Playing while you wait: how mobile gaming is taking over our free time

Killing time origins

When mobile games originated they were designed to occupy people’s attention for brief periods of time. A quick game of Snake here, an attempt at a high score in Tetris there, all in good fun and meant to entertain us when we were waiting in the doctor’s office, or for the next train.

Mobile gaming started as games with simple mechanics that could be played for a few minutes of entertainment.

These games were specifically built to meet the consumer’s need for micro-entertainment.  Players didn’t have time for an hour long session of gameplay, they didn’t want to beat the game, they just wanted to have something fun to play when they got bored.

Free time vs Play time

Prior to smartphones, mobile devices had a limited amount of memory for games, and the games featured on mobile devices were typically pre-installed. As mobile devices increased in storage size and gained access to app stores, players were able to search through thousands of games and download dozens onto their phones. The increase in games available on mobile devices now allows the players to bounce from one game to another in their “downtime,” adding up to hours unaccounted for, lost in gameplay.

While it is a great joy of mine to play games, mobile games have actually begun to disrupt my free time as opposed to being an expression of my gaming hobby. The problem that I have observed is that when I have free time and I commit it to sit-down gameplay, I go into it knowing that I will be playing a game for a few hours.  This time can be predicted, set aside, and accounted for.

However, since mobile games have been marketed as a way of utilizing our downtime for fun, I have neglected to plan for the time spent on this pastime. “It’s not play time, I was waiting for the bus, it’s not playtime I was just going to the restroom, it’s not playtime I was waiting for you to get dressed, it’s not playtime I was waiting for the movie to load.” On more than one occasion I would find myself on the couch and discover three hours had passed, and I had planned to go for a walk before seeing a push notification telling me my energy had been refilled and I could play another match.

All of these “non-playtime” moments come at the cost of time, with each lingering match taking just a bit longer than the downtime I had had, and eating into my time. Unaware of this, I had begun to lose a lot of my free time, much to the chagrin of those around me who were waiting for my attention while I was playing games.

Game designs creating downtime

Mobile games were designed to meet the needs of a gamer population who wanted something to do when they were bored. Yet, while playing one such game during a lull is enough to kill time, playing 5 or 6 such games ends up costing the player time beyond their original downtime.

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Mobile games today are complex, designed to pace the player’s progress, and keep them coming back.


These games condition people to think of each game as an insignificant amount of time, persuading players to neglect the cumulative impact on their free time.

Push notifications and the need to return

Mobile gaming has begun to creep into our lives outside of our playtime through the use of invasive push notifications. These persistent games want the players to return, to keep the community alive, to spend more money, to know that they can keep playing.

Games such as Clash Royale have a clever system of pacing the game by giving the player chests which take hours to unlock, creating pockets of time in between gameplay sessions. However, this leads to the players scheduling their days in ways that allow them to constantly come back to the game.

These messages distract the player from their current activity and invite them to create time for the game instead. Whereas before play sessions would end when player closed the game, games now demand the players’ attention incessantly.

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Even though Fallout Shelter is one of my favorite mobile games, the constant push notifications illustrate how aggressive games are becoming in trying to get the players to return.

These games end up dividing the player’s day into portions of gameplay and portions of downtime respective to the game, fragmenting the player’s attention. Instead of being entertainment for the player’s downtime, the games become the focus of the player’s day, with time spent out of the game being seen as downtime.

Balanced living through game time and free time

If we want to play our mobile games we should, but we must recognize their impact on our free time, and acknowledge that they are as much a time commitment to gaming as any other type of gaming. We must not use the brief pauses in time between our daily actions as excuses to binge game without acknowledging that time as playtime. Nor should we rely on these games every time we feel a little bit bored. Having a twitch reaction to our phones each time we feel like our attention isn’t being engaged is turning our mobile gameplay into a symptom of our bored minds and not a remedy for them.

This is not to say we cannot enjoy these games in our free time, but that mobile gaming is not a limited engagement. It is no longer an investment of a few minutes during a lull, but rather game time we accumulate throughout the day.  It is an activity that ends up having the same impact on our time as the hours we would have registered if we were sitting down to play on our consoles at home.

attention mobile gaming.jpg
Mobile gaming can be a fun and rewarding pastime, but it must be seen as the extension of video gaming as a hobby instead of a way of killing time.

I propose we take a fresh look at what mobile games mean to us and what game time means to us.  That we consider how much time we want to give to our gameplay and calculate it as time, without distinction between wait time or leisure time.  I propose that we forego the idea that games should be killers of time, in as much as we would describe reading a book in the same instances as an activity to kill time.  Games should be played mindfully, with a desire for great experiences, and incorporated into our schedules as the hobbies they are, not as distractions without benefit or consequence.

Have you ever found yourself pulling out your phone for a quick game, only to see the time slip away from you as you jump from game to gameDo you think of your mobile gaming time as game time or do you only think of your mobile game time as downtime? Have you ever had your mobile gaming called out as a bad habit by friends of family? Do you believe there is a healthy way to play games mindfully during our downtime and during our free time without having them negatively impact our schedules? I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please respond to the thread for this article, or talk to me through my email or any of my social media:, FacebookTwitter.

Play Professor is the blog of ludologist and video game journalist Andrew Mantilla. You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.



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