This article—I may as well be candid—is being written in between bursts of playing a videogame on my smartphone: Candy Crush Saga. I’m stuck on level 165.
You may well know the game I’m talking about: your children almost certainly play it; perhaps you even play it yourself. I know at least one household-name writer who is completely addicted to this game, which attracts millions of players every day.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, Candy Crush Saga will remind you, visually, of Tetris—the game in which the player manipulates falling blocks to stack them into rows. In Candy Crush Saga, you are faced with a pile of multicoloured sweeties, which you must rearrange by swapping adjacent sweets to create rows of three with matching colours. If you achieve this, the sweets go “pop,” and those above them fall into their place. You repeat the process until the level is clear or you run out of moves. That’s it. As with Tetris, it’s very simple.
But Tetris was thought of in 1984. Isn’t it odd that such simple 2D games still top the app stores? More than 15m people play Candy Crush Saga daily. To use the traditional comparator, that’s five times the population of Wales.
Here’s the thing. Candy Crush Saga and other popular block-matching games, such as Bejeweled, have something that Tetris did not: they are, in fact, less exciting. You can play them at your own pace, except in the occasional timed level—which are the ones, tellingly, that nobody really likes. The feeling you have before you lose a game of Tetris is always panic: L-shaped blocks rain ever faster from the sky and with every misplaced block your room for manoeuvre goes down. You crash out in a cascade of fumbling errors. Candy Crush has ditched the panic, and that is the key.
Why? Well: we live in an age when we have more entertaining entertainment than ever before. It would be easily possible to spend every waking hour thrilled out of your mind: pulse-pounding Hollywood movies springing out at you in 3D; visually spectacular and extraordinarily tense and immersive videogames; we have roller-coasters faster, music more banging and pornography more filthy than human history has heretofore witnessed.
This is what David Foster Wallace was getting at in Infinite Jest. The McGuffin there is a videotape (“the Entertainment”) so extraordinarily entertaining that it kills people: nobody…