JETPACK JOYRIDE and the essence of bullshit
JETPACK JOYRIDE is a videogame developed and published by Halfbrick Studios for the iPhone and iPad. The iPad version was played for the purposes of this review.
I hate the coins from the Super Mario games.
Even when they were born they are merely a vestige from the arcade days of endless gameplay. When Super Mario Bros. introduced the idea of a game with an ending, the coins were merely mending the gap from the concept of playing a something to beat the score. Now, despite the fact games have fully embraced the idea of chasing an end goal, those coins have never disappeared. As we talk about the benefits of applying game mechanics to our real lives, we started to recognize these coins as the most basic achievement unit. Coins are the atoms that form achievements.
The reason why I hate coins is that they are too easy to use. In both games and real life, coins can trivialize the concept of gamification. They blur the line and, instead of enhancing your experience, game mechanics become an end in itself. That’s the exact point gamification starts being bullshit.
Jetpack Joyride is a bullshit game. There is no better way to put it. Basically, it’s Canabalt without the elegant simplicity, without the context and meaning, without the balanced gameplay that encouraged the player to gain momentum… but with many things Canabalt did not need, like power ups and ranks and coins and crap. You play as a guy named Barry, who steals a jetpack and must run in an endless laboratory corridor until something finally blasts him. How do I know his name is Barry? The coins spell it out for some reason
Each time you play starts with Barry stealing the jetpack. If you press the screen, the jetpack ascends and you must use it to dodge the missiles, lasers and zappers that randomly litter the screen until you are hit. Also, you must always collect coins.
There are many coins; many, many coins – and no in-game justification for them whatsoever. There are also an endless list of challenges for you to fulfill, a slot machine that can give out gifts if you collect enough special tokens and a virtual store that sell other things for those coins you gathered. It’s a very robust system meant for rewarding you for playing the game. The problem is when you realize the only reason you play Jetpack Joyride is for those rewards and not for the game itself. The game itself isn’t rewarding.
The first telling sign is to realize all the incentive Halfbrick provided for you to play the game is alien to the world it has created. Skins, extra weapons… In Jetpack Joyride, these are all related to the rules of play rather than the playing itself.
Initially, I thought that, like Canabalt, the game was about getting as far as you can. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Actually, the game is about collecting coins and performing challenges such as “run through 200m” and “collect 1500 coins” (yeah). Jetpack Joyride makes getting as far as you can meaningless by itself and, consequentially, it also makes all the power-ups that helps you getting further away meaningless as well.
Recently, I was invited to join the team tasked with applying game mechanics on the e-commerce website I work for. It was how I learned the difference between gamification and bullshit gamification.
Gamification is all about motivation. We use it because we want someone to desperately desire to perform a given behavior and we want to trigger that behavior. The value of gamification is making people realize the intrinsic worth of said behavior. In order to do this, its mechanics target the top two levels of Marlow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs: esteem and self-actualization.
Esteem is triggered by respect, by saying “Woozers! It’s hard to for what you just did! Here is a badge that proves your deed to anyone in the planet”. The idea of giving out achievements is only valuable, in terms of gaining respect, if you can show off those achievements. In Jetpack Joyride, you can’t. Furthermore, in it, achievements are commodities. They also come by the truckload and are thus rendered meaningless.
Self actualization has to do with purpose and mastery. The value of gamification is to show you mastered something, e.g. your paladin leveled up and you are now a better paladin. What bullshit gamification – and Jetpack Joyride – does is forget about the player’s purpose. Rewarding you for playing 100 hours as a paladin is bullshit because nobody plays a game with that purpose. Unless we are talking about meta-rules, it’s also fair to assume nobody plays Super Mario to collect coins. Our purpose is to save the princess.
And what is Barry’s purpose? Is it to escape? To have a final joyride? No. The game wouldn’t have to mask itself with coins, tokens and whatnot were that the case. Barry’s meta-goal is to feed on game mechanics for as long as he can, while dragging us into it. It’s a purely behaviorist trap. An aesthetically delicious one, but a trap nonetheless.