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App Ed: Simulate Hard Work, Activate Your Zen

By running a virtual diner, I put myself at ease

I don’t really play games on my phone. Okay, that’s a lie — I play games on my phone all the time. But they aren’t game games. They’re simulation apps. I run a café in “My Café”; a farm-to-table restaurant in “Gourmet Ranch.” I used to run a tower in “Tiny Tower” (and then in “Tiny Tower Vegas”), a restaurant in “Restaurant Story” (and then again in “World Chef” and “Restaurant Town”) — that was all after I worked as a waitress in “Diner Dash” (and a baker in “Bakery Blitz” and “Weed Bakery”). At one point I owned a gym in “Dream Gym”; I was also a sushi chef in “Food Court Sushi Fever.”

These types of apps are called “time management games” — where the point is to allocate your resources (in Food Court Sushi Fever, for example, those would be rice, nori, fish) to complete level objectives (make the sushi, serve your customers, keep them happy). Sounds easy enough until you run out of wasabi and there are three angry customers waiting for their Spicy Tuna rolls!

This is nothing new for me. Way before iPhones existed, I spent many, may hours playing my all-time favorite PC game: Theme Hospital.

And it was great. You slowly built your very own hospital (the dream of every young girl!), leveling up equipment, cures and infrastructure. When you failed, people barfed all over your damn hospital — quite literally dying where they stood, their ghosts floating right up to heaven and your “success rate” plummeting. The YouTube description of the above play-through video reads: “You spend half your time repairing machines and building radiators.” Is that not what you do in a real hospital? Clearly, that is not what matters.

But I had no dreams of being a doctor or running a hospital. Nor do I now desire to manage a restaurant — which is good, since I am far from qualified to do either. But within the flurry of the games, I revel in completing specific tasks at specific times and in a specific order.

This is extremely calming.

I’d like to think my daily existence is a version of these time management games. But because I’m so bad at it—fumbling through life unsure of the next “task”, and how, exactly, to clear the “level” — there is rarely anything exciting about completing something on my personal to-do list. But clearing a table in My Café while simultaneously serving up another customer’s cup of mocha latte is like letting out a long sigh. I can play these games for hours when time permits; I’m having more fun pretending to be a waitress than any actual waitress could ever believe.

I’m not alone. Writer Laura Hudson perfectly describes the calm I feel while playing these games — she feels it too, writing in Boing Boing:

The reason I find these games soothing isn’t because they simulate stress, but because they simulate the idea that it is manageable. They create a sense of expertise and earned control over a what feels like an initially overwhelming set of tasks, a feeling that might be particularly appealing for working women, who disproportionately bear the burden of housework and child-rearing even when they have full-time jobs… That’s because at their core, time management games are fundamentally about that type of work: the careful, efficient balancing of the many small but essential day-to-day tasks necessary to make businesses run, especially ones that focus on communication, care and service.

Imagine being perfectly happy with your job. Hudson makes a wonderful point that it’s beyond satisfying to take a leap outside of your body and watch your character achieve “success” (whatever the game rewards them with in the game) doing exactly what they love: “Rather than advancing up the traditional ladder to a “superior” job, your character is simply rewarded more and more for improving at the work she’s doing — the work she says she loves — with more money, success and prestige.”

The joy of a time management game is that there is a way to successfully manage your time — you can actually “win” at this. In life, it’s an impossibility. But in Airport Scanner I can help people get to the flights on time; in Ramen Chain I can serve up piping hot bowls of ramen; in Tiny Auto Shop I can fix peoples’ cars. The worst thing that could happen? I zen myself into a snooze and wake up with my iPhone lying on my face.