Home > balance, games, mobile computing > A Great Experience That Must Stop: Words With Friends and the Mindful Use of Technology

A Great Experience That Must Stop: Words With Friends and the Mindful Use of Technology

I wrote a couple years ago about how much I enjoyed playing Farmville, and how glad I was to quit it.  And a week ago I quit another fun game: Words With Friends (WWF), Zynga’s version of Scrabble on Facebook.  It’s been a peaceful week.  My quality of life has improved.  Which is odd because the game seems so lightweight–a social and casual game that doesn’t demand your attention at any particular time (like Farmville does), or any particular quantity of time (you can play for a minute or two).  So why do I feel like a burden has been lifted? 

I first need to tell you how much fun WWF is.  I like word games, and WWF is a challenging one.  I take genuine pride in a good play.  And though there is certainly luck involved, it’s primarily skill based–and I’ve been improving in both knowledge and tactics.  I can tell you now that there are no valid two-letter words beginning with c or v, that there are five s’s and two blanks, and that a ‘ratel’ is a small african mammal also known as the honey badger.

As I wrote in my last post, I feel close to people when I play WWF with them.  I’ve played with my cousin, colleagues in my field, friends from high school, college, and graduate school, a former student, and my new department chair.  I feel closer to all those people as a result.  You do learn something about people based on the words they play. I had to laugh when a mischievous friend from college was playing naughty words, while in another game a kindly colleague from another department was playing Christmas words just in time for the holidays.  People are funny.

It’s a fun game, and making a move takes only a couple minutes.  You can play right away after your opponent, or you can wait a day.  It’s creative, challenging, and fun.  So what could be wrong?

Well, one big thing: WWF was slowly taking over my life.  Consider the following situation.  I’m picking my kids up at aftercare at their elementary school.  When I arrive, they are somewhere in a large school building (Doing art in the cafeteria? Out on the playground?) and they are paged to come to the lobby.  It usually takes about five minutes for them to stop what they’re doing, clean up, travel across the building, find their backpacks and coats, and be ready to go.  So it’s a perfect time to make my WWF move, right?  Perfect except that if I’m playing a couple different games, I won’t be done when they arrive.  So I put away my phone, but part of my brain is still thinking about my move (what words end in ‘u’? ‘Tofu’?  ‘Bayou’?) rather than paying full attention to what happened at school today.  Until I finish making that move, I won’t fully be there.  And it’s like that through my entire day. The little gaps I have don’t match the amount of time it takes to make my WWF moves.  The fact that you can play on your phone makes the temptation pervasive.

The design of WWF draws you into playing more and more games in parallel.  Once you start a game with anyone, it will suggest you as an opponent to other friends.  And it seems rude to decline, especially when invited by someone you are fond of but haven’t seen in a while.  After each game, it asks both parties if you’d like a rematch.  If you don’t say, “OK, one more,” your opponent probably will.  It seems impolite not to–especially if you just won.  And pretty soon one game at a time becomes four or five.  A single move can take less than a minute.  Or you could pore over it for longer than you realize (‘I know there’s a seven-letter word in these letters!’)

I confess that I can get intense about the game.  It’s funny because I don’t care if I win at other computer games I play like MMOs or puzzle games.  But I guess I take pride in my skill with words more than other things, and I take the game too seriously.  I don’t mind if my opponent makes a spectacular move–bravo for them!  But if I accidentally leave a triple word score open when I didn’t mean to, I’m genuinely angry with myself.  When I’m focusing on a WWF move, I’m seriously concentrating.  It brings out a competitive side of me that I don’t like.

Fitting WWF into my life worked better when I was playing fewer games. And it worked better when I decided I would only make moves at the start and end of the day.  But then I’m waiting for a meeting to start and folks are late… OK, I’ll make a WWF move. But wait, now the meeting is finally started and I’m still thinking about words ending in u again.  You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you?  This story was weaving its way through my life.

I’m definitely never playing Farmville again.  I’m not sure about Words With Friends. The challenge for all of us is to understand how the technologies we use affect the daily rhythms of our lives. And to make mindful choices.


