Developed by Canadian studio Hyper Hippo, “AdVenture Capitalist” was originally developed for play in web browsers and mobile phones, and has been recently pdated as a stand-alone PC release through Steam. “AdVenture Capitalist” is played by staring at small meters, which fill up beneath 10 businesses on a sort of automated spreadsheet. Starting with a single lemonade stand, you press a lemon button which starts a profit meter moving, and eventually delivers $1 to your savings. Press the button again and another dollar arrives a few seconds later. Another button press. Another dollar. After earning enough money, a second button is activated which allows you to buy another lemonade stand, draining your savings but making it so that you get $2 for every press of the lemonade button instead of $1. Buy an even more expensive third lemonade stand and you can earn $3 per push.
After building enough lemonade stands you’ll be able to buy an entirely new business: a newspaper delivery route. You can hire a manager to take over the cumbersome job of pressing the button every few seconds to collect profits, freeing you to think about which of your businesses to grow next. Should you add a 57th lemonade stand, with the ability to bring in $150 every half-second or use the same amount of money to buy a 7th newspaper delivery route and earn $1,300 every two seconds? Or should you forgo both to save up for a car wash that can earn more than $10,000 every five seconds.
This portrait of financial hierarchy in “AdVenture Capitalist” is less Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and more a playland of non-sequitur frivolities. After the car wash, you’ll get into the pizza business, open donut shops, operate shrimp boats, buy hockey teams, open a movie studio, buy banks, and finally, at the top of the food chain is the pleasure of becoming an oil tycoon.
Cheekily depicting capitalism as a dysfunctional network of plastic dreams and indigestible foods is a familiar joke. American capitalism has brought us cronuts and the $17,000 iWatch. But critiques of the system have become another product to consume. The more damning the criticism the more pleasurable the act of consumption.
In spite of its glib self-awareness, “AdVenture Capitalist” produces an all-consuming obsession. It is intended to be played in the background while you get on with the rest of your day, checking in occasionally on your phone or computer to see how many trillions you’ve accumulated while you were away, and then reinvesting them in 40 new shrimp boats or seven new oil rigs in an effort to start earning quadrillions (the game’s economy reaches incomprehensible numbers like duoquinquagintillion and higher).
Yet, as soon as I opened my first session, any illusions that I would be thinking about anything but the game were lost. From the compulsive button click that produces miraculous profit doublings to the agonizingly slow play at later stages, I found “AdVenture Capitalist” made everything else seem like background tedium, an irritating postponement of my return to its gratifying feed of numbers.
These addictive qualities come largely from the cartoonish inversion of the economy of scale, in which things get more expensive when produced en masse. At some point, I realized that building one more lemonade stand cost me over $500 billion. I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of franchising’s intent.
These distorting bottlenecks exist solely to produce a desire to get past them. And conveniently enough you can do just that by using real money to unlock multipliers which boost you into the next earnings bracket, and on phones and tablets you can click on a button to watch an ad, which will double your earnings for four hours. Yet, all these boosts only lead to new bottlenecks with different names.
In 2006, games researcher and professor Edward Castranova argued that game economies depend on fabricating scarcity to become compulsively playable. ”Games make money by occupying time – grabbing eyeballs and holding on to them,” he wrote. “The point of economic policy in a game isn’t to simulate reality; it’s to make the synthetic scarcity so entertaining that the truly scarce good — players’ time — goes toward solving problems in the game, not in the outer world.”
Video games take hostages, and often the empathetic characterization or incisive critique is window dressing for deepening the habits of consumption. As a system of addiction and obsession, “AdVenture Capitalist” works as advertised. If video games are the art of being owned, it can often feel like a mercy to be free of them. Uninstalling “AdVenture Capitalist” felt like a small act of liberation, and after a few hours away from it, I couldn’t imagine what I had hoped to find in the first place.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen
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