When I first saw Magikarp Jump appear in the Google Play store, I assumed it was a Pokémon-themed version of Flappy Bird, the much maligned 2013 mobile game where you steer a 2D bird through a series of punishing openings. Although panned by players and critics alike, I really enjoyed Flappy Bird for what it was—a nihilistic piece of found art with an Atari sensibility—and loved the idea of pushing its absurd aesthetics onto the massive Pokémon fanbase. But that’s not what Magikarp Jump is at all. Just like the classic handheld games, the free-to-play mobile title begins with a plucky youth learning the ropes of Pokémon training from a wise old authority figure—the blasé Mayor Karp in this case. Only instead of catching pocket monsters in the wild, the player is tasked with defeating eight gyms where people compete to see whose Magikarp can leap the highest. After reeling in a fresh Magikarp from the local pond, the game dumps you into a glorified fish bowl where you lazily tap food pellets to help your newfound Pokémon grow big and strong—and presumably better at jumping. You train your Magikarp by watching short vignettes of your beast tackling a punching bag or headbutting a tree—mildly amusing the first time and legit painful by the tenth or hundredth. When it’s time to battle your fellow trainers, you head to the gym, line up in front of the crowd, and press a large red button that reads “Magikarp! Jump!” Then, you watch a short animation and see who jumped higher based on a simple formula that adds points scored from training and eating with other brief, random events. You watch and you watch and you tap and you tap, and after thirty minutes of what I assumed was an extremely drawn out tutorial, I asked myself: when does the actual game begin?
And then it hit me. This is the game. I’ve already seen Magikarp Jump in its entirety.
Sure, there are a few more mechanics to master. I can befriend other Pokémon who help me grow even faster. I add decorations to my fish bowl to do the same. I retire my Magikarp and fish out new ones whenever my current critter reaches its maximum potential. I can even spend real world money to speed up the train-compete-retire loop. But don’t be fooled. Within fifteen minutes, players essentially see everything Magikarp Jump has to offer. However, it’s still an extremely long game, but only because the Pokémon Company enforces long cooldown periods on training and other ways to max out the Magikarp. The road to defeating the eight gyms is long and tedious, but not difficult. All I have to do is wait out timers or pay to finish up early.
Magikarp Jump is indifferent to my existence. I don’t play it so much as it plays me. There are no legitimate interesting decisions to make, only push notifications while grocery shopping that I can train my Magikarp again if I so choose. The tone of Magikarp Jump is playful and ironic, but the content is far more nihilistic than Flappy Bird or the legion of perma-death rogue games or even the hundreds of cheap and brutal NES platformers. At its core, Magikarp Jump is just a series of moving images that requires me to press the occasional button. But this is exactly what plunged me into existential crisis. Isn’t that what all videogames are? Magikarp Jump finally pulls the veil from players’ eyes so they can finally see the truth: all games are Magikarp Jump, and Magikarp Jump is every game.
I spent six days in Tokyo at the end of June for work. My wife came along, and I dragged her to all the nerdy hotspots—to Super Potato in Electric Town where I marveled over WonderSwans and beat legendary shooter DoDonPachi, to every Taito Game Station across the city to play Taito Drum Master and Mario Kart and incredible horse-betting simulators where mechanical plastic horses whizzed by players’ faces. And on the long flight across the Pacific to San Francisco, I watched in quiet wonder as she played Bejeweled 2 on her in-seat tablet. To say my wife doesn’t enjoy videogames is the understatement of the year. She quits any game the moment she dies, so she rarely plays for more than three minutes. Although she’s seen me play arty games like Gone Home or Journey or Cibele, she shows no desire to play them herself and will, at best, voluntarily play a few rounds of Katamari Damacy on PlayStation 2 once every few years. I watched her swipe away the gems in Bejeweled 2 and wrongly assumed I understood what she appreciated about it. My wife loves order. That’s why cleaning up in Katamari Damacy appeals to her, and that’s why building neat, aesthetically pleasing train lines compel her in the classic board game Ticket to Ride. I asked her if that’s why she stuck with Bejeweled 2 well past her typical three-minute gaming sessions, and she stared at me like I was a good-natured dunce. “Uh, no. I’m exhausted, and it’s just a time filler.”
I sat back in my chair and stared at the elderly woman ahead of me watching xXx: Return of Xander Cage. I have worshipped at the altar of videogames ever since 1989 when I unwrapped a Nintendo Entertainment System underneath the Christmas tree. I spent hours in my youth writing and reading fanfiction on the Final Fantasy: Worlds Apart message boards. I teach a videogame college course and have written an entire book about Mega Man 3 called Mega Man 3. But never before, not once, had I ever thought of videogames as time fillers. They were experiences, as valid as film or literature even if they weren’t always as symbolically complex or imbued with as deep a meaning. But I had played the meta mind games of Hideo Kojima across the Metal Gear Solid franchise. I literally teared up when Ignis was blinded in Final Fantasy XV. I saw developers like Sophia Park and Merritt Kopas and Anna Anthropy use videogames to tell personal stories ignored by the mainstream. I attended panels where fellow academics explained the experimental work of Jason Nelson and his sublimely off-putting Game, Game, Game, and Again Game. I understood the potential of videogames as a groundbreaking medium.
