On Addictive Games

I get sucked in, too.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, most computer-based games are a complete waste of time.

They require you to sit pretty much stagnant and, though keystrokes, mouse clicks, or finger swipes, manipulate what’s going on onscreen, 12 to 18 inches from your face. You can spend hours doing this and not even realize how much time has gone by. And, if you get sucked in badly enough, the game moves will invade your unconscious, causing you to dream about them or even just think about them when you’re away from the game.

Desktop Computer Games

Solitaire on Windows is a perfect example. How many hours have you or a friend or family member wasted looking at that green background, dragging virtual cards around? I’m fortunate in that I was never a Windows user and wasn’t tempted. (Macs come with Chess, which is far less addictive for most folks.) But I’ve seen that screen enough times to know how addictive it apparently is.

I’ve seen other people hooked on computer games. My mother plays something with colored shapes that she apparently has to match to clear off the screen. (Is this Candy Crush? I never asked.) Even when I visited for two weeks at Christmas 2012, whenever she was out of sight during the day, I’d track her down in the little TV room at the front of the house, playing this obnoxiously noisy game with the volume turned down. It looked kind of juvenile, like something a 4-year-old might play.

I tell people that I don’t play games on my computer. For the most part, that’s true. I don’t have any game apps installed on my desktop or laptop computers (other than the aforementioned Chess, which I’ve actually never even opened on any of my current computers).

Of course, that doesn’t stop me from playing Web-based games in my browser. More on that in a moment.

Mobile Games

I do have games on my iPad — although I have far fewer now than I did.

I was hooked on Words with Friends, a Scrabble-like word game you can play with others via the Internet, for well over a year. At one point, I was playing eight games at a time, sometimes two or three of which were with the same similarly addicted person. I finally got burned out and simply stopped accepting new game requests. Then I deleted the app from my iPad and haven’t looked back.

Then there was W.E.L.D.E.R., a very addictive word game that I could play solo or against a friend via the Internet. I can’t begin to count the hours of my life thrown into that game. I suspect I played that one for at least two years, although it could be longer. (I may have started playing it when I was married, possibly as a relief to the boredom of home life with a man who’d prefer to watch TV than have an intelligent conversation.) I found it challenging and, of course, addictive. Solo play meant I didn’t have to wait for my game partner to move; I could play any time for as long as I liked. Deleting that from my iPad last year was difficult, but after a few days I didn’t even miss it.

Crosswords app
Crosswords is a digital crossword puzzle app, nothing more.

Of course, Crosswords, a true tablet-based crossword puzzle, was my first iPad game and it remains on my iPad to this day. It enables me to play crossword puzzles from a variety of sources. I could load up dozens per day, but instead I subscribe to just two Sunday puzzles: Newsday and Premier. These are big, beefy puzzles with hundreds of boxes. I don’t find crossword puzzles addictive — and that’s probably why this game remains on my iPad. It’s there when I need something to occupy my mind, but it’s not calling out to me constantly, begging to be conquered.

Notice a pattern here? All three of these games have one thing in common: they’re word games. Yes, I’m a word nerd and the kind of games I prefer are word games.

The other game that remains on my iPad but hasn’t been opened in some time is The Room, “a physical puzzler, wrapped in a mystery game, inside a beautifully tactile 3D world.” It was the rage among my computer geek friends back in early 2012 (I think) and the buzz was so loud from people I respected that I bought a copy and tried it myself. It reminded me of the classic Mac OS game Myst in that it requires you to navigate through a 3D world and manipulate objects to get clues to solve puzzles. Solving each level’s puzzles take you to the next level. These games are beautiful with creepy sound effects and haunting music, but can’t be played a few minutes at a time. They’re the kind of thing you reach for when you’re stuck in bed with a cold and can’t do much else than read, watch TV, or fiddle with an iPad game. I played through it once back in 2012 and have saved it to play through again. (My memory is so shoddy that it’ll likely be new to me.) I just need a down day when I have time to waste. And now I see that there’s a sequel: The Room Two. So now you know what I’ll be doing the next time I’m stuck in bed with a cold.

The Room
The Room is hauntingly beautiful, but can’t be played a few minutes at a time.

Wasting Time

And that’s what games are for, aren’t they? Spending time you have to waste.

I do most of my game playing one of three times:

  • Right before falling asleep. Although I have a television in my bedroom here in the mobile mansion, I never did at home and won’t in my new home. I got into the habit of reading, doing crossword puzzles, or paying games on my iPad until I’m ready to sleep. Most nights, that means about 10 minutes.
  • Overnight or first thing in the morning. When I was having sleeping problems — which have, for the most part, gone away — I turned to books or games on my iPad to get me sleepy enough to go back to sleep. I also occasionally turn to them if I wake up earlier than I want to get out of bed.
  • Stuck waiting someplace. Whether I’m in a doctor’s office waiting room, sitting in my helicopter waiting for passengers to return to the landing zone, or sitting at a restaurant sipping a martini while waiting for dinner to arrive, books and games on my iPad are a good way to keep my mind busy.

