TIME technology

6 Unexpectedly Absorbing Games to Play on Your Phone While Ignoring Your Family This Holiday Season

Using phone
Getty Images

Kidding! Don’t ignore your family. Unless your family is awful. In which case, enjoy these distractions

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

The realities of distance have long dictated that my time spent among family is somewhat limited to a couple weeks in total each year. My people of origin all live in South Florida, while I am in Boston, and although my in-laws in upstate New York are closer, they’re still far enough away, and everyone involved is so busy, that visits are special occasions and not predictable occurrences.

I miss them, enormously, all the time. Because of this, it’s actually pretty rare that I ignore anyone when we’re visiting, given that I treasure and cherish every moment with my beloved family.

But, you know, even I have my limits.

Sometimes, surrounded by people who love you, or at least people to whom you are related, you just want to put your head down and do something, anything other than listen to your cousin talk about her wedding plans for an hour, or your aunt ranting on with her offensive politics from 1953, or have to answer intrusive questions about your professional/marital/reproductive prospects. Sometimes you want to put on some headphones and just ignore everyone just for a bit. I am here for you. It’s OK.

(My husband writes about video games for a living, and when I told him about my “ignoring your family” angle, he called me a cynical jerk. That’s probably a fair assessment. But I thought it was funny.)

Monument Valley (iOS, Android)

I first saw Monument Valley at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year, and I was mesmerized. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when it received a bunch of positive attention right away, and went on to win a 2014 Apple Design Award.

Monument Valley follows Princess Ida on a journey through meticulously designed environments, in which the architecture hides puzzle solutions in optical illusions that borrow liberally from the work of M.C. Escher. In each chapter, you help Ida on her travels by pressing switches and rotating pathways and staircases to create a path for her to follow, and the solutions are elegant and often surprising.

Beautifully surreal, slow-paced, simple to learn and with a soundtrack like aural Valium, it’s an easy game to get lost in. Happily, new chapters are now available.

Device 6 (iOS)

Device 6 is similarly lauded and similarly surreal, but in some very different ways. A sort of hybrid visual novella and game, Device 6 tells the story of a woman called Anna, who wakes up in a castle on a mysterious island with no recollection of how she got there.

Device 6 dispenses with typical running/jumping game mechanics in favor of a more intuitive approach in which the text itself is the playing field. You read it as much as you play it, and the puzzles give the distinct feeling that you’re a detective collecting and analyzing clues to a much bigger mystery, rather than simply looking for the right random solution. And it is stylish as fuck, with a swingy midcentury vibe that somehow underscores how freaking creepy it can occasionally get.

Also, the sound design on Device 6 is mind-rendingly brilliant.

Sometimes You Die (iOS)

Oh, what’s that? You’re a total freakbrain nerdo who’s captivated by the more meta-level questions of What Is A Game and What Is Fun and Why Does Anything Exist Anyway? ME TOO. This is a thing you will like!

Sometimes You Die has been a bit of a surprise hit this year, given that it is actually a minimalist question with no answer, given game form. Typically, “dying” in a game is a momentary setback, but in Sometimes You Die, death is a necessary part of success, as you must litter the screen with your corpses to carve a path to follow from level to level. (Your corpses are just little black blocks so this is less gory than it might sound.)

What you wind up with is an existential query into the nature of play that also manages to be fun and surprisingly difficult to put down.

Tengami (iOS)

First off, Tengami is beautiful. Taking its design from traditional Japanese arts and crafts, you guide a character through a pop-up book world in which you flip pages and slide tabs to discover hidden passages and other secrets.

This is a contemplative puzzle-solving experience that is more style than substance, so if you’re looking for a deeply compelling narrative, you’re better off with other games on this list. But as a chill, low-thinking break from holiday madness, it certainly does the job. And not only is Tengami pretty to look at, the soundtrack is gorgeous as well.

The Last Door (iOS, Android)

Moving from really relaxing to really really really not, The Last Door is a retro-styled old school point-and-click horror game that is legitimately terrifying. I still hold a special place in my heart for 8-bit games, but even I was surprised by how frightening this game could be, given that the graphics are limited to a heap of loosely arranged pixel chunks. It really makes the point that, in the right hands, lifelike visuals aren’t necessary to sustain an atmosphere of terror.

