In 1989, as communism was beginning to crumble across Eastern Europe, just a few months before protesters started pecking away at the Berlin Wall, the Japanese game-making giant Nintendo reached across the world to unleash upon America its own version of freedom. The new product was the Game Boy - a hand-held, battery-powered plastic slab that promised to set gamers loose, after all those decades of sweaty bondage, from the tyranny of rec rooms and pizza parlors and arcades.
The unit came bundled with a single cartridge: Tetris, a simple but addictive puzzle game whose goal was to rotate falling blocks - over and over and over and over and over and over and over - in order to build the most efficient possible walls. (Well, it was complicated. You were both building walls and not building walls; if you built them right, the walls disappeared, thereby ceasing to be walls.) This turned out to be a perfect symbiosis of game and platform. Tetris's graphics were simple enough to work on the Game Boy's small gray-scale screen; its motion was slow enough not to blur; its action was a repetitive, storyless puzzle that could be picked up, with no loss of potency, at any moment, in any situation. The pairing went on to sell more than 70 million copies, spreading the freedom of compulsive wall-building into every breakfast nook and bank line in the country.
And so a tradition was born: a tradition I am going to call (half descriptively, half out of revenge for all the hours I've lost to them) "stupid games." In the nearly 30 years since Tetris's invention - and especially over the last five, with the rise of smartphones - Tetris and its offspring (Angry Birds, Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, etc.) have colonized our pockets and our brains and shifted the entire economic model of the video-game industry. Today we are living, for better and worse, in a world of stupid games.
Game-studies scholars (there are such things) like to point out that games tend to reflect the societies in which they are created and played. Monopoly, for instance, makes perfect sense as a product of the 1930s - it allowed anyone, in the middle of the Depression, to play at being a tycoon. Risk, released in the 1950s, is a stunningly literal expression of cold-war realpolitik. Twister is the translation, onto a game board, of the mid-1960s sexual revolution. One critic called it "sex in a box."
Tetris was invented exactly when and where you would expect - in a Soviet computer lab in 1984 - and its game play reflects this origin. The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain (Donkey Kong, Mike Tyson, Carmen Sandiego) but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game's final insult is that it annihilates free will. Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can't make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves.
In 2009, 25 years after the invention of Tetris, a nearly bankrupt Finnish company called Rovio hit upon a similarly perfect fusion of game and device: Angry Birds. The game involves launching peevish birds at green pigs hiding inside flimsy structures. Its basic mechanism - using your index finger to pull back a slingshot, over and over and over and over and over and over and over - was the perfect use of the new technology of the touch screen: simple enough to lure a suddenly immense new market of casual gamers, satisfying enough to hook them.
Within months, Angry Birds became the most popular game on the iPhone, then spread across every other available platform. Today it has been downloaded, in its various forms, more than 700 million times. It has also inspired a disturbingly robust merchandising empire: films, T-shirts, novelty slippers, even plans for Angry Birds "activity parks" featuring play equipment for kids. For months, a sign outside my local auto-repair shop promised, "Free Angry Birds pen with service." The game's latest iteration, Angry Birds Space, appeared a couple weeks ago with a promotional push from Wal-Mart, T-Mobile, National Geographic Books, MTV and NASA. (There was an announcement on the International Space Station.) Angry Birds, it seems, is our Tetris: the string of digital prayer beads that our entire culture can twiddle in moments of rapture or anxiety - economic, political or existential.
I resisted buying an iPhone for what felt like several decades (it was, in biological Earth time, four years), because I was afraid of the power of its games. I spent my formative years becoming fluent in, and addicted to, the video games of the '80s and early '90s - the industry-redefining stretch from roughly Mario Brothers to Mortal Kombat. You could say that video games and I went through adolescence together. As I shed my exoskeleton of fat, Nintendo's blocky pixels started to fuse into sleek 64-bit curves; as my voice lowered, video games' plinky soundtracks matured into little symphonies; as my social circle expanded beyond my little clutch of sweaty and foulmouthed friends, the market for video games expanded into (or at least toward) similarly new demographics: adults, girls.
