Remember Beanie Babies?
Anyone old enough to remember the 1990s can probably remember the stuffed toys that became not only a craze, but a phenomenon. They were everywhere. Small children, old women, and a whole great swath of the American population in-between knew all about them. Collectors fought over rare ones on eBay. The little toys were in every store, and smaller versions were distributed in Happy Meals. There was even a special princess bear made after Diana died.
I also remember the moment I knew that Beanie Babies had well and truly jumped the shark: I was a teenager working my first job, as a clerk at CVS, and had to stock an aisle full of "poseable plush toy" knockoffs. $5.99 for a fake Beanie Baby? Clearly, the fad had run its course. Sure enough, within 18 months, Ty Inc., the original manufacturer, stopped making them. Though they did start again a year later, and continue making Beanie Babies to this day, the magic that allowed them to dominate culture for a time was gone.
Close to fifteen years later, I found myself thinking of the day I realized Beanie Babies were over thanks to a strange experience at Chili's. I found myself dining in one recently, for the first time in several years. And the times, they have changed: the focal point of our waitress's entire spiel, and the focus she kept coming back to on repeat visits to our table, was not mixed drinks or fried cheese. It was the touch screen sitting at the end of our table.
The device was a Ziosk, and I understood its purpose as a way to get a drink refresh or pay the bill. But its useful features weren't the ones that the server kept highlighting. No, she kept trying to convince us to read USA Today or play $0.99 "premium" apps on the screen.
After she left the table, my husband remarked that one doesn't usually go out with others just to play Solitaire anti-socially on a single-player touch screen. I pulled my Droid out of my purse and added that if I did place a priority on gaming apps, I had my own with me.
That, I realized, was the moment for me where gaming apps became like so many dollar-store Beanie Baby knockoffs. The idea, and the execution, has reached full cultural saturation. From gas station pump to restaurant table, the apps are everywhere. But, like Beanie Babies, Tamagotchi, Pogs, and every other questionable fad I can remember in my lifetime, even a child can spot the difference between the real deal and the cheap knock-off.
We may not be able to hold Angry Birds in our hand to feel its workmanship, but we know that the game Chili's wants us to buy is no Angry Birds. We may know in our hearts that Words With Friends is essentially a Scrabble mod, but what makes it tick is the large pool of asynchronous "friends," something that no grubby clone can bring to the (literal) table.
The app has become the cultural artifact of our era. It is everywhere, it is oversaturated, and it is unsustainable. Not every surface needs a game on it, and just because mobile and social gaming are successful markets doesn't mean that trying to turn everything into a game will, in turn, make those other things successful.
Personal touch screens—phones and tablets—are immensely useful, as are the programs we run on them. The juggernaut of thoughtless lookalike casual games, though, must soon run into its point of diminishing returns, and begin, as a scene, to contract again. From where we stand now, it's just getting silly.
In the meantime, Chili's: please stop trying to sell me your terrible games. If I pay $0.99 for something on my phone, at least I can take it with me everywhere I go. Focus on getting the food to the tables while it's still hot, and the rest will follow. And if it can't, well, Solitaire won't save you.