Set in England of 1891, you play as Jeremiah Devitt, who is investigating the suicide of an old friend, and as he digs up his past, things take an otherworldly, almost Lovecraftian turn. The Last Door owes a significant debt to adventure games of the ’80s and ’90s, and it manages to feel both nostalgic and new at the same time. You explore locations looking for items and clues at your own pace, and solve puzzles to move the plot forward.

Also, The Last Door uses an episodic format, so new pieces of the story are still being made.

A Dark Room (iOS)

A Dark Room has no graphics at all. It is a game that uses only text to tell its story; even the pseudo-graphical “map” you use to explore beyond your campsite is drawn with letters and punctuation marks describing the landscape, ASCII-style. It has no sound design. In the way of traditional resource-management games, it consists of tapping things on your screen to get other things, but it evolves into a role-playing game as well before long in which you’re battling enemies and exploring spooky caves, crumbling houses and abandoned mines.

All this you get to imagine in your head, because like I said: no graphics. Add a dark, convoluted story that is somehow all the more compelling for the lack of concrete details it provides, and you’ve got a minimalist masterpiece.

It is also weirdly addictive. The first time I played A Dark Room months ago, I suddenly realized I’d been sitting on the couch for three hours amassing wood and meat for I don’t even remember what. It seemed very important at the time.

There is also a prequel, The Ensign, that has recently come to the App Store. Enjoy both, and forget your family is even in the room with you.

Lesley Kinzel is Deputy Editor at xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Video Games

Halo: Master Chief Collection Developers Apologize for Xbox One Problems

Experience: HALO by Xbox 360
Master Chief stands guard at the Liechtenstein border during the HALO 4 launch by Xbox 360 on October 29, 2012 in Balzers, Liechtenstein. Getty Images—2012 Getty Images

"We will make this right with our fans."

The game developers behind Xbox One’s Halo: The Master Chief Collection released a public apology to gamers Tuesday for a multiplayer glitch that has left fans fuming over social media.

“Please accept my heartfelt apologies for the delay and for the negative aspects of your experience to date,” wrote Bonnie Ross, 363 Industries studio head, in an open letter posted to the Xbox website.

The glitch became apparent shortly after the November 11 release of the Master Chief Collection, a package of remastered Halo games for Microsoft’s latest console. Some gamers queueing up for a multiplayer game waited for minutes to upwards of an hour for matches to begin. Gamers vented their frustration over Twitter under the handle “#halomcc.” Some tweeted demands for refunds.

Halo’s developer, 343 Industries, acknowledged that the glitch would take a series of fixes to the game’s back-end servers and patches for the game itself to fix. The studio vowed to keep gamers in the loop about their progress through a running blog.

“Once we’ve done that, we will detail how we will make this right with our fans,” Ross wrote.

TIME Pop Culture

The Most Popular Game in History Almost Didn’t Pass ‘Go’

Soldiers playing Monopoly
US troops on a transport to Australia playing Monopoly, in 1942 Wallace Kirkland—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Nov. 5, 1935: Parker Brothers begins marketing the game Monopoly

When Parker Brothers rolled the dice on “the real estate game,” it did so reluctantly. The game seemed too long, too complicated, and too niche: who, after all, would get excited about buying imaginary realty in Atlantic City?

The brainchild of an out-of-work heating contractor named Charles Darrow, according to the New York Times, the game that became Monopoly wildly outperformed Parker Brothers’ modest expectations, becoming the most popular game in history. Although they initially rejected Darrow’s offer to sell it to them, the powers that be at Parker Brothers changed their minds after the independently manufactured game began flying off the shelves of a Philadelphia department store, though the company still believed the game was a fad that would soon fade. They began marketing it as Monopoly on this day, Nov. 5, in 1935.

Monopoly sales soon made Darrow so rich that he abandoned the heating trade for a hothouse hobby: growing orchids. According to Hasbro, which acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, more than 275 million Monopoly games — including more than 6 billion green houses and 2.25 billion red hotels — have been sold since 1935.

And while Monopoly remains a fixture in American homes, it has undergone periodic changes in an effort to stay relevant. Last year, following a vote on the Monopoly Facebook page, game lovers chose a new token — a cat, which triumphed over proposed tokens including a toy robot, a guitar, a helicopter, and a diamond ring — to replace the least popular of the existing tokens: the iron. It wasn’t the first upheaval among the tokens, which have at times included a purse, a lantern, an elephant, a horse and rider, and a rocking horse. The game board has gone through a number of updates, too, and met with mixed reviews.