At some point late in my teens, in a spasm of post-adolescent resolve, I decided to renounce video games forever. They had, I recognized, a scary power over me - an opium kind of power - and I was hoping to cultivate other, more impressive ways of spending my time. I had aspirations of capital "c" culture, and so I started pouring my attention into books, a quieter and more socially respected form of escapism. I knew that, if I had daily access to video games, I would spend literally every day playing them, forever. So I cut myself off, more or less cold turkey, and as a result I was more or less happy and productive.
Then, midway through the dark forest of my adult life, the iPhone came out. This presented a unique problem. It was not only a phone and a camera and a compass and a map and a tiny window through which to see the entire Internet - it was also a pocket-size game console three times as sophisticated as anything I grew up with. My wife, who had never been a serious gamer, got one and became addicted, almost immediately, to a form of off-brand digital Scrabble called Words With Friends. Before long she was playing 6 or 10 games at a time, against people all over the world. Sometimes I would lose her in the middle of a conversation: her phone would go brinnng or pwomp or dernalernadern-dern, and she would look away from me, midsentence, to see if her opponent had set her up for a triple word score. I tried to stay good-humored. I told her I was going to invent something called the iPaddle: a little screen-size wooden paddle that I would slide in front of her phone whenever she drifted away, on the back of which, upside-down so she could read them, would be inscribed humanist messages from the analog world: "I love you" or "Be here now."
Inevitably, my high-minded detachment didn't last long. About a year ago, unable to resist the rising cultural tide and wanting (I convinced myself) a camera with which to take pictures of my children, I gave in and bought an iPhone. For a while I used it only to read, to e-mail and to take pictures. Then I downloaded chess, which seemed wholesome enough - the PBS of time-wasters. But chess turned out to be a gateway game. Once I formed the habit of finding reliable game joy in my omnipresent pocket-window, my inner 13-year-old reasserted himself. I downloaded horribly titled games like Bix (in which you steer a dot in a box between other dots in a box) and MiZoo (in which you make patterns out of exotic cartoon animal heads). These led to better, more time-consuming games - Orbital, Bejeweled, Touch Physics, Anodia - which led to even better games: Peggle, Little Wings. One tiny masterpiece, Plants vs. Zombies, ate up, I'm going to guess, a full "Anna Karenina" of my leisure time. One day while I was playing it (I think I had just discovered that if you set up your garlic and your money-flowers exactly right, you could sit there racking up coins all day), my wife reminded me of my old joke about the iPaddle. This made me inexplicably angry.
And so video games were back in my life.
My plunge into the world of stupid games was not mine alone: over the last few years, millions of people have been sucked into that vortex. As the venture capitalist John Doerr told Vanity Fair last summer, "These games are not for everyone, it's true, but it's for more of everyone than anything else I know." In 2011, Rovio's chief executive claimed that Angry Birds players were spending 200 million minutes inside the game every day - a number that seems simultaneously absurd and plausible. A number like that can't tell us, however, about the quality of those minutes; how many of them were fun or fulfilling or even intentional.
Humans have always played stupid games. Dice are older than recorded history. Ancient Egyptians played a board game called Senet, which archaeologists believe was something like sacred backgammon. We have rock-paper-scissors, tick-tack-toe, checkers, dominoes and solitaire - small, abstract games in which sets of simple rules play out in increasingly complex scenarios. (Chess, you might say, is the king of stupid games: the tide line where stupid games meet genius.)
But pre-Tetris games were different in a primal way. They required human opponents or at least equipment - the manipulation of three-dimensional objects in space. When you sat down to play them, chances were you meant to sit down and play them.
Stupid games, on the other hand, are rarely occasions in themselves. They are designed to push their way through the cracks of other occasions. We play them incidentally, ambivalently, compulsively, almost accidentally. They're less an activity in our day than a blank space in our day; less a pursuit than a distraction from other pursuits. You glance down to check your calendar and suddenly it's 40 minutes later and there's only one level left before you jump to the next stage, so you might as well just launch another bird.
