I once had a conversation with friends where they expressed bewilderment that people could enjoy casual games. To them, games are about challenges, puzzles, something to figure out in order to overcome or outwit an opponent be they computer-generated or another human being. As a gamer myself it’s something I understand, but I also know how daunting or even draining the “gamer” mindset can be, and I feel the ups and downs of “true gaming” in my experience with online mahjong.

I’ve been playing Japanese-style mahjong for a few years now, and it’s a game I find fascinating for a variety of reasons. In mahjong you have this mixture of skill and luck which creates a dynamic interaction between its players. The game is such that it’s possible to create complex plans and intricate webs of deception to upset your opponents, but the random component means the best-laid plans can go to waste, and adapting to the “unfairness” of the luck elements by knowing when to call it quits becomes part of the strategy. In other words, when playing mahjong your mind has to be sharp and focused, but what happens when you’re not at your best?

This is the problem I run into with mahjong sometimes, and why I feel able to understand the casual game mindset. I love mahjong at this point, but there are times when the day was long and I’m all worn out mentally, and I’m looking for just a way to relieve stress. At times like this, I’ve made the mistake of trying to use online mahjong as a way to relax and I’ve been punished nearly every time. In those instances, I want to treat mahjong like a punching bag, except that in this case the bag punches back. Mahjong is the type of game where trying to win a hand at all costs just makes you vulnerable. In these situations when one’s mental condition isn’t the best, decent opponents can exploit it without even trying because it’s basically the equivalent of running straight at them in the hopes they won’t fire first. Naturally, watching my rank drop as I make this simple mistake over and over again causes more stress instead of less.

It’s not mahjong’s fault, though, that it fails to do what I want it to in those instances, and that’s where casual games come in. They can be your reward for a hard-fought day, as just a way to escape from pressure. The games might be even more random than mahjong, but clicking a lot can basically be the mental equivalent of punching a pillow over and over. This is not to say that casual games can’t have any skill or challenge component (Angry Birds being perhaps the most prominent example, and you can pretty much auto-pilot Tetris), but that it can be tough to feel like life is beating you down and then a video game is too. Sometimes, people might just want to have the comfort of knowing they’ll always win (or at least win eventually), and they might even be willing to put down $5 just for that luxury.

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