Words With Friends: Another Stupid Game – Or An Obsession?
The New York Times Magazine ran a fascinating cover story on April 4, 2012 written with wisdom, humor and insight by Sam Anderson.
Anderson’s basic premise is that the concept of gaming has changed. For decades, a special class of teen or young adult gamer would use specialized systems, to play complex multi-player, multi-level games that might last from a few hours to many days or even weeks. Now, however, anyone can play a quick game — what Anderson terms a “stupid game” — any time of the day or night right there on their smartphone that rests somewhere next to their body 24/7. And this, Anderson argues, has changed the world of gaming to
” . . . not just hard-core gamers, but their mothers, their mailmen and their college professors. Consumers who never would have put a quarter into an arcade or even set eyes on an Xbox 360 were now carrying a sophisticated game console with them, all the time, in their pockets or their purses.”
For decades I scrupulously avoided video games even when my four children delighted in playing them. I think that I once played Pong and perhaps Donkey Kong in a bar somewhere but that was under duress and the influence of a few beers. I have never played a video game that resides on a console although I have watched, fascinated, as young children seem to understand intuitively what actions to take to make the next level or win the game. Just last night I watched my friend’s 9-year-old son sit down at a game console in a restaurant as we were waiting to be seated and without even glancing at the instructions, he popped in two quarters and played.
I have, however, always enjoyed card games and board games, particularly those that required thought or cunning to win the game. I consider myself a pretty good Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit player and delighted in winning nearly every Monopoly game with my children (I used a unique strategy that I refuse to divulge as I plan to use it with my grandchildren!). My iPhones (I have owned four of them) have always come with a hefty game center in the App Store, which, as you might guess, I have avoided like the plague. Until someone pointed out Words With Friends!
Arghhhh! I shall mark that day on my calendar as the day that my life — and my brain — changed. And I am pretty sure that it changed for the worse.
As soon as I downloaded WWF I was hooked. Now I am playing a dozen games with multiple players (all of my opponents are personal friends, as I think it is a bit bizarre to play with people you don’t know, although it is a good way to meet new people). In his NYT article Sam Anderson relayed a similar situation with his wife:
“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.”
That is so true! Anderson’s wife sounds like me, and like everyone else that I play with. I am beginning to see patterns in my WWF friends (I call them that even though two are colleagues, one is my partner, one is a student in my lab and two are other people that I know very well). At first I said that I was going to “just play at night” after watching Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper but before The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Pretty soon I found myself pausing the news and jumping in and making a few plays, and then returning to the news. Then, I think I said “to heck with it” and left the news on and played WWF with the news as background. Now, who cares about the news. Who cares about anything. WWF RULES!
I confess that I am now addicted. But is it truly an addiction or is there more to it? I don’t feel like an addict. I am not shirking my responsibilities at home (I still cook every night although one night I had to grab a cooked chicken because I got into a vicious back-and-forth WWF game with someone — and I WON!) nor is my work suffering. I still teach, still write, but something is happening and I think that I know what it is. What I am feeling, I believe, is a compulsion. Somewhat like Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” I feel as though if I don’t do a certain behavior — i.e., play WWF — I will meet with some dire consequence. I am not washing my hands constantly or locking and unlocking my doors, nor am I avoiding cracks when I walk in the neighborhood. But I feel anxiety much as Jack did when I spot my smartphone. And the anxiety is “I wonder if so-and-so played a word and I better check and play one, too.”
As I sit and stare at my phone wondering about WWF, I am not feeling the discomfort that someone feels when he or she has a true psychological addiction. I am not even hoping that playing will bring me pleasure. What I am feeling is an intense NEED to play or rather to check in to see who has played. And when I do play I don’t feel that rush of dopamine, which feels like pleasure. What I feel is . . . nothing. But then my phone beckons to me and I slide to the last page of apps (I made myself put the WWF app on the last page to make it more difficult to get to. What a fool! It must take me all of a second to flick a few times and it literally pops out at me when I get to that page) and press my finger on the icon and, voila, my games appear!
So, what do I think is happening? I had some time to think about this the other day. I was at public radio studio, waiting to go on a noontime radio broadcast followed by a TV taping. Since I always arrive early I had lots of time and only my phone to keep me busy. I knew that I was going to talk about this on the air so I spent some time with my phone in front of me trying to analyze what might be going on in my brain. Wow! After just a few minutes of “thinking” I somehow found myself looking at a WWF screen of 12 ongoing games. How did I get there? Well, partially I think it was a habit and partially I think I was compelled to do so in a way that resided just below the surface of conscious activity. Sure sounds like a compulsion to me.
How do I plan to break this compulsion? I have started giving myself “WWF Time” where I grant myself the option to play for 15 minutes and no more and then put my phone away, out of sight, and do something else for 45 minutes. I set a timer (on my phone, of course) and when it rings I play and when it rings again I stop. Not sure if it will work as I have only been doing this for a week but I am finding that the 45 minutes is going by pretty quickly now compared to the crawling seconds and minutes that appeared to barely move the first few times I waited for my WWF Time.
Do you feel compelled by your technology? Do certain games or activities that you do on the phone beckon to you? This is one of the main points of my new book, iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, where I devote two chapters to obsessions and compulsions surrounding technology. Let me know what you think.