In 1978, to celebrate the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City, Parker Brothers released a new version called “Advance to Boardwalk,” which allowed players to build casinos, according to the Times. It never became popular.

In 2006, Hasbro released the “Here and Now” edition, meant to bring the game into the 21st century — in all its branded glory — with corporatized tokens including McDonald’s fries, a Starbucks coffee cup, a New Balance sneaker and a Toyota Prius. According to TIME’s coverage of the new edition, the properties in that version:

… include real estate from around the country, selected by online vote. The railroads have become airports. Weimar-style hyperinflation has set in–for passing Go, you collect $2 million–but Times Square is a bargain at $4 mil, and while it’s a refreshing admission that, yes, you can buy the White House, it cost the present occupant far more than $3.2 million.

This spring, Hasbro adopted a grassroots approach to improving the game by polling players on their “house rules,” acknowledging their findings that half of all Monopoly players have made up their own rules and 68% have never read the official rules all the way through. The House Rules Edition includes the five most popular of those made-up rules, which include doubling the amount collected for passing “Go,” collecting an additional $500 for rolling “snake eyes,” and not collecting rent while in jail.

To appease purists, Hasbro points out that these rules are, of course, entirely optional.

Read more about the 2006 edition of Monopoly, here in TIME’s archives: Monopoly in Elysium

TIME society

‘Operation’ Inventor, 77, Can’t Afford Real Life Operation

John Spinello sold the game for only $500

In an ironic twist of fate, the inventor of the famous board game Operation is in need of money to pay for an operation.

In 1964, John Spinello invented the classic children’s game, in which players attempt to perform “surgery” without tripping a buzzer, and sold it to a toy invention firm for just $500. In spite of its great success, that’s the only money he ever received for the game. Now 77, Spinello can’t afford to pay $25,000 for an oral surgery.

“John has had a good life, but has admitted to us that he is struggling to pay his bills and is in need of a medical procedure without sufficient insurance coverage,” his friends Tim Walsh and Peggy Brown wrote in a crowd funding campaign.

Walsh told The Huffington Post that Spinello isn’t bitter about never receiving royalties for a game that has inspired everything from shower curtains to boxers to Simpsons editions of the game, and has generated what he estimates to be $40 million.

“John celebrates the game wherever he can, though his kids do give him a hard time in a good-natured way,” Walsh said.

On top of the crowd-funding campaign, Spinello plans to auction off the original prototype in December to pay the bills.

TIME Games

Sunset Overdrive Review: Masterful Grindhouse

Insomniac Games/Microsoft

Still need a reason to own an Xbox One? Here it is.

At heart, Sunset Overdrive is a nerd-power fantasy that wants you to know it knows it’s a nerd-power fantasy. But it’s also about pulling the Xbox One out of the Bermuda Triangle. Sony’s PlayStation 4 has sold so well that even Sony’s baffled, whereas Microsoft clammed up about Xbox One sales back in April. Microsoft’s implied system sales have been solid, but the console needs a holiday dunk shot beyond recycled Halo. Now it definitely has one in Insomniac Games’ magnificent Sunset Overdrive.

Most probably know Insomniac for the Ratchet & Clank platform hoppers, where a bipedal cat and robot sidekick gallivant around the universe. You can see the lines back to those games here — the colorful environments, ridiculous weaponry and general daffiness — but Sunset Overdrive is a lot more than just Ratchet & Clank for grownups.

In the game you play a nerd who can grind — who cares how or why — on nearly anything, Cirque du Soleiling around a zany postapocalyptic metropolis, pulping exploding mutants and ruthless robots, egged on by gorgeous scenery and goofball factions and a punk backbeat. Imagine Tony Hawk meets Sam Raimi crossed with Sid Vicious multiplied by pinball.

The plot’s intentionally daft enough to slide almost beneath notice: a corporate soda maker’s new energy drink turns imbibers into mutants, because, to paraphrase one of the characters you interact with, “Y’know, science and somethin’-somethin’ bullsh–.” It’s just a permission slip to build a city that’s effectively a giant fun-park ride.

Insomniac Games/Microsoft

Nothing has to make sense, which is how the game then goes about making perfect sense. Sandbox games let you go anywhere, but eventually amount to doing this thing to get that thing to level up and do the next thing. But what you’re thinking during the cutscene exposition and wordy banter is “What’s my next upgrade?” or “How do I collect this many of that?” or “How’s my next opponent going to fight?” or “What’s that part of the map going to play like?”