For most of the last 25 years, it was easy to avoid playing these kinds of games. The game industry operated on a Hollywood model: big companies invested heavily in the production of what came to be known as "Triple-A" games, the industry equivalent of summer blockbusters, which were designed to be played mainly on consoles (PlayStation, Xbox, Dreamcast and GameCube). Like summer blockbusters, these games usually involved quests and wars and bombastic special effects that made them appealing to teenage boys. A Triple-A game could have a production budget of $25 million, with hundreds of developers working on it for years at a time and a $50 million marketing campaign to ensure its ubiquity upon release. On the strength of this model, video-game revenue more than doubled from 1996 to 2005, with the vast majority of that wealth coming from a tiny sliver of blue-chip franchises like Halo, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Battlefield. There was a downside, however, to the Hollywood model, which was that the industry fell prey to all the complaints people had been making for decades about Hollywood. The huge budgets and time investments created a conservative, risk-averse culture. Everything was about imitations, spinoffs, prequels, sequels and even subsequels. There is not only a Halo 3 but an entirely separate game called Halo 3: ODST. (It stands for Orbital Drop Shock Troopers.) Meanwhile, the juggernaut companies (Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Rockstar Games) dominated the market so thoroughly that independent game designers, who might have refreshed things, had no practical way to get their work in front of consumers.
Then, in 2007, the iPhone appeared. Games were much easier to develop and easier to distribute through Apple's app store. Instead of just passing their work around to one another on blogs, independent game designers suddenly had a way to reach everyone - not just hard-core gamers, but their mothers, their mailmen and their college professors. Consumers who never would have put a quarter into an arcade or even set eyes on an Xbox 360 were now carrying a sophisticated game console with them, all the time, in their pockets or their purses.
This had a profound impact on game design. In the era of consoles, most games were designed to come to life on a stationary piece of furniture - a television or a desktop computer. The games were built accordingly, around long narratives (quests, wars, the rise and fall of civilizations) that could be explored comfortably while sitting cross-legged on a living-room carpet.
Smartphone games are built on a very different model. The iPhone's screen is roughly the size of a playing card; it responds not to the fast-twitch button combos of a controller but to more intuitive and intimate motions: poking, pinching, tapping, tickling. This has encouraged a very different kind of game: Tetris-like little puzzles, broken into discrete bits, designed to be played anywhere, in any context, without a manual, by any level of player. (Charles Pratt, a researcher in New York University's Game Center, refers to such games as "knitting games.") You could argue that these are pure games: perfectly designed minisystems engineered to take us directly to the core of gaming pleasure without the distraction of narrative. The Angry Birds creators like to compare their game with Super Mario Brothers. But the first and simplest level of Super Mario Brothers takes about a minute and a half to finish. The first level of Angry Birds takes around 10 seconds.
Of all the stupid games I've played, I became addicted to only one: Drop7, a candy-colored fusion of Tetris and Sudoku. Like its ancestors, Drop7 is basically a miniature obsessive-compulsive-disorder playground. The computer tries to fill up the screen while you try to keep it empty. It took me a few days to figure out the game's basic strategies (pay attention to the gray discs) then a few more weeks to figure out some more advanced tricks (focus on the grid's edges), and before long I entered the danger zone. I was playing when I should have been doing dishes, bathing my children, conversing with relatives, reading the newspaper and especially (especially) writing. The game was an anesthetic, an escape pod, a snorkel, a Xanax, a dental hygienist with whom to exchange soothingly meaningless banter before going under the pneumatic drill of Life. Soon I found myself struggling in the net of real addiction. Even as I pressed "New Game," my brain would be thinking, very consciously, I have to stop playing this game. But I didn't. Instead, I spread the Drop7 virus to other people: my wife, my friends, my mother, my in-laws. I found myself playing in all kinds of extreme situations: at 3 a.m., during a severe gastrointestinal crisis; immediately after an intense discussion with my mother; shortly after learning that my dog - the warm, emoting mammal I lived with for 12 years - was probably dying of cancer.
