I was sick this weekend and spent a lot of time either in bed or on the couch trying to move and speak very little. So, among other things, I read a lot of twitter, and on Saturday I noticed lots of people talking about this game called Flappy Bird. which, in case you haven’t heard, is the terrible, unfun game that no one can stop playing.
I went into it without knowing anything except that my twitter friends were proudly announcing scores like 5, or 7. I thought, I’m stuck on this couch all day anyway, I could try out a new game. So I downloaded flappy bird. And then I spent half an hour playing flappy bird, for a high score of 2. I think it took me 5 minutes just to get past the first obstacle. And by get past, I mean die in a way that got me 1 point instead of 0. And then on Sunday I played more Flappy Bird, and managed to get myself a record score of 3. And then I decided maybe it was time to uninstall Flappy Bird.
Now, I’m not smart enough to write articles like the ones I posted above about why Flappy Bird has been so popular when it’s also so self-evidently painful (I disagree a little bit with Bogost about the essential “squalor” of every game that isn’t a game of physical skill though. I grew up on MECC and Learning Company games, I can’t help thinking that some video games involve skills worth having…), but it did remind me of what might be my first resolution of 2014: Spend less time doing things that pass time but aren’t actually enjoyable. Sometimes I find that I’ve spent the last two hours clicking mindlessly through websites selling things I will almost certainly never buy, or reading Weird Twitter accounts that I don’t find funny, or hate-reading a blog. Or playing Flappy Bird. It occupies my attention, but I don’t like it. I feel noticably worse before I start than after. And if I’m going to be doing something that leaves me feeling more tired and unhappy and frustrated than when I started, I might as well get something useful out of it.
Bogost’s non-game example of the Flappy Bird experience is a failed home improvement project. I’m not much for DIY home improvement, but I know the feeling well from my programming days – tasks where the more time you spend, the more hopeless it seems, and you can end up even farther from a workable solution than when you started. But, it’s not always impossible to install drawer pulls, and hardly anything is actually impossible in programming, you just need to find the right approach and have the right tools. You don’t start out assuming failure. Then if do you solve the problem, there’s a payoff that stays with you – drawer pulls that make you feel good about your home, a working product. The payoff in Flappy Bird will never be more than having yet another Flappy Bird score to beat, and less of your life to do it.
So if I’m going to be wasting time in activities that have no useful purpose – and I certainly plan to, I’m not some inhuman productivity machine – they might as well be activities I find pleasant. Like reading a fluffy novel, or watching a TV show (that’s not hate-watching, that’s one of the things I’m trying to avoid), or building houses in the Sims. I like to approach the Sims as like a little design problem. When I’m creating a family, I think about the kind of life I want them to have, the kind of role they’ll play in my town, and then I make all my choices in the game around what will tell the story best, what’s most appropriate for the characters I’ve created and what will most effectively lead them to the goals I have for them. It’s silly, I guess maybe no less silly or philosophically squalid than trying to