Saturday, April 12, 2014

Games and Addiction

As I wrote in my "I'm Back" update, I'm going to fill in what happened in the previous year steadily in smaller chunks, rather than all at once. I'll go in approximately reverse chronological order, meaning I'll start with what's happened most recently.

Prior to these last two weeks of living intentionally, the previous three weeks of my life were characterized by one thing: Games. I'd like to take a step back and look at this in the context of my life and previous approaches to games before describing what I learned about myself during that three-week stretch.

Why I Gave Up Gaming

In high school, I was a Civilization addict. I played several iterations of Sid Meier's game, from being introduced to the original at a neighborhood friend's house to a knock-off called Civilization: Call to Power, to Civilization III and its expansions through a couple expansions of Civilization IV. Of course, I also played other computer games, but Civ was the game that I'd say I got most fully addicted to.

Upon going to college, however, I decided to give up computer games like Civilization. Why? Because I had noticed that I would sometimes play games (or, in Civ, one game) for a full day, say, on a weekend or even vacation in Cancun. At the end of the day, I started to notice a trend where I'd come away with a sort of empty feeling. Part of it was guilt at having lost the whole day "unproductively" and part of it was the feeling of frustration I'd have when I hadn't actually accomplished much of anything in the game itself.

And yet, I couldn't just play a less addicting game, because that would just be worse. The only point of playing a game like that is to have fun, and so I'd play the game that's the most fun, and then waste my day and come away with this empty feeling. So I decided to quit.

By the way, I noticed similar effects for eating sugary cereal. I'd eat it and enjoy it at the moment, but over the medium term, I didn't like the way the sugar highs and lows made me feel. So I decided to stop eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch and my other favorite sugary cereals (yes, even Smart Start).

In this case, however, I was able to find tasty cereals that aren't as sweet, and today I keep a range of sugar levels from Crispix to Special K Red Berries depending on how I'm feeling in the morning. Of course, these sorts of asocial meals will all be replaced by Soylent when it finally arrives in a month or so, so it's not a big deal. (There's a longer story there if you haven't heard me talk about Soylent, but I'll wait to post until I've tried the real thing.)

Neither of these were or are hard and fast rules, although I would occasionally pretend like the gaming one was for the sake of avoiding getting dragged into Team Fortress 2 or another game others were playing around me at Caltech. If they pressed, I'd give this explanation.

Wait, what about Dominion?

During college, however, I made one major exception to the no-gaming rule: I racked up a lot of time playing over 1000 games of an online implementation of Dominion known as Isotropic. I actually even played and got addicted to an earlier version on BrettSpielWelt that had little more than the base set. If I'm honest with myself, I was just as addicted to online Dominion as I had been to Civilization, if not more. Fortunately, Isotropic shut down and was replaced by the more visually appealing but much less addicting (at least, to me) official online implementation by Goko, which I only occasionally play.

The biggest redeemable difference was that many of my friends played on Isotropic as well, so it served as an additional way to bond us closer together. I even organized an online tournament between us that got a few rounds before it was clear that Zach was going to win. But the same social benefits would have applied to TF2, which I refused on the grounds that I didn't want to get addicted, not the better explanation that I don't particularly enjoy first person shooters compared to strategy games.

On that note, around this time, my view towards board games began to shift. I mentioned this in a Quora post recently, but essentially, I stopped seeing friends as means to playing games and started seeing games as a means to hanging out with friends. This changed the emphasis I had on playing a game versus just talking, and made me much more open to party games as well as strategy games.

Also, unlike computer games, board games often have natural bounds around when you can play them with others, which make them harder to get addicted to in the sense that I had been addicted to Civ.

Mobile Gaming?

I'm getting closer to the events of the last month now, so keep reading. When I got my iPhone in my junior year at Caltech, I had been warned that games would be distracting, and didn't buy any for myself. My brother got me Angry Birds Seasons for Christmas one year, which I treated as an extreme option if ever I was really bored. It was enjoyable, but certainly not addicting for me.

Later, I downloaded a version of perhaps my first game addiction, the Windows 95 game Chip's Challenge, which had been adapted as Chuck's Challenge. I was a little more addicted to this game, but fortunately quickly beat all of the levels that had been created, often playing in bed as a means to (or, more likely, instead of) falling asleep. Getting slightly better times on those levels became my new last resort, where Angry Birds had been.

