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Some thoughts on ‘snacking’

By on July 3, 2014
Creative Commons image shared by Ianare on Wikimedia
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This is an extract from Zoya Street’s new book Delay: Paying Attention to Energy Mechanics. You can get it at rupazero.com

In March 2006, David Gosen had spent a year as acting CEO of a mobile games studio called I-Play. Before that, he’d been managing director of Nintendo Europe. In an interview with Gamasutra, he explained how he felt mobile games were different to the console games he had been working on before. ‘I think mobile is about snacking,’ he said, ‘whereas console […] is a three course meal.’

The idea caught on quickly. Three months later, he was quoted in a white paper by Juniper Research, an analysis firm that provides consultancy services to most of the major telecommunications companies around the world. Snacking became an oft-repeated idea in the mobile games industry, and later in online social gaming as well.

Some developers have understood the idea to mean that the software they produce is low-value and unsatisfying; they aspire to make something that they can charge the price of a meal for, rather than only being able to charge the price of a snack. In another Gamasutra interview, Nathan Vella of Toronto-based Capybara games said he wanted to make ‘appetiser games’.

‘Some games, we’ll call them ‘meal games’, leave you full when you finish playing them. A game like Flower leaves me feeling so satisfied that I don’t really want to play anything else after. Other games are more like snacks, that you play in short bursts around meal games… meal games are comfortably priced at $10 and up, and snack games are priced at five dollars or less. We wanted Critter Crunch in-between the two.’

Others see snacking differently. It’s not about how satisfying an experience is, but the role it plays in a user’s life. Publishing a casual game is not like selling a single bar of chocolate; it’s more like managing the Dairy Milk brand. To be a snack game is to be the thing that people routinely return to whenever they need a pick-me-up. It doesn’t even mean that every play session will necessarily be short; only that you can get a restorative experience of some sort from the game within a couple of minutes.

‘You can have an equally long play session on each platform,’ wrote consultant Nicholas Lovell in 2012, ‘It is about how you motivate the player to return to your game. A mobile player will happily snack for a 30-second experience while waiting for a TV show to start, but if you design an immersive experience, he might stay playing for an hour.’

The use of the term ‘snacking’ outside of the context of food is also seen in social psychology studies of how people behave when they feel lonely or rejected. ‘Social snacking’ describes restorative activities that we do at regular intervals throughout the day to remind us of our friends; rereading emails or text messages, daydreaming or reminiscing about people we care about, or updating our statuses on social media sites. Research has found that social snacking makes us feel less lonely, and helps us to heal after being rejected. People who worry about whether they belong engage in more social snacking behaviour than people who don’t much care about their social standing.

Casual games could be restorative in different ways; while many social games function as social snacking activities, casual games with a weaker social aspect might restore something else; self-esteem perhaps, and certainly attention. By taking a little bit of time out at different points of the day to play a little bit of a mobile game, we get a little bit of something we need. Not enough to nourish us, but enough to keep us going.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at Pocketgamer.biz and The Borderhouse.