I wanted to understand how such a little game had managed, in such a short time, to drill down and implant its eggs right in the core of my life. So I e-mailed Frank Lantz, the man who designed Drop7. Lantz co-founded a company called Area/Code, is the director of New York University's Game Center and is just generally one of New York City's reigning geniuses of the mysteries of games. (He once oversaw a physical version of Pac-Man, enacted by actual humans, on the grid of New York City streets.) His company had just been purchased by Zynga, one of the titans of stupid games. I wanted to ask him: What is the secret genius of stupid games? Why am I so susceptible to them? How did Drop7 manage to take over my brain? First, though, I asked him if he could help me in another way: if he happened to know of any young design geniuses who were working on the problem of stupid games - someone likely to invent the next Drop7 or Angry Birds or Bejeweled but who had yet to be absorbed by one of the big companies.
Lantz responded with an e-mail that contained, in its entirety, a single name: Zach Gage.
The first thing Zach Gage did, when I walked into his apartment, was apologize for the mess. He had just finished building, in a corner of his living room, an old-fashioned arcade cabinet - the kind of wooden, vending-machine-size techno-altar you would have seen teenagers huddled around in skating rinks in the early 1980s, except this one had a giant Mac monitor for its screen and a Mac mini for its guts and could play more than 3,000 games: everything from the paradigm-shifting superclassics (Space Invaders, Pac-Man) to experimental metagames that Gage and his indie-designer friends invented - with no budget, sometimes in just a few hours - over the last year or two.
Gage referred to his arcade as "a little shrine to games." Building it, he said, had been his summer project; it cost him around six weeks and $1,000. He ordered parts from Hong Kong, then stripped and cut something like 100 wires, then figured out software to map them all to the various buttons. He had to learn the differences between Japanese joysticks (precise, delicate, sensitive) and American (tough, in order to withstand the constant abuse of meaty, unskilled hands).
He did all this out of a sense of deep technological longing. Gage was born in 1985 - one year after Tetris was born in the Soviet Union - which means he grew up in the era of home-video-game systems like Super Nintendo and Xbox. As a game nerd, he wondered what the heyday of public arcades might have been like: all of those actual bodies sharing the same physical space in order to pour themselves, coin by coin, into digital worlds - a kind of protosocial-gaming. His arcade was an attempt to try to begin to understand that, and playing it had inspired some thoughts that surprised me coming out of the mouth of a 26-year-old who created his career largely online.
"Having just built this, I'm seeing how much I hate the Internet," Gage told me. "I mean, I really like the Internet and what it's done for games - it's been amazing. But in so many ways it's just terrible. Arcade cabinets did a lot of things that were really smart that we never gave them credit for. There's a lot of social psychology embedded in that structure." The Xbox, he explained, offered only a few games designed to be played along with other people in the same room. "No one is designing games like that anymore," he said. "It's very terrible."
Gage is an indie game designer - the Bon Iver to Rovio's Katy Perry, the artisanal free-range heirloom-turkey breeder to Zynga's factory farm. He works out of his apartment and has long hair and a perpetually in-progress beard. He works on games mostly by himself, collaborating occasionally with friends, and sometimes he drops into immersive research sessions that can last for weeks. One recent session was intended to figure out why people like playing word games, a genre Gage has always hated. (He thinks it's cheating to build a game on top of a system that already exists, like words or numbers.) So he spent two weeks playing Bookworm, Words With Friends and Wurdle, during which he decided that the genre suffered from a serious lack of strategy - aside from Scrabble, he says, most of those games are just dressed-up word searches.
The result of this was SpellTower, Gage's newest and most successful game, which allows users to create towers by building words from letters in adjacent boxes. In its first two months, he says, it earned him enough money to live off for two years.
Gage's journey into the world of stupid games started, like many people's, with Tetris. He watched his girlfriend playing it on her iPod one day and noticed the clumsiness of the game's touch-screen interface. Gage was horrified. (He can be hilariously indignant about what he sees as bad game design.)
"The iPhone has all these wonderful features, and no one was making use of them," he told me, sounding a little like Howard Roark in "The Fountainhead." "Everyone was trying to figure out a way to shoehorn games they'd already made onto the platform. Tetris wasn't built around a touch screen. If we hadn't had those original games, and we'd only had touch screens, you'd never see a game like that. It would never have come up naturally, because it's not good. So I started making a game to explore that, to try and figure out what multitouch Tetris would be like."