It’s as if Sunset Overdrive reads minds, because it cannonballs you from thrill to thrill, burning all the exposition and busywork to the ground and using what little there is to slyly poke fun at genre conventions. “Bryllcream, what kind of a name is that?” says the protagonist at one point after hearing another character’s goofy handle. “One that’s easy to remember, I guess,” goes the response. It’s a moment that stands for everything else about the game: subtext schmubtext, just go with the flow.

And boy does this thing flow. Never in a game world this big and geometrically complex have I felt as firmly connected to the skyline and simultaneously able to power through it, chaining leaps, air dashes, swings, flips, attacks, wall runs, zip-line “undergrinds,” trampoline bounces and ground pounds while skating across anything with an edge. Sunset City — that’s its name, though most of the game transpires under blue skies — has been scrupulously overlaid with railways and cables and packed with elaborate angular structures so you can grind from one side of the city to any other without touching down. This, finally, is the aerial skating game Sucker Punch’s Infamous only teased five years ago.

Insomniac Games / Microsoft

Staying off the ground is essential. On the ground you’re slow and clumsy, but in the air you’re some kind of grind-fu god, working a style meter that requires continuously deft finger work into an acrobatic lather by mixing maneuvers and weapon attacks — a familiar idea that’s been scaled way up here. Basically, think of the ground in Sunset Overdrive as kryptonite.

Then think about how ridiculous you’d want your nonsense arsenal of destruction to be, and Sunset Overdrive manages to go one better. So, for instance, you can wield: a rifle that flings vinyl records that bounce from enemy to enemy, an explosive teddy-bear launcher, a crowd-control gun that deploys taunting holographic decoys, a pistol that spits projectiles that turn into floating turrets, and a weapon (dubbed “The Dude”) that lobs incendiary bowling balls.

Nonsensical, but not superficial. The pyrotechnics feel purposeful, and each weapon deploys unique damage against the game’s four basic enemy types — you’ll die, and die again, then die some more if you opt to fight robots with shotguns or human thugs with harpoon launchers, for instance (though dying itself is delightful and a clever in-joke here — a collage of cultural sendups playing with the idea that these kinds of games are basically immortality simulators).

All of that’s fed by a backend system of configurable power-ups you unlock by feats of derring-do as the game unfolds. You can finesse these in all kinds of cool ways, from monkeying with weapon damage to how fast the style meter climbs to the sort of ballistic damage you want to kick out (shockwaves, tesla bolts, tornadoes and more) as you jump style levels. It’s an elegant relational lattice that feels balanced and very you-centric, where the permutations from your choices amount to meaningfully different ways of squaring off with opponents or completing challenges.

Insomniac Games/Microsoft

My only complaints are a few niggling completeness problems Insomniac needs to fix: I encountered a few missions that wouldn’t advance without resets, a few spots where enemies weirdly stopped being able to damage me, half a dozen places where I got stuck in the world geometry and had to reset the game, and I don’t know if it was code shenanigans or the Xbox One, but the game crashed outright twice.

I suppose I should say something about the next-gen stuff, the crazy number of enemies the game can shoehorn into battles at once, the crazy-big bosses and ambitiously multilayered missions and combat scenarios, the magnificent architectural and kaleidoscopic sweep of Sunset City itself. But at this point I don’t really notice that stuff. And that’s the biggest compliment I can pay the game, really — that it’s great without bothering to highlight the chrome.

Insomniac calls Sunset Overdrive a “traversal shooter,” as if that explains anything. I’d just call it a damned good time.

5 out of 5

Xbox One

TIME Games

5 iPhone Games You Can’t Miss This Week

For when you're finally bored of Candy Crush

Done with Candy Crush and looking for a new iPhone game for your commute to work or lunch break at school? TIME rounded up some favorites from this week that are worth a download.

  • Enterchained

    Enterchained App Store

    For almost 15 years, countless video games have aimed to fill the cultural niche created by the Russell Crowe movie that helped pioneer fast-cut fight sequences, Gladiator. Now, a slightly more PG and much more endearing gladiator arena game has emerged. Enterchained brings simple animation and countless unlockable battle items to your iPhone.

    Enterchained is available for $0.99 in the App Store.