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  1. April 11, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    I understand *exactly* what you mean.

    We have a program-integrating course, mixing students who are at different stages of our education and last year’s theme for the course was “procrastination” (and studying habits and distractions and technostress). I wrote a blog post about the course and the theme at the time:

    I followed that blog post up with some reflections about my personal relationship to procrastination and my own (work) habits – sort of like you do above:

    Finally, a year ago, me and a colleague applied for some money (a pittance) to analyze the materials that our students generated in the program-integrating course. Our project is called “supporting students’ studying habits in the age of procrastination”:

    In the beginning of this year we collected some new material from the neighboring computer science undergrad education and we now have almost 700 (uniform and compulsory) answers to a survey about procrastination, to another survey about media habits and procrastination as well as close to 1000 one- or two-page more open-ended essays by students. We can also correlate this material with actual outcomes, i.e. if students who have problems with procrastination (say watching boxed tv series or wasting inordinate amounts of time on Facebook) have problems passing their courses, or passing specific courses etc.

    We now have five papers in the pipe. Well, we have five ideas for papers which we *could* write and me and my colleague will work on that this year (2013):
    – A quantitative paper on students and procrastination (based on many hundreds of answers)
    – A qualitative paper on students and procrastination (based on an in-depth comparison/analysis of students who Have Problems vs. the better-than-average students)
    – A paper on students’ media habits and procratination
    – A paper on the drawbacks of ubiquitous access to computing on the campus
    – A paper on the correlation between procrastination and results (testing the predictive powers of the procrastinations survey – perhaps procrastinators have problems with specific issues/parts of the education so what could we do to help?)

    I’m sure we could squeeze out even more from the material we have. My personal priority is paper 2 which I hope to get time to work on during the spring, but on the whole I plan to be the second author of the papers as this all is closer to my colleague’s research interests (TEL, e-learning, m-learning etc.) than mine.

  2. May 6, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    I’m in the same boat with Words with Friends. As a bit of a curveball, I’d say the same thing about my stepping away from chess, many years ago. In these abstract games, it is easy to make an easy move, but it is addictive to stare at the position and try to find something better.

    For a casual game that is just there to keep people in touch with each other, it’s just a tad too engrossing. That may sound funny, but if you think about how to maxmize your points, it really does consume some mental energy.

    Have you tried Draw Something?

    • May 8, 2013 at 9:15 am

      The analogy to chess is interesting! I like it.

      I tried an earlier version of draw something, but I haven’t tried the actual one.

      Lately I’ve been playing Candy Crush Saga, which is surprisingly fun. And has the advantage that it cuts you off after five games. 🙂 (Pay money or wait to get another try.) Though I will say I like the short levels better than the super long ones. Some levels are ‘can you do this in sixty seconds’ or ‘can you do this in 20 moves,’ as opposed to ‘can you do this in 50 moves’, which ends up taking up too much time to do a quick level or set of five levels.

  3. February 14, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    I’m annoyed that WWF lists suggested playing partners that I don’t want to play with, and I can’t get rid of them on my screen! How rude and presumptive. Plus their updates suck and I won’t update any more.

    • September 17, 2014 at 8:17 pm

      i couldn’t agree more!to play….

      they push too much unwanted crap on the main screen, eg. leaderboard. and now to add insult to injury they keep pestering me to upgrade to the latest version.

      well i did, and is awful. a players nightmare, so i reveted back but i’m still getting intrusive prompts to update.

      if this continues i might just find another scrabble game

  4. April 30, 2016 at 12:51 am

    This sorta makes me think of the Tetris Effect…similar thing happened to me after I played Portal. I was watching TV and caught myself wondering “Why are they walking? There’s a white wall over there they can just Portal to!”

  5. Bob
    January 18, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    You all have no control over your own lives. I can’t pick up my kids because I’m thinking about the letter U? Really? You felt closer to people you cared for but couldn’t say no to a stranger? Pathetic.

  1. April 18, 2013 at 2:32 pm
  2. May 20, 2013 at 10:54 am
  3. October 26, 2016 at 1:22 pm
  4. January 2, 2017 at 10:52 am

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