By SAM ANDERSON APRIL 4, Inas 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.
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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.
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: 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 s — it allowed anyone, in the middle of the Depression, to play at being a tycoon. Risk, released in the s, is a stunningly literal expression of cold-war realpolitik.
Twister is the translation, onto a game board, of the mids sexual revolution. Tetris was invented exactly when and where you would expect — in a Soviet computer lab in — 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. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves. In25 years after the invention of Tetris, a nearly bankrupt Finnish company called Rovio hit upon a similarly perfect fusion of game and device: 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: Within months, Angry Birds became the most popular game on the iPhonethen spread across every other available platform. Today it has been downloaded, in its various forms, more than million times. It has also inspired a disturbingly robust merchandising empire: There was an announcement on the International Space Station.
Angry Birds, it seems, is our Tetris: I resisted buying an iPhone for what felt like several decades it was, in biological Earth time, four yearsbecause I was afraid of the power of its games.
You could say that video games and I went through adolescence together. 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 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: I tried to stay good-humored. I told her I was going to invent something called the iPaddle: 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 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: One tiny masterpiece, Plants vs.
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 daymy 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: 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: 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 iso stock options disqualifying disposition through the cracks of other occasions.
We play them incidentally, ambivalently, compulsively, almost accidentally. 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: Like summer blockbusters, these games usually involved quests and wars and bombastic special effects that made them appealing to teenage boys.
On the strength of this model, video-game revenue more than doubled from towith the vast majority of that wealth coming from a tiny sliver of blue-chip franchises like HaloWorld 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: It stands for Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. Meanwhile, the juggernaut companies How to make money fast on farmville 2, 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, inthe iPhone appeared. 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 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 how to make money fast on farmville 2 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. This has encouraged a very different kind of game: Tetris-like little puzzles, broken into discrete bits, designed best stocks covered call strategy be played anywhere, in any context, without a manual, by any level of player.
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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. Drop7, a candy-colored fusion of Tetris and Sudoku.
The computer tries to fill potosi livestock market auction the screen while you try to keep it empty.
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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. Instead, I spread the Drop7 virus to other people: I found myself playing in all kinds of extreme situations: 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. 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 computer desk with hutch staples 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: Lantz responded with an stock price option value black scholes that contained, in its entirety, a single name: 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 s, except this one had a giant Mac monitor for its screen and a Mac mini for its guts and could play more than 3, games: He ordered parts from Hong Kong, then stripped and cut something like 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. As a game nerd, he wondered what the heyday of public arcades might have been like: 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 year-old who created his career largely online.
Arcade cabinets did a lot of things that were really smart that we never gave them credit for. 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 hlb forex rate session was intended to figure out why people like playing word games, a genre Gage has always hated.
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. In its first two months, he says, it earned him enough money to live off for two years. He can be hilariously indignant about what he sees as bad game design.
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. 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.
Gage has turned all of the blocks into colorful, wide-eyed birds. This is a really good game. Gage let me play Unify Birds.
It felt, immediately, like a much better game — a game, in fact, that might even become a hit.
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There are people who see the proliferation of stupid games as a good thing. 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. 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: His game FarmVille, a farm simulator that dominated Facebook inis one of the most successful and controversial stupid games of all time.
FarmVille became notorious, especially in its early days, for its expansionist zeal: The game is free but constantly nudges its players toward spending money and recruiting their friends.
By earlymillions 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. 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. 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. As Nicholas Carlson of the Web site Business Insider wrote: 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 he even found himself enjoying it when he was play-testing, which is usually a purely analytical process.
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.
The type of game you play is also a part of how you think about yourself as a person. 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. 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: Walls made of numbers, walls made of digital bricks, walls with green pigs hiding behind them.
Ultimately, I realized, these games are also about a more subtle and mysterious form of wall-building: Lantz told me that the deepest relationship he has ever had with a game was with poker, to which he was almost dangerously addicted. I asked him if he knew a word for that in another language. He said no, but then he thought for a minute. He last wrote about Dickens World, a theme park in England.
A version of this article appears in print on April 8,on Page MM28 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Just One More Game Tell us what you think.
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