The result was a game called Unify, a kind of bidirectional Tetris in which colored blocks drift in from opposite edges of the screen and meet in the middle. The game is addictive; it seems determined to explore some previously neglected intersection in the brain of motor skills and our capacity to track multiple objects simultaneously. It was critically acclaimed but only a modest success, in terms of sales, though Gage didn't seem to mind. "Coming at it from an art background," he said, "my interest is solely in getting to play with some new technology that no one's solved. Unify is, as far as I know, the very first time that anyone's ever made a multitouch puzzle-block game."
Gage's parents are both artists, and he has an M.F.A. from Parsons in New York; he comes off as the classic young artist toiling away in his garret, except instead of anatomy books and turpentine and canvases, he's surrounded by board games and old controllers and Xbox discs. For several years, Gage scraped out a living from a combination of teaching gigs, speaking engagements and game sales - with game sales being the least reliable contributor. He seems basically unconcerned about money. In fact, one of Gage's current projects is a satire of the current state of the gaming industry, especially companies' tendency to try to cash in by copying the latest trend. The game's working title is "Unify Birds." It's exactly the same as Unify except that it has been redesigned in the most superficial possible way: Gage has turned all of the blocks into colorful, wide-eyed birds. "I made a couple of other little changes," Gage says, "but mainly I just made everything superadorable. It's been really interesting, because I've showed it to people who liked Unify, and they'll play it, and they'll be like: 'Oh, man, Zach. This is a really good game. This is better.' They wondered what I've changed."
Gage let me play Unify Birds. It felt, immediately, like a much better game - a game, in fact, that might even become a hit.
There are people who see the proliferation of stupid games as a good thing. In fact, they believe that games may be the answer to all of humanity's problems. In her book "Reality Is Broken," Jane McGonigal argues that play is possibly the best, healthiest, most productive activity a human can undertake - a gateway to our ideal psychological state. Games aren't an escape from reality, McGonigal contends, they are an optimal form of engaging it. In fact, if we could just find a way to impose game mechanics on top of everyday life, humans would be infinitely better off. We might even use these approaches to help solve real-world problems like obesity, education and government abuse. Some proponents point to successful examples of games applied to everyday life: Weight Watchers and frequent-flier miles, for example.
Corporations, of course, have been using similar strategies for decades, hooking consumers on products by giving them constant small victories for spending money (think of the old Monopoly game promotion at McDonald's). The buzzword for this is "gamification" and the ubiquity of computers and smartphones has only supercharged these tendencies. Gartner, a technology research firm, predicted last year that, in the near future, "a gamified service for consumer-goods marketing and customer retention will become as important as Facebook, eBay or Amazon." Companies have already used online games to sneakily advertise sugary cereals directly to children.
Although there is a certain utopian appeal to McGonigal's "games for change" model, I worry about the dystopic potential of gamification. Instead of just bombarding us with jingles, corporations will be able to inject their messages directly into our minds with ads disguised as games. Gamification seeks to turn the world into one giant chore chart covered with achievement stickers - the kind of thing parents design for their children - though it raises the potentially terrifying question of who the parents are. This, I fear, is the dystopian future of stupid games: amoral corporations hiring teams of behavioral psychologists to laser-target our addiction cycles for profit.
Mark Pincus, founder and chief executive of Zynga, said recently that game mechanics "will be the most valuable skill in the new economy." He should know. His game FarmVille, a farm simulator that dominated Facebook in 2009, is one of the most successful and controversial stupid games of all time. (The game's usage peaked, in early 2010, at nearly 85 million players.) FarmVille became notorious, especially in its early days, for its expansionist zeal: the way it used the architecture of Facebook to make itself go viral, autoposting constant status updates on its users' walls. The game is free but constantly nudges its players toward spending money and recruiting their friends.
By early 2010, millions of people had joined anti-Zynga Facebook pages. Facebook eventually cracked down on some of these more extreme practices. Zynga has now expanded its focus to include mobile phones. (Last month, Zynga introduced its own independent platform, Zynga.com.) As the economy of the actual world tanked, Zynga's virtual economies grew and grew, generating a real-world fortune. In 2010, the company reportedly had a $400 million profit. As of summer, when Zynga celebrated its third birthday, the company had studios in Beijing, Tokyo, Dallas, Boston, Baltimore, Bangalore, Los Angeles, Dublin and New York. During one particularly active stretch, it was buying another game company every month. It reportedly even tried to buy Rovio, the creator of Angry Birds, for $2.25 billion. (Rovio declined.)
