academy from a design standpoint, and nothing will undo all the fun and fascination I had with it in 2012. I bagged the 40-wins achievement towards the end of that year and I still feel good about it. Once iOS-exclusive, the title now makes itself available across all significant desktop and mobile platforms, and I continue to encourage folks interested in the overlap of tabletop and digital games to check it out, for all the reasons I wrote about back then.
I last month dipped back into it and ended with only disappointment, though — not with the work itself, but with my own failure to see a single game through. I happily launched myself into four simultaneous games, much as I would have a couple of years ago. After a flurry of initial activity in each, though, I allowed all to lapse into default over the holidays. By not registering any moves during the 14-day limit, I automatically and tacitly sent my friends home with rather toothless victories.
Time was I loved games that moved at the pace of correspondence, taking days or weeks to play out, but I don’t believe it true any longer. I’d like to try examining why this may have come about.
In this most recent bout of play, as with all those before it, whenever my iPad chirped that my turn had come up in a Hero Academy game I’d of course cease whatever activity I had in front of me to grab the tablet. I had to immediately see which of my friends had just advanced our game, witness what dastardly move they had just made, and commence plotting a countermove. (More to the point: commence experimenting with a variety of countermoves, using Hero Academy’s brilliant test-and-rewind turn system.) This would happen several times per day, The rest of my life called, though, so after a couple days of this, I resolved to dismiss the turn-notification wall and get back to work.
And then the problem arose: having had my fill of Hero Academy fun for a while — even though I didn’t see any games to completion — I just didn’t feel like playing it again before my turn-timers expired. Taking a turn would have felt like a chore, and I felt I had more interesting or pressing things I could accomplish in the time it would have taken me to recontextualize myself, (over-)analyze the situation, and finally register a fresh move. Let alone do so across all four games, let alone do it again and again until the games finally ended.
My procrastination paid off with a great deal of travel, writing, and freelance work accomplished over those two weeks. By the time I may have been in the mood to fire the game up again, it was too late. But while I felt sorry for disappointing my friends with the unfulfilling games, I didn’t feel like I’d lost, even though the rules said I had. I rather felt like I ended up quite a bit ahead of the game, through all the stuff I’d done by not playing.
Well! That seems rather problematic, doesn’t it?
Outside of proving plainly unfair to the friends who’d invested time and attention into playing their best with me, only to see me wander away, this attitude reveals the core flaw in my approach. My point of view makes sense only if I view a game as part of my life, continuously competing for time with various other activities and responsibilities. I hadn’t been treating Hero Academy in terms of sane play sessions, with an allotment of time and focus tucked away securely in its Huizingan “magic circle”; I had instead allowed myself to breach its own borders and flow into the rest of my life, so I never quite felt like I wasn’t playing, no matter my present activity. In the back of my head, while I washed dishes or took pictures from airplane windows or even played other games, I felt either guilty about drawing out my turn while my poor friends stood by waiting, or irritated that the thing hadn’t ended yet. No wonder that having a list of real-life accomplishments to point to in reply to auto-lose notifications felt like a vindication!
That’s all a bit broken. In retrospect it doesn’t surprise me, given the self-knowledge I’ve already earned of my tendencies to allow certain sorts of games to mix poorly with my life. Before now, though, it hadn’t occurred to me that this attribute of my personality can have negative impact when exposed to games quite more intellectually and socially stimulating than the base and cynical XP-grinds that I have earlier forsworn. I certainly do not believe that Hero Academy was designed to addict the way that Torchlight et al are; I find, rather, my maladaption to it entirely subjective. Perhaps an allergy would provide a better metaphor! I wish I could enjoy Hero Academy like I did when I was younger, but alas, now it just just makes me break out all over…
I love online gaming as much as ever, but from now on I’ll do my best to focus on games that play out now, with downtime — for games that feature downtime at all — no longer than that found at a live tabletop session. I’ve had some great fun lately with Playdek’s excellent Lords of Waterdeep adaptation, for one, but insisting on setting its chess-clock-style timer to 30 minutes, meaning that a two-player game will always end within one hour.
And there remains my dalliance with Emma, my proposed “borderless matchmaker” that, unlike the interesting but ultimately gone-nowhere Planbeast, would focus only on online game sessions to be played out immediately, capitalizing on the instigating player’s current desire to play rather than the belief that they’ll be just as willing to have a go at some point in the future — something I no longer believe true about myself. In the spirit of personal time-awareness, I hope to return to further developing this proposal after the resolution of certain other responsibilities I find myself holding.