Then, a little over a month ago, Zach introduced me to this game Threes!. A simple yet beautiful iPhone game, Threes! has taken off beyond the wildest dreams of its creators. It's the first iPhone game I've played that's truly addicting.

Even more people have heard of, and played, a knockoff of Threes known as 2048. With some slightly different mechanics but more importantly the port to the browser and an open software engine, 2048 spread so far that it eventually was the subject of 1.25 xkcd comics. I eventually (somewhat reluctantly) switched over to playing 2048 for a while, and my Threes! skills quickly transferred. I then became motivated to over-beat the game beyond what any of my Facebook friends had done. I succeeded, making an 8192 a couple times. I think if I tried hard and was super careful, I could make a 16384, but these games literally take hours, where one mistake could undo all of that progress.

2048 was a cheap clone, never designed to be a good game, and I wouldn't say I was addicted to it. No, instead, I was addicted to the feeling of pride I got from showing up all of my friends who had played 2048. I began to realize that this was my real, and at some point, only, motivation to playing. So I quit and went back to Threes!, but not after bragging all over Facebook. I think some people might get some enjoyment out of seeing how far I could go, but in retrospect, my motivations for playing 2048 were prideful through and through.

Once I had decided that I'd be living intentionally after Spring Break was over, I went all out. The last Saturday of Spring Break, I literally did nothing but, sleep, play Threes!, and eat two quesadillas from Anna's Tacqueria in the Student Center. I needed a break, and decided to take my first week of living intentionally (last week) completely off from playing Threes!, which I did.

Still, I held out some hope that Threes! could occupy a similar space in my life to Angry Birds and Chuck's Challenge, something I could fill time with. I had tried out multitasking with everything, learning that it was possible to walk familiar routes or eat a sandwich while playing, but not to walk along a new path or eat cereal.

But when that week ran out and I allowed myself to play Threes! again, I found it all too tempting to fill other time with the game as well. Particularly if I was doing well, it would be very satisfying to play out the game to completion, and either way, all too easy to start a new one. This wasn't working, and after two days of it wreaking havoc on my so-called plans, I decided to give up for a longer period of time. Fortunately, I reached a natural endpoint when I beat my high score (now 241,389, good for 29th worldwide when I got it) late Tuesday night, and this let me put the game down satisfied.

The Road Ahead

What lessons have I learned from this? I've learned that I do need to set a boundary of not playing any more addictive games while I'm not on some kind of planned break. I've also learned that self-instituted sharp cutoffs do seem to work in my life, which also more broadly applies to my current attempt to live intentionally.

But yet, every day is a new opportunity for me to fall back into my previous patterns. Living intentionally is a matter of continuing to fight that back, and try to establish good habits that will make it easier to fight in the future.

Many of you reading this are Christians, so I'll try to include a portion of most of these personal posts listing prayer requests for me. Here's what I'm praying related to this topic, phrased as I would pray:
  • Give me the strength to continue living intentionally, to actually live out the plans that I have.
  • Guard me against the twin idolatries of libertinism and legalism. Keep me from feeling either shame or glee when I fail if those feelings are not helpful in righting my trajectory.
Here are some possible things I might post next weekend. Let me know if you have a preference!
  1. What I was doing that led me to feel like I needed a break (hint: it has to do with my current Facebook profile picture).
  2. What I'm intentionally spending my time on (yes, I'm "doing research" now!).
  3. The schedule I've been keeping myself to these last couple weeks.
  4. How Dominion has taken over another of my friend groups recently, and built additional community there.
Haha, this blog is turning into a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure! :) If and when I do post these things, I'll edit to provide appropriate linkage.

And in case you're wondering, yes, this post is shorter than my previous updates, but will probably be a bit longer than my future ones. There was a lot of background that I wanted to cover, and this post does summarize and reflect on what I did for most of the month of March. But I don't promise that I'll never write posts this long again.


  1. I've always found that games are more alluring the harder it is to figure out how to make appreciable progress in life. But when I can make progress—in building or understanding or knowing—then the following comes alive:

        I will run in the way of your commandments
            when you enlarge my heart! (Ps 119:32)

    P.S. Why isn't <blockquote> allowed?

    1. Yeah, there's definitely an opportunity cost at play here -- and the bigger I perceive the opportunity cost, the more tempting games are. I guess this suggests I should next allow myself to play Threes when I'm making steady progress in my work.