In the simple computer game 2048, the player must move numbered squares together in a grid in order to reach the number 2048. When the grid is full and there are no possible matches, the game waits for a half-second — a false glimmer of hope — before greying out the screen and telling you that you have lost. A clean box with the text, “Try Again,” offers another chance at winning. And, of course, you try again.
Every few months, a new addictive game grips my friends and me in its clutches. This school year alone, I have moved through three major throes. First, it was Candy Crush, in which you swipe your finger on your phone’s screen in order to crush candies. Then it was Cookie Clicker, in which you click on a cookie in order to make cookies. The current one is 2048, and also it’s customizable version in which you can replace the numbered squares with everything from residential colleges to “Game of Thrones” characters. And I have spent way too much time playing each game.
Addictive games are a different beast than refreshing Facebook every five seconds or trawling through BuzzFeed. They can instill the same shame of procrastination, but the games mask it by making me feel accomplished for reaching a new level, creating a certain number of cookies. Where an essay or seminar reading takes a good deal of concentration and critical thinking, these games give me large rewards with just the swipe of a finger. The rules are easy to grasp, and the games seem to want to take over my life. I develop skill sets and strategies — in Cookie Clicker, for example, I’ve learned how to position my hand such that my index finger vibrates uncontrollably, resulting in a rapid cookie clicking rate. I go to sleep with visions of my phone screen, lit up with bright fruit colors or numbered squares. The cost seems minimal, since these games are either free or have ad-cluttered free versions. But the cost is tremendous: losing track of time before a class that’s a 10-minute walk away; devouring a block of time that I had set aside to write a reading response; stress on my back as I crouch over my phone in the library because I’m embarrassed to have others notice that I’ve been conned by these games.
But then, time wasting isn’t new territory for me. In high school, I had Doodle Jump and Fruit Ninja and Bubble Spinner and The Sims 2. In elementary school, I had Pokémon Crystal and Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Red. Then, I similarly craved an escape from the mundane, the sense of pride in catching a rare Pokémon in a Pokéball, trapping pixels within more pixels. The only difference is that now there are consequences. I don’t finish my work, I don’t fold my laundry, and I’ve even missed the end of dinner while playing these games. I wonder if I’ll ever grow out of this phase. I wonder if I’ll ever win. Under the current reign of 2048, a popular celebration is to post a screenshot of the “You win!” message on Facebook, which symbolizes both the actual “beating the game” and liberation from 2048’s clutches. I envy those people, both for their victory and their freedom. I envy those who are able to channel their study breaks into more productive endeavors.
Perhaps my distraction says something about my workload. Perhaps it is unreasonable to feel shame about wanting a break. Perhaps it’s healthy, even, to take my mind off of dense readings in favor of lighter fare. But when I step into the real world, and will have to make the crucial decision to attend to the spreadsheets in front of me or slink into my phone and load up whatever the next game fad is — perhaps guiding a pig through space to collect shiny celery stalks — something will have to give. I get the feeling that my boss will not be sympathetic to the pig.