The Anti-Addicting iPhone Game

Desert Golfing is just you, a ball, and an eternity of sand. It's not exactly fun. It may also be the best smartphone game in a long time.

Here is the description for the current top-grossing iPhone game in the App Store:

"Introducing: Clan Wars! Crush enemy clans in clan versus clan battles. Lead your clan to victory! Clash of Clans is an epic combat strategy game. Build your village, train your troops and battle with millions of other players online!"

Here is the description for Desert Golfing, currently sitting at #81 on the App leaderboards for paid games:

"To see a world in a bunker of sand
And a heaven in a wild cactus.
Hold infinity in the pocket of your shorts.
And eternity in Desert Golfing."

Desert Golfing, released in early August to critical reaction that ranged from delight to disgust, is a dead-simple game. Using drag-and-release mechanics familiar to anyone who played Angry Birds, you attempt to get your golf ball into the hole.

The game's graphics are beyond retro, eschewing even the colorful pixel-art style still prevalent in mobile gaming. It looks like something you'd find on an old Apple IIe floppy disk or Atari cartridge—a five-color palette with no curves to be found (except for the golf ball). The only signs that the game is from 2014 and not 1984 are the delicate spray of sand that kicks up when your ball hits the ground, and the satisfyingly reliable physics that cause the ball to thud and gently bounce exactly as you'd expect it to. There are three sounds in the game, rough with the emulated distortion of early soundchips, none of them very pleasant.

You begin on the first hole, sink your ball, and then proceed to the next. There is no par, no birdies or bogies. The game keeps a running tally of how many shots you've made in total, and if you dig around for a while in the iOS Game Center you can find a leaderboard to compare yourself against other players, but that really isn't the point. When you sink a perfect hole in one shot, the game does not flash or make a noise or give you a quick "Nice shot!" message, just moves you on to the next level. After the 18th hole, there's the 19th hole. After hole 100, there's hole 101. After hole 1000, there's hole 1001. After 2000, there's 2001.

There are no power ups, no better balls or clubs to buy, no badges or medals to earn. Later levels are a bit more complicated—you'll need to learn how to softly bank off difficult angles and the importance of a smart set-up shot—but none are truly "maddening" or "devious." As you progress, you'll occasionally see a roughly rendered cactus or rock. As you get really deep into the game, the landscape changes color. This kind of minimalism isn't rare to find in the world of indie games. It is rare to find it in the Top 100 in paid games in the App Store.

Mobile games, like any commercial medium settling into itself, have quickly developed templates for success. For most, this means creating a game that works as mainly as a Skinner box, set up around the idea of endless gameplay loops, most of which are focused on tightening the screws on players to force them toward in-app purchases. Pay 99 cents to reset a timer or speed up plowing a field. Shell out $3.99 to buy a booster 10-pack. Charge $59.99 to your credit card for as much in-game currency as you could ever spend. You don't have to do any of this, of course—but you'll be stuck grinding away or waiting around until you do.

These innovations in behavioral game design have made some mobile game studios very, very rich. King Inc., the makers of Candy Crush, reported $1.9 billion in revenues last year, or about $5.2 million a day—despite the majority of its games being free to play and relying only on in-app purchases. Finnish developer Supercell, creator of Clash of Clans, reported $892 million in revenues for 2013, or $2.4 million a day, again from free games with in-app purchases.

Desert Golfing costs $1.99, and features no gameplay innovation whatsoever. Or, its main innovation is its ascetic plainness. In its attempts to buck against the endless cycles of press-the-lever, get-the-pellet reward systems, Desert Golfing creates an odd thing: an anti-addictive game that you still end up playing.

Unlike during my worst days of Candy Crush, I'm not compulsively pulling out my phone at any and every opportunity to play a few levels of Desert Golfing. It hasn't invaded my dreams, and there is no real tension-and-release cycle to the game. Getting to the next level is nice, and there's some small satisfaction of sinking a well-placed shot, but bouncing off the side of a cliff a few dozen times is also fine. When I play, I'm usually also thinking about other things in a slightly abstract way; I composed most of the main points of this article while working my way through a dozen levels on my subway ride into work.

Some read Desert Golfing as being, at heart, nihlistic, perhaps a slightly newer form of Flappy Bird. But unlike Flappy Bird, which punished players and did seem, at heart, meaningless (no matter how many pipes you passed through, you will eventually fail), Desert Golfing feels more like a grandly indifferent joke. In a genre that's obsessed with "game mechanics," it simply presents one action and one goal, repeated over and over. It's funny but not exactly fun, and I enjoy it very much—more than the dozens of other iPhone games I've downloaded and discarded this year.

Most games are an endless tug at our innate need to acquire more things, even illusory digital ones. There is something deep within us that seems to respond to this, and I'm sure eventually there will be another iPhone game that comes along that I'll find myself helplessly addicted to, playing in a dark bedroom long after a normal adult's bedtime.

But for right now, I'll keep watching my little golf ball bounce around an endless sand trap while also thinking about what I'll make for dinner. And when my subway hits my stop, I'll happily hit the sleep button, Desert Golfing gone from my mind as quickly as the screen goes dark.