Sword and Poker, the iPhone and the Addiction to Success

Gaia Co.’s Sword and Poker, a seemingly benign and innocent mixture of poker, RPG and Final Fantasy’s Triple Triad, is a pox on my productivity.

I simply must put time into it every day, further delving into the dungeon to stop Chaos, the god of something-or-other that is largely irrelevant to the game and my need to play.

Oh no! Mummies!

It’s a simple enough game – you place cards on a 9×9 board to make poker hands. These, in turn, do damage to your opponent. In the single player mode, you gain items that mitigate and cause damage, change the cards on the board, and even steal them from your opponent. All of these elements, combined with the slow dungeon crawl of killing monsters to reach the end of a floor, are all puzzle pieces that make up the overall experience of the grind – the need to gain more.

World of Warcraft’s success (though partially derivative of Everquest) distilled digital MSG in the form of the grind – leveling, gaining gear, gaining items, gaining something valuable that gave you noticeable improvements to your former/prior something. Be it your ability to shoot bigger and kill things in Borderlands, how much damage two pairs will do in Sword and Poker, or even how accurate your passes are in Fifa 10, the grind has become unavoidable.

It has, as a whole, seeped into the collective development consciousness as a way to keep people playing a game long past its initial shelf-life. Even the Xbox 360’s must-lauded achievement system ties into the deep-seated need for completion in gamers – to the point that egoist gamers can even turn their gamerscores into blogs. The Facebook RPG juggernaut Mafia Wars puts you on a constant treadmill of percentages and ‘jobs,’ frustrating you with ever-decreasing amounts of energy that can only be restored through time or seemingly trivial amounts of actual money.

While this all seems rather seedy, it might help one day to recognize the power of the progress bar, the percentage meter and people’s completionist natures. My former colleague Jon Blyth, an unreasonably talented writer, wrote some time ago about the thrill of a slowly growing progress bar, referring to it as “precious sense of progress” that he can easily get in video games, while this sense of progress is often much hazier (or non-existent) in the real world.

What if colleges added percentage meters towards your degree? Wouldn’t it be nice to know how much classes contributed outside the abstract concept of the credit system? Or how about banks encouraging people to save as little as $100 a month, with each contribution adding to the percentage meter? Take Withing’s tweeting scale – why not harness a Wifi-enabled scale to slowly grind out those extra pounds, towards an established weight-loss goal?

While a salesman may lament the idea of more quotas in his life, it might be possible to use these vague, ludic constructs to get us addicted to self-completion – being a better saver, a fitter human being, or even a better person.