  • Ghostbusters Pinball

    Ghostbusters Pinball App Store

    Taking us back 30 years to when Ghostbusters was first released and to a time when movie-themed pinball machines dominated arcades, Ghostbusters Pinball is a hypnotic way to spend a few minutes. Obstacles in three dimensions, characters from the series, and different levels contained in a single map allow this app take advantage of the iPhone by invoking a charming, Ghostbusters universe without losing the authenticity of a real pinball game. Gameplay is run on tokens, and the app doles out 4 free tokens a day.

    Ghostbusters Pinball is available free in the App Store

  • Mmm Fingers

    Mmm Fingers App Store

    A reverse Hungry Hungry Hippos with graphics reminiscent of Plants vs. Zombies, Mmm Fingers is about keeping your finger safe. The goal is to navigate an increasingly dangerous field of monsters and traps without lifting your finger off the screen or colliding with obstacles. It’s a great game for quick breaks and short idle moments, and can even be played against friends.

    Mmm Fingers is available free in the App Store

  • Felllice

    Felllice App Store

    A black and white game about cell growth, Felllice is the endearingly downsized story of natural selection. Players start out as a cell, and grow by eating weaker, smaller-celled organisms. Similarly, players must avoid being eaten by larger organisms also fighting for their place in the world. Part of the fun is watching the environment and other cells interact with itself as your cell develops, grows, evolves and assimilates into an increasingly complicated organism.

    Felllice is available for $0.99 in the App Store

  • Super Mashteroids

    Super Mashteroids App Store

    Super Mastheroids follows a trend of bringing back 8-bit style games to advanced devices. Part Asteroids, part Space Invaders, the game intentionally brings together elements of celebrated 80s arcade games to create a new experience on your iPhone. Fly through a slightly tidied up version of retro space in a starship cruiser destroying asteroids and enemies, earning power ups and zooming to the next stage.

    Super Mashteroids is available free in the App Store

TIME Media

Misogynist Online Abuse Is Everyone’s Problem — Men Included

The harassment against feminist #Gamergate critics is getting attention now. But the toxicity goes much farther in our culture.

I wasn’t going to write about #Gamergate. Most of the video gaming world is outside my experience. I used to play more, when I had more time and hair, but now I only play a few tablet or iPhone games, and badly. (I get a 384 on Threes, it’s basically a national holiday.) Not my issue, I figured.

Weeks went on, and I kept seeing references to a culture war between gamers and gaming journalists, especially feminist critics of the industry, that had devolved into vile sexist harassment and death and rape threats. So I started reading, and to an outsider anyway, Gamergate led to a vast tangle of ancient grievances and offenses that seemed about as easy to unravel as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (For those interested, Todd Van Der Werff’s explainer at Vox is one of the better I’ve read.) That sounds awful, I thought. But again, not my area. Not my problem.

And then I read this terrific column by the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan that made me realize that it is totally my problem, and everyone’s. The abuse that female game critics and journalists and developers have been receiving has been extreme–specific threats to friends and family online, bomb threats, people hoping to drive women to suicide, the threat of a mass shooting at a talk video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to give. But it’s not unparalleled.

In TV criticism–in any cultural criticism now–the price of having a female byline and an opinion is getting subjected to torrents of gender-specific, grotesque, sometimes frightening and threatening abuse, which men like me, in general, do not deal with to nearly the same degree. I panned CBS’s Stalker. Mo Ryan panned CBS’s Stalker. But only she received the e-mail, quoted in her column, that told her to “shut the fuck up” because “MEN WE PREVAIL.” (Disclosure, I guess: I’m friendly with Ryan, as I am with a lot of TV critics, and I will confess to being biased against someone calling a friend a “fucking misandry freak.”)

And what’s the offense here, in each case? What were the fighting words? Somebody made some videos criticizing gaming tropes as sexist. Someone said that a TV crime show was exploitative and abhorrent. Someone said, maybe don’t harass women in the video game industry. This is the threat. This is the crisis.

It’s the “War on Christmas,” essentially. (There’s an excellent piece in Deadspin drawing out the parallels between the political and the entertainment-industry culture wars.) It’s the grievance of an identity group, already superserved by the larger culture, outraged that its service has become slightly less super. Their thing used to be the main thing, the default thing, the assumption. And now, if you point out that it is no longer the only thing–as is the case, both in American society and in entertainment–why, you’re persecuting them.