But my wife isn’t wrong. As much as I’m loath to admit it, videogames can be time fillers. What else is Bejeweled 2 or Candy Crush? What else is Magikarp Jump but a farce designed to fill time on a bus while maybe siphoning large sums of cash from diehard Pokémon fans? What else is AdVenture Capitalist, a ridiculous game I play on PlayStation 4 whose sole content consists of clicking dozens of progress bars that fill up even when you’re not playing—the precursor to Magikarp Jump’s cooldown mechanic? But my favorite example of the time filler genre is Progress Wars, a title that intentionally criticizes the entire gaming industry, unlike Magikarp Jump which only does so accidentally. A simple web game produced by Danish developer Jakob Skjerning, Progress Wars proudly proclaims that it contains, “No mafias, no Vikings, no pirates—just pure, uninterrupted progress bars.” Each time you begin the game, you’re provided a random line of prose seemingly lifted from anti-narrative stalwart Aqua Teen Hunger Force. “Your mission: Tickle a Semi,” or “Your mission: Flip Out and Kill Enchanted Motorcycle Hunter Stranglers Wielding Invisible Bandyclefs” or “Your mission: Chase Soybeans.” The only way to interact with the game is to click a large button underneath the text that reads “Perform mission.” Click it, and a thick progress meter fills up halfway. Click again and it fills completely and you move to level two and soon it takes more and more clicks to reach the next level. This is the entire game, a one-note Frog Fractions with no underlying game to escape into.
Early each semester in my Critical Discourse of Videogames course, we spend a day in the computer lab running through a gauntlet of games I provide for students. Some are crowd pleasers like Browser Quest or Pandemic 2, and some are frustrating titles meant to break the students from thinking about games only in terms of fun and flow—what does fun matter to a game like That Dragon, Cancer, a title designed around a baby’s battle with cancer? Progress Wars is always the game the students hate the most, and they despise it for the same reason titles like Magikarp Jump and AdVenture Capitalist make me so uneasy. These games reveal the artifice behind all games. The moment a student says they dislike Progress Wars because it’s just pushing a button to make something happen, they realize all videogames boil down to pushing a button to make something happen—especially when they realize the frantic noise of an entire classroom clicking the bars in Progress Wars sounds exactly the same as the class cooperatively playing Browser Quest mere minutes earlier. Progress Wars just has the dignity to do away with the pomp and circumstance of Overwatch or Spelunky, and, from this perspective, all games might be time fillers like Bejeweled 2.
When it comes to film or literature, I have no problem whatsoever rationalizing that some texts are time fillers while others aspire to more. When I watch twenty minutes of Lethal Weapon II on a lazy Saturday, it’s just a time filler that doesn’t in any way devalue Citizen Kane or Do the Right Thing. When I idly read Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet or a used detective novel, it doesn’t somehow call into question the importance of writers like Jennifer Egan or Solmaz Sharif. But for whatever reason, I can’t make the same leap with videogames. When a game forcibly rubs your nose in how ridiculous the entire relationship is between the fundamental gaming mechanic of pressing a button to cause something completely unrelated to happen, it turns the entire medium borderline absurd. Magikarp Jump and games like it aren’t just time filler Trojan horses hiding one microtransaction after another, they threaten the delicate mental justifications necessary to waste hundreds of hours exploring Skyrim, when, in reality, I’m just tilting a tiny analog stick from the comfort of my living room. Magikarp Jump is the death of the author. Magikarp Jump is deconstructionism minus the French philosophers. Magikarp Jump is every argument against videogames as a medium with anything worthwhile to say distilled into a free title on the app store, a dumb monster’s face beckoning you to fill time from now until your death.
After returning home from Tokyo, I immediately became sick. This happens every time I cross the international date line and usually results in me moaning in the bathroom for an hour followed by a second dose of moaning in bed. My wife drove to the drugstore to grab me meds, but before she left, she piled her side of the bed with more than enough media to keep me occupied and distracted from the chaos unfolding in my tummy—a novel, a book of nonfiction, a 3DS, a stack of comics, and my phone. I rubbed my aching belly, surveyed my treasures, and finally reached for my phone. I tapped Magikarp Jump and proceeded to train my little calico fishy over and over. I needed something in that moment that required as little of me as possible, a tiny, primordial sliver of my pink brain. I needed not to think. I needed to fill time.
Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges in addition to Mega Man 3 from Boss Fight Books. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, New South, and many other venues. He teaches English at the University of St. Thomas and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com or @salpane.