Leith on life

Bored games
July 18, 2013

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 who watches it wants to do anything other than watch it all over again, and they die of thirst and malnutrition, thumb still on the “rewind” button. In a less highbrow context, the British comic 2000AD’s Betelgeusian editor, Tharg the Mighty, frequently warns his readers of the dangers of overdosing on “thrill-power.”

It seldom kills one in real life, of course, but being thrilled all the time is just exhausting. After a couple of circuits of Silverstone you long for a stately Sunday afternoon drive in a brown Austin 7 with your hat on.

So my theory is that the massive—the insane—success of games such as Candy Crush Saga and its even more popular competitor Angry Birds, with their simple mechanisms and extraordinarily repetitive gameplay, and their tendency to elicit a faint sigh of satisfaction at eventually passing a level rather than a yelp of delight, is that they are a homeostatic mechanism in the culture. Amid all this ambient Thrilling, they are a balmy outpost of Slightly Boring. They are the worry beads, the game of patience, the mechanical rosary of the 21st century: something where nothing is at stake, and that engages the mind only enough to prevent it gaping goggle-eyed into the existential void.

A recent Guardian article on Las Vegas slot machines spoke of a version of this phenomenon. I almost cried out with recognition (when I’m in Vegas I can sit for blissful hours in front of the penny slots).

The “escape gambler,” it told us, isn’t really interested in winning: “Some people want to be bled slowly.” The piece quoted one slots player as saying, “with a kind of Sartrean resignation,” that: “With the machines, there really is no chance. Because you know you’re going to lose. That made it even safer—I felt like I almost controlled that fact.”

Penny slots and crushing candies are what something deep in us thirsts for: a complete waste of time