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.
I regret to admit that I may suffer from an anti-gizmo fetish. Am I alone?
Since I teach in the school of Interactive Computing, it won’t surprise you to learn that many of my colleagues like getting new computers and electronics. Several pre-ordered iPads, and tweeted about opening the box, and their first impressions of the device. More than one colleague and friend has mentioned that they enjoy going out with their iPad and having people notice it and ask about it. In the row behind me on my flight yesterday, I overhead a conversation begin, “Is that an iPad? Mine just came! I haven’t opened the box yet.” Its features were discussed in great detail over most of the midwest and into the southeast.
This isn’t a post about iPads–it’s about the latest and greatest device, whatever that happens to be at the moment. For most people, having your device noticed is a pleasure. I guess I can speculate on how they feel, but I’m wondering: am I the only one who feels the opposite? When I imagine someone in a café noticing my iPad (or similar), I’m filled with a squirmy sensation I can only describe as embarrassment. I’m not sure if I need a “third device,” but I know if I get one I may wait until it’s commonplace.
I’m not a shy person. I’m more likely than average to strike up a conversation with the supermarket checkout clerk, the person next to me on the shuttle bus, or the other parent on the park bench. But the idea of those people saying “Oooh, is that a cell phone (remember when they were a status symbol?)/iphone/ipad/etc” is completely unappealing.
The topic of whether any particular device is actually useful or pleasing is a separate issue. I’m talking here about electronics as a fashion statement–an expression of personal identity. And for portable electronics, that statement is increasingly visible and public. Having a blu-ray player (when they were new) or a 3D TV (more recently) is one sort of fashion statement, but you need to mention it or have friends over for anyone to know. Having a portable device you use in public takes electronics-as-fashion to a new level. You really do “wear” it.
I don’t like being noticed for expensive clothes or shoes either. Is the issue the same? You can notice my jewelery, but only if it’s arty jewelry made from relatively inexpensive materials–I don’t want emeralds thank you very much. It’s not a lack of interest in fashion–it’s just a different sensibility for fashion.
Do you also have an anti-gizmo fashion sense? Leave me a comment!
In the comments, Kurt Luther asks–is this just about money? Could an inexpensive but new/useful device cause the same kind of phenomenon? I do think a big part of this is about money. But with a night to think about it, maybe it’s also about a kind of “techno-positivism”: the belief that new gadgets make the world better. I very definitely do NOT think that new gadgets necessarily make the world better. In fact, I’m pretty sure they sometimes make it worse. As I wrote in an old essay called “Christmas Unplugged” (written 12/25/92, published 12/94), I worry that being connected all the time is unhealthy. I think the new “wearable computing” conveys both money and techno-positivism, and neither is a message I want to send.