I have to assume that the people making death and bomb threats are, as the saying goes, a “small but vocal minority.” But this sense of disproportionate grievance is not so small. Put simply: someone saying mean things about a thing you like is not an assault on your liberties.

So someone made you feel bad for playing a video game that you like? I’m sorry. Maybe there are valid arguments against them. Maybe you could make those arguments! But nobody is about to haul you off to the Misandrist Re-Education Camps because they caught you playing Assassin’s Creed.

Someone got all righteous about the TV shows you like? Maybe they asked why there aren’t more well-rounded women in True Detective or why there are so many dramas about brooding male antiheroes and serial killers or they said something was a rape scene that you didn’t think was a rape scene? That’s unfortunate. But guess what? HBO’s still making the second season of True Detective! Networks are still going to make all those antihero and serial killer shows! You’re still going to be on the receiving end of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline full of product tailored to your specific tastes. I think you’ll be OK!

But as a larger group, we have a problem–all of us. It’s women, online and in real life, who have to deal with the fear and the abuse and the is-it-worth-it-to-say-this, in far greater numbers. People tweet horrible things at me sometimes, but I don’t pretend writing a post like this is any kind of brave act on my part. I’ll publish it and go on my merry way. I have the Guy Shield, or maybe the Dude Invisibility Cloak. (It’s +3 against trolls!)

It’s still my problem, though. There’s a whole genre of men saying that they’ve become feminist because they have daughters. I don’t; I have two sons. Which is exactly why this kind of toxic crap in the culture is my problem, because they play games and they live in the world, and I want them to grow up to be decent guys with healthy human relationships. I don’t want them immersed in a mindset that says that throwing anonymous abuse at women is somehow retaliation in kind.

It’s my problem because I may not be a big gamer, but no part of the culture is an island. The dudebro attitude is manifest in TV comments sections and movie discussions and literary arguments–the puffing out of chests, the casual gendered insults–and it’s stifling, and it’s depressing, and it makes too many people decide it’s not worth engaging anymore.

It’s my problem because I love ideas and innovative culture and smart conversation. And every time a woman decides she needs to cancel a speech, or decides it’s not worth the risk to keep working in the creative field she loves, or decides, you know what, not today, it’s just not worth it to publish this column on this subject–it costs me and everyone else (even if it costs the women affected much more). It’s my problem if anyone’s engaging in a concerted effort to shut someone up, because I’m a writer and I’m a person and I live in a society.

This toxicity that we’re stewing in may not be All Men or All Gamers or All Anyone. That’s obvious. And it’s besides the point. What matters is that it’s all our problem.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 26

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Al-Shabaab is stronger a year after their horrific attack on a mall in Kenya, thriving on widespread resentment of Kenyan anti-Muslim policies which must be reformed.

By the International Crisis Group

2. The unnecessary separation of oral care from the rest of medical care under Medicaid puts the poor at risk of worse health and even death.

By Olga Khazan in the Atlantic

3. In these views from activists and intellectuals in Syria, we see rueful themes of a hijacked revolution and an intervention that may be coming too late.

By Danny Postel in Dissent

4. Adding a way to assess learning for students is the key to making education games work for schools.

By Lee Banville in Games and Learning

5. The toothless early warning system designed to head off future financial crises must be strengthened or it risks missing the next market cataclysm.

By the Editors of Bloomberg View

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME technology

Minecraft: Meet the Men Behind Microsoft’s New Game

With the software giant shelling out $2.5 billion for the game, see how it all began

Minecraft has been called up to the big leagues: Microsoft has purchased the franchise and the Mojang, the company that makes it, for $2.5 billion.

But, though Microsoft has said that they’ll maintain and grow the franchise that gamers love, it’s already clear that things are changing in the world of Minecraft. And it’s not just a matter of the size of the company: Markus Persson, who founded Mojang, has also announced that he’s leaving.

Last June, Harry McCracken traveled to Stockholm for TIME to meet the men behind Minecraft, and he made it very clear just how personal the project was for Perssen:

Four years ago, Mojang didn’t exist, and Minecraft was a personal project by game developer Markus Persson, whose personal site says, “You can call me ‘Notch.’” (Most Minecraft fans do, and so will I.) Notch, who would become Mojang’s co-founder, public face and resident visionary, created Minecraft for one simple reason: he wanted it to exist. “I designed the game for myself–that’s an audience I know,” he told me recently, when we met in an intentionally gauche, James Bond-inspired Mojang conference room decked out entirely in gold materials.

