The Hyperaddictive, Time Sucking, Relationship Busting, Mind Crushing Power And Allure Of Silly Digital Games

April 9, 2012

NDTV:

In 1989, as communism was beginning to crumble across Eastern Europe, just a few months before protesters started pecking away at the Berlin Wall, the Japanese game-making giant Nintendo reached across the world to unleash upon America its own version of freedom. The new product was the Game Boy – a hand-held, battery-powered plastic slab that promised to set gamers loose, after all those decades of sweaty bondage, from the tyranny of rec rooms and pizza parlors and arcades.

The unit came bundled with a single cartridge: Tetris, a simple but addictive puzzle game whose goal was to rotate falling blocks – over and over and over and over and over and over and over – in order to build the most efficient possible walls. (Well, it was complicated. You were both building walls and not building walls; if you built them right, the walls disappeared, thereby ceasing to be walls.) This turned out to be a perfect symbiosis of game and platform. Tetris’s graphics were simple enough to work on the Game Boy’s small gray-scale screen; its motion was slow enough not to blur; its action was a repetitive, storyless puzzle that could be picked up, with no loss of potency, at any moment, in any situation. The pairing went on to sell more than 70 million copies, spreading the freedom of compulsive wall-building into every breakfast nook and bank line in the country.

And so a tradition was born: a tradition I am going to call (half descriptively, half out of revenge for all the hours I’ve lost to them) “stupid games.” In the nearly 30 years since Tetris’s invention – and especially over the last five, with the rise of smartphones – Tetris and its offspring (Angry Birds, Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, etc.) have colonized our pockets and our brains and shifted the entire economic model of the video-game industry. Today we are living, for better and worse, in a world of stupid games.

Game-studies scholars (there are such things) like to point out that games tend to reflect the societies in which they are created and played. Monopoly, for instance, makes perfect sense as a product of the 1930s – it allowed anyone, in the middle of the Depression, to play at being a tycoon. Risk, released in the 1950s, is a stunningly literal expression of cold-war realpolitik. Twister is the translation, onto a game board, of the mid-1960s sexual revolution. One critic called it “sex in a box.”

Tetris was invented exactly when and where you would expect – in a Soviet computer lab in 1984 – and its game play reflects this origin. The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain (Donkey Kong, Mike Tyson, Carmen Sandiego) but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will. Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves.

In 2009, 25 years after the invention of Tetris, a nearly bankrupt Finnish company called Rovio hit upon a similarly perfect fusion of game and device: Angry Birds. The game involves launching peevish birds at green pigs hiding inside flimsy structures. Its basic mechanism – using your index finger to pull back a slingshot, over and over and over and over and over and over and over – was the perfect use of the new technology of the touch screen: simple enough to lure a suddenly immense new market of casual gamers, satisfying enough to hook them.

Within months, Angry Birds became the most popular game on the iPhone, then spread across every other available platform. Today it has been downloaded, in its various forms, more than 700 million times. It has also inspired a disturbingly robust merchandising empire: films, T-shirts, novelty slippers, even plans for Angry Birds “activity parks” featuring play equipment for kids. For months, a sign outside my local auto-repair shop promised, “Free Angry Birds pen with service.” The game’s latest iteration, Angry Birds Space, appeared a couple weeks ago with a promotional push from Wal-Mart, T-Mobile, National Geographic Books, MTV and NASA. (There was an announcement on the International Space Station.) Angry Birds, it seems, is our Tetris: the string of digital prayer beads that our entire culture can twiddle in moments of rapture or anxiety – economic, political or existential.

I resisted buying an iPhone for what felt like several decades (it was, in biological Earth time, four years), because I was afraid of the power of its games. I spent my formative years becoming fluent in, and addicted to, the video games of the ’80s and early ’90s – the industry-redefining stretch from roughly Mario Brothers to Mortal Kombat. You could say that video games and I went through adolescence together. As I shed my exoskeleton of fat, Nintendo’s blocky pixels started to fuse into sleek 64-bit curves; as my voice lowered, video games’ plinky soundtracks matured into little symphonies; as my social circle expanded beyond my little clutch of sweaty and foulmouthed friends, the market for video games expanded into (or at least toward) similarly new demographics: adults, girls.

At some point late in my teens, in a spasm of post-adolescent resolve, I decided to renounce video games forever. They had, I recognized, a scary power over me – an opium kind of power – and I was hoping to cultivate other, more impressive ways of spending my time. I had aspirations of capital “c” culture, and so I started pouring my attention into books, a quieter and more socially respected form of escapism. I knew that, if I had daily access to video games, I would spend literally every day playing them, forever. So I cut myself off, more or less cold turkey, and as a result I was more or less happy and productive.

Then, midway through the dark forest of my adult life, the iPhone came out. This presented a unique problem. It was not only a phone and a camera and a compass and a map and a tiny window through which to see the entire Internet – it was also a pocket-size game console three times as sophisticated as anything I grew up with. My wife, who had never been a serious gamer, got one and became addicted, almost immediately, to a form of off-brand digital Scrabble called Words With Friends. Before long she was playing 6 or 10 games at a time, against people all over the world. Sometimes I would lose her in the middle of a conversation: her phone would go brinnng or pwomp or dernalernadern-dern, and she would look away from me, midsentence, to see if her opponent had set her up for a triple word score. I tried to stay good-humored. I told her I was going to invent something called the iPaddle: a little screen-size wooden paddle that I would slide in front of her phone whenever she drifted away, on the back of which, upside-down so she could read them, would be inscribed humanist messages from the analog world: “I love you” or “Be here now.”

Inevitably, my high-minded detachment didn’t last long. About a year ago, unable to resist the rising cultural tide and wanting (I convinced myself) a camera with which to take pictures of my children, I gave in and bought an iPhone. For a while I used it only to read, to e-mail and to take pictures. Then I downloaded chess, which seemed wholesome enough – the PBS of time-wasters. But chess turned out to be a gateway game. Once I formed the habit of finding reliable game joy in my omnipresent pocket-window, my inner 13-year-old reasserted himself. I downloaded horribly titled games like Bix (in which you steer a dot in a box between other dots in a box) and MiZoo (in which you make patterns out of exotic cartoon animal heads). These led to better, more time-consuming games – Orbital, Bejeweled, Touch Physics, Anodia – which led to even better games: Peggle, Little Wings. One tiny masterpiece, Plants vs. Zombies, ate up, I’m going to guess, a full “Anna Karenina” of my leisure time. One day while I was playing it (I think I had just discovered that if you set up your garlic and your money-flowers exactly right, you could sit there racking up coins all day), my wife reminded me of my old joke about the iPaddle. This made me inexplicably angry.

And so video games were back in my life…

Read it all.

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2 Responses to “The Hyperaddictive, Time Sucking, Relationship Busting, Mind Crushing Power And Allure Of Silly Digital Games”

  1. GL Says:

    I shall never play Plants vs. Zombies ever again!


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