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One Player’s Story Of Obsession Is Also A Salutary Lesson For Developers

When a player becomes an obsessive that’s good for the game developer, right? Maybe not. Maybe some level of restraint is needed in hooking players for a game’s long-term success. Kristen Rutherford tells her story with Japan Life.

In my time as a mobile game player, there are some games that stand out. But only one came to completely dominate my life. Japan Life or have-a-life, that was my choice and for a little while I went with the first option.

What was it that allowed the game to become an obsession? I’m sure a million game developers would like to know and although I can tell you the story, I’m not sure I know the whole answer myself.

But as you read this, remember one thing. At some point I realised Japan Life was taking over and so I stopped playing. Gave it up. Cold turkey. Moved on with my life. So maybe developers can go too far in designing addictive elements into a game.

I don’t remember who it was that told me I should try Japan Life… Okay, I’m totally lying - it was my friend Jessica, and all we do is talk about going to Tokyo and how much we love Japan. “You should try this game!” she said. “It’s super cute, you build a little Japanese town! If you sign up, tell me your town code and I will come and clean your temples for you!” So I downloaded it and started building streets and putting in buildings, and it was so pleasant and soothing. The train would pull in and tourists would come visit, and I started to ramp up and be able to buy nicer things.

But how did I go from, “Oh, I’ll give this a try!” to I NEED WI-FI STAT OR I DON’T GET MY DAILY BONUS AND I WON’T WIN THE GIANT END OF THE MONTH PRIZE?! Well, I really don’t know. At first, it was just soothing and pleasant. A nice brain break for me during my busy, busy days. Maybe it’s a god complex? After all, this was a space where I had complete aesthetic control. Rows and rows of sakura line this street - on this avenue we put evergreens. Restaurants belong next to the train station to accommodate weary travelers, and temples have their own dedicated board, with rows of flowing water and benches placed just so for quiet meditation. Everything in it’s beautiful place.

I think that’s part of it - the game was very pretty. That sounds so overly simple, but Occam’s razor right? Sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer.  I mean, think about Monument Valley - what a stunningly gorgeous game. It’s just 3D puzzles, but the visuals were just so breathtaking, you were drawn in immediately. I’m not saying my town was devastatingly beautiful to an outsider, but it was to ME. We feed our bodies, and sometimes we have to feed our eyes, our brains, and our imaginations with a banquet of beauty - which in this case, is in the eye of the beholder.

I also loved the social aspect of it - getting town codes and going down my friends-list and cleaning temples or visiting their villages one by one. Looking at other people’s towns was like peeking into someone’s psyche in terms of how they designed it. You could see where some people were making a town and some people were just playing a game. I went beyond just trying to convince friends they should play - I started lurking on the FB page looking for random fans posting town codes and promising to send tourists to you too. Punctuated with a ^_^ of course!

But as I really delve deeper into what the hook was - it drew me in for beauty, addressed my control issues and mild OCD, then kept me by offering daily rewards, as well as daily games and features that stayed current with the passing holidays or seasons. By logging in every day, I got a free chance to play a game where I could win fun things to add to my town - items that would never return after a certain time period. You snooze, you lose... the chance to win a sakura monchichi, or whatever. I’m making that up. I think. It’s all a blur. And on top of that, a daily log-in rewarded me with a mark on a glittery calendar that promised a giant reward at the end of the month IF I made sure to log-in every day. Hence, my driving around a small town in the Northern United States searching for unprotected wi-fi -- we were visiting family near Christmas, and I had a giant Santa’s sleigh thing that I NEEDED for my town square. 

I played this game on my iPad. (It was available for the phone, but I liked the way this particular game looked on the iPad.) When it comes to mobile games, I just don’t have the time to play a game that requires me to be engaged and involved with it for a certain amount of time. I need to be able to hop out at any time and take care of things and then pop back out if something else comes up, and not suffer any consequences within the game. I loved that even if I didn’t have time for town maintenance or redesign, I could pop in for less than a minute and get my daily reward and credit for logging in, and then go on my merry way.

Don’t you love how cavalier I am about that? “Oh, I loved how i could just pop in and out!” HA HA HA AS IF. Eventually I had to delete Japan Life off of my device because I was so sucked into it that I thought maybe it would be better if I didn’t have that temptation around. But I can’t drive down a street full of flowering trees without thinking about who may have lovingly placed them there… and I still think about the people that lived in my town, and hope they are utilizing the benches in the gardens, and don’t mind how dirty the temples are.


Kristen Rutherford is an American writer, actress and inveterate game player. She may be best known for her work as the head writer for The Nerdist on BBC America but she was also the player in Spil Games’ Unsung Heroes roundtable discussion at Casual Connect San Francisco. This was when she first started thinking about the effect Japan Life had had on her life.

Japan Life was created by Nubee. Neither Spil Games, nor Kristen Rutherford has any connection to Japan Life other than, you know, the game taking over her life.

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