If I’m alone and don’t have anything else to do, why shouldn’t I turn to a diversion I enjoy? That’s the way I justify it. More on justification in a moment.

Web-Based Games

The other day, one of my Facebook friends, Carla, posted a link to a game called 2048. This is a web-based number puzzle game that is incredibly addictive to anyone who likes number puzzles. What makes it even worse is that it’s also extremely simple, so it has the potential to suck in people who don’t even like math. Really.

Carla warned us that it was addictive, but I clicked anyway. And I got sucked in. In the middle of the day.

That’s the problem with web-based games. Since I’m normally sitting at my computer when I’m using a web browser, I naturally discover them in the middle of the day. When I should be working.

(You could argue that I shouldn’t have been on Facebook in the middle of the day, either, and frankly, I can’t argue with you. That’s another additive time suck.)

The trouble with this game is that I was pretty sure it was possible to beat and I was equally sure that there was a “trick” to beat it. Yet I couldn’t beat it or find the trick. So I kept trying. Over and over.

2048 Solved
2048 solved.

I finally got back to work. But later, I tried again. And when I discovered that I could play it via swiping in the browser on my iPad, it became my bedtime addiction. And my lounging in bed before coffee addiction.

Fortunately, after a few days, I finally beat it. I was pretty sure I had figured out the “trick,” too.

After proudly posting this screen grab on Facebook, however, I started wondering if I could do it again. Whether my “trick” was foolproof. And I got sucked into yet another round. I haven’t beaten it again.

Justification

And that brings me my friend Keith’s comment when I posted the screen grab on Twitter

You are playing games after telling everyone to stop playing games and get a life? LOL!

He’s referring to my repeated admonishment of Facebook friends who invite me to play Facebook games with them like Farmville, Candy Crush, Mega Casino, etc., etc., etc. I ignore all requests I get and, whenever possible, set Facebook so it doesn’t allow me to be invited again. I think these games are a complete waste of time and really wish people would find more constructive things to do.

And then he catches me posting game results, exposing me as a hypocrite.

No doubt about it: I was embarrassed. I responded:

YES! That’s the tragedy of it.

In my defense, it is a THINKING game. Supposedly will help ward off Alzheimer’s.

Also in my defense, I do it in bed as a way to get tired enough to fall asleep. (Not having many other options these days.) Also puzzles first thing in the morning, when it’s too early to get out of bed. I don’t do it in the middle of the day.

I do crossword puzzles, too. Same thing: last thing at night or first thing in the morning.

So I admit that I’m just as foolish as the people I ridicule for playing games and then attempt to justify it as a thinking game that’ll work my brain.

And there is truth to that. The Alzheimer’s Association’s page about Brain Health lists mental activity — specifically crossword puzzles — as a way to keep your brain healthy. While the National Institute of Health wasn’t so certain (at least not back in 2010), it certainly can’t hurt.

I justify my playing of these games by saying they help me get drowsy so I can sleep or they keep my mind active. People can justify any kind of irrational behavior to make them feel better about their seemingly stupid decisions. (Hell, I can only imagine the way my wasband has been justifying all the wacky things he’s done over the past two years so he can sleep at night.) It’s part of what makes us human.

What’s the Difference?

But are the games and puzzles I admit to doing any more brain-challenging than my mother’s seemingly mindless colored shape game?

I don’t think anyone can argue that crossword puzzles or games like The Room aren’t challenging. They really make you think. Crossword puzzles draw on your knowledge of words and understanding of puns. W.E.L.D.E.R. and Word with Friends also required good vocabularies.

But 2048? On the surface, it seems like a math game, but when you look at it objectively, it’s clearly a simple matching game — match two numbers and they become a new number. You don’t really need any math skills to play — although, admittedly, good addition skills are necessary to form a strategy and win.

So what’s the difference between that and matching colored shapes?

Damned if I know.

Avoid the Addiction

Wikipedia defines addition as:

Addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences, or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviors.

Wasting hours of every day playing a computer game does not necessarily mean you are addicted. But thinking about that game when you’re not playing it or wanting to play it more and more seems like an addictive behavior to me.

Adverse consequences? How about the ticking away of your life’s clock in a trivial pursuit?

But who’s to say that it’s trivial?

I know that time is not as important to some people as it is to me.

I’ve dealt with my addictive game behavior by removing the games I played too often from my iPad. It’ll be a bit tougher to deal with 2048, but I assume I’ll get tired of it soon enough. (Maybe just one more win.)

I guess what I’m hoping is that the folks who do spend a lot of their time playing games on their computer try to look at the time spent objectively. Is there a real benefit? What are you missing out on? Can you spend your time a better way?

That’s for you to decide. Just try to think clearly when making that decision.

What do you think?