Good article in Wired this month on the ways in which mobile has unleashed tremendous creativity among developers. The idea here is that mobile is not just another cool screen to draw on, and apps are not just another container for experiences. The creativity we are seeing emerge on smartphones is tied to the intimacy and always-there-ness of the devices. Author Robert Capps puts it well. “Our phones, always connected and always with us, have become incredibly personal. They belong to us, to an extent that no previous device ever achieved. Because of that we belong to them too, and it's a bond that shapes us at the deepest level -- in how we express ourselves, in what we hold out as beautiful and compelling, in how we try to emotionally connect, in ways abstract and literal, with our friends and muses. Our phones are now indelibly bound up with our aesthetic souls. And today both are always on.”
One implication of this binding of mobile with our “aesthetic souls” is that developers are rewarded for supplying very little, whimsical pleasures. The Zippo lighter app in the early days of smartphones was a killer useless app. It was wonderful in its creative novelty and through irrelevance. Likewise, the sound effects machines, pop culture quote generators and fart buttons were marvelously silly but entirely compelling -- even if for a few moments.
This affinity between mobile devices and small whimsical moments fascinates me. There is a kind of appeal to an inner child here, and that connection comes out in the aesthetic forms that much of mobile play takes. I wonder why so much fun content on mobile uses cartoonish characters even though the audience on the main is adult. Call it the Angry Birds effect. Curiously, gaming on mobile is often clothed in childish garb. "Angry Birds," "Clash of Clans," and many genres of mobile gaming use big-headed and big-footed caricatures on the whole. Consider that the saccharine sweet "Candy Crush Saga" is played by middle-aged folks like me. Is this irrelevant and coincidental or actually quite revealing of the way we relate to mobile whimsy?
What does that mean? I don’t know yet. What I do know is that patterns of content and genre like this are never meaningless when a new media platform is emerging into a culture. The aesthetic conventions of early film in the last century revolved around qualities not only intrinsic to the technology -- movement, violence, close-ups, cross-cutting -- they embodied aspects of a changing culture -- industrialization, the rise of psychology, urbanization, etc. TV and radio’s preoccupation with the domestic setting (sitcoms) and distraction (variety) said something about the mid-century, the new nuclear family and suburbanization, the rise of leisure time, etc.
So I wonder how the curious forms that casual gaming is taking on mobile suggest how we are relating to mobile phones and the kinds of distractions we seek from them.