Zynga's most popular game, Draw Something, has around 14 million daily players. Through its sheer size and scale, the company seems to be pushing the iPhone-game economy toward something like the old Triple-A model. One of its more recent games, Empires and Allies, was introduced in 12 countries simultaneously and attracted 10 million players in 10 days.
Some people argue that Zynga's signature games - FarmVille, FishVille - shouldn't even be called games. As Nicholas Carlson of the Web site Business Insider wrote: "They are click-machines powered by the human need to achieve progress by a predictable path and a willingness to pay small amounts of money to make that progress go faster. They are not 'games.' " But you could argue that games like FarmVille are in fact just the logical end of gamification: gamified games. They have the appearance of games, they inspire the compulsions of games, but for many people they are not fun like games.
Which brings us back to my addiction to Drop7.
When I spoke to Frank Lantz, the creator of Drop7, he seemed humbled by his own game. He said Drop7 felt less like something that he and his team had created than something they had discovered - "a little corner of the universe that people hadn't visited before, that predates us and will be around after we're gone." He's not sure why the game is so addictive, just that it is. (He said he even found himself enjoying it when he was play-testing, which is usually a purely analytical process.) Lantz's best explanation is that Drop7 occupies a "hinge in the universe" that is at once mathematical (it allows you to play between the ordinal and cardinal meanings of a number) and spiritual: it holds you in a place between conscious problem-solving and pure intoxication. Which, come to think of it, is probably the cognitive signature of all the great stupid games.
Lantz seemed undisturbed by the dark side of stupid games, like addiction or cynical corporate hijacking. He said that real games are far too fragile and complex to be engineered by corporations and that their appeal goes much deeper than reward schedules. "It's as hard to make a really good game as it is to make a really good movie or opera or hat," he told me. "Sure, there's mathematics to it, but it's also a piece of culture. The type of game you play is also a part of how you think about yourself as a person. There's no formula that's going to solve that equation. It's impossible, because it's infinitely deep and wonderful."
As for my nightmare vision of a world splintered by addiction to stupid games, Lantz had a different perspective. He said that he liked to think Drop7 was not only addictive but also, on some level, about addiction. Games, he told me, are like "homebrew neuroscience" - "a little digital drug you can use to run experiments on your own brain." Part of the point of letting them seduce you, as Lantz sees it, is to come out the other side a more interesting and self-aware person; more conscious of your habits, weaknesses, desires and strengths. "It's like heroin that is abstracted or compressed or stylized," he said. "It gives you a window into your brain that doesn't crush your brain."
I tried to think about what - if anything - I had learned from this window into my brain. Like their spiritual forefather, Tetris, most stupid games are about walls: building them, scaling them, knocking them down. Walls made of numbers, walls made of digital bricks, walls with green pigs hiding behind them. They're like miniature boot camps of containment. Ultimately, I realized, these games are also about a more subtle and mysterious form of wall-building: the internal walls we build to compartmentalize our time, our attention, our lives. The legendary game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as, simply, "a series of interesting choices." Maybe that's the secret genius of stupid games: they force us to make a series of interesting choices about what matters, moment to moment, in our lives.
Lantz told me that the deepest relationship he has ever had with a game was with poker, to which he was almost dangerously addicted. "Somehow teetering on the edge was part of the fun for me," he said. "It was like a tightrope walk between this transcendently beautiful and cerebral thing that gave you all kinds of opportunities to improve yourself - through study and self-discipline, making your mind stronger like a muscle - and at the same time it was pure self-destruction. There's no word for that in English, for a thing that does both of those at the same time. But it's wonderful."
I asked him if he knew a word for that in another language.
He said no, but then he thought for a minute.
"I think it's 'game,' " he said. "I think the word for that is 'game.' "
©2012, The New York Times News Service