Bearded, cherubic and self-effacing, Notch looks like a gamer, though not necessarily the leader of gamers he has become. Like most programmers, he began young, writing an adventure game for his father’s computer at the age of 8. Now 33, Notch cheerfully admits that he didn’t summon the concept that became Minecraft out of thin air. He says he drew crucial inspiration from Dwarf Fortress, a famously innovative, idiosyncratic and opaque fantasy simulation released in 2006. (Tech site Ars Technica called it “the most inscrutable video game of all time.”) An even more direct ancestor is Infiniminer, a 2009 game that was much like Minecraft–except for the fact that its inventor lost interest in it almost as soon as it was finished. Unlike Infiniminer’s creator, Notch kept plugging away. At first he worked on the game in spare moments while continuing in his job at a Stockholm company that made photo-album software. But long before the game was finished, he found that people were willing to pay for it. “The idea was to be self-sustaining,” he says. “I started charging for the game a couple of weeks in.”

The trip from deciding to charge people for the game to selling it for billions of dollars was, in the scheme of things, a relatively short one — but short doesn’t mean uneventful. The story of how and why Minecraft has attracted so many fans, and the role Persson played in that journey, is now available free of charge in TIME’s archives.

Click here to read it in its entirety: The Mystery of Minecraft

MONEY Kim Kardashian

How to Keep the Kids From Giving the Kardashians Your Kash

Kim Kardashian
Dominique Charriau/WireImage—Getty

Kim Kardashian is in the news again, and (surprise!) not because she did something good for society. The reality show starlet recently released an iPhone game, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, and now one parent is revolting after learning the app “tricked” her child into spending over $100 on in-app purchases in just two days.

tweettext

When Ayelet Waldman, the bestselling author of Bad Mother and wife of novelist Michael Chabon, checked her son’s iTunes account she found that he had spent $120 on the Kardashians’ product — even though she and her husband thought they had adjusted their account settings to prevent such purchases.

The game, which markets itself as free, incentivizes players to buy in-game currency (called “koins”) in order to advance in the story. The game allows users to spend anywhere from $4.99 to $99.99 in a single transaction depending on how many koins they want to buy, and these sales are reportedly making Kim $700,000 a day. It’s such a clear money-grab that Stephen Colbert spoofed the app on an episode of the Colbert Report.

Kim Kardashian Hollywood
Glu Games

Luckily for Waldman, Apple ended up refunding her child’s purchases (and he’s learned to hate the Kardashians, so that’s a plus), but parents can’t depend on companies coming to the rescue when young users are fooled into handing their parents’ money over to game makers. Here’s how to secure your device and avoid unexpected bills.

1. Turn off in-app purchases entirely. It’s the simplest and most effective way to stop micro-transaction hungry apps in their tracks. On Apple products, go to the settings app and tap “enable restrictions.” That will let you disable your kid’s ability to install apps, delete apps or make in-app purchases. On Kindle Fire, just go to settings for the Amazon Appstore and turn off “in-app purchasing.”

You can also get rid of in-app purchases and other online dangers by turning off the internet entirely. To do this on Apple products, go to settings and flip the airplane mode switch. On Fire, you can do the same thing in “Quick Settings” under “Wireless & Networks.” But remember, this won’t prevent your child from making purchases if you let them back online.

2. Set up a password for in-app purchases. Setting an in-app purchasing password will let your children still be able to use in-app purchases—but only with your approval. On Apple tech, it’s as easy as going back to the “enable restrictions” setting. On Kindle Fire, it’s not quite so simple. You can use the “Parental Controls” section of settings to set a password, but the FTC says that each new purchase creates a window of time (15 minutes to an hour) when anyone using the device can continue making in-app purchases.

3. Avoid “free” apps that aren’t so free. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and at least on smartphones, there’s increasingly no such thing as a truly free game either. According to a FTC survey from 2012, about 84% of the apps that let kids make in-app purchases were advertised as “free.” These games often require purchases to make the game more fun or decrease the difficulty to more manageable levels. It’s often cheaper to pay a couple bucks up front for a good game than risk paying more over time with an ostensibly free product.

Did your kid run up a huge bill on a mobile device? How did they do it? Did you get a refund? Do you have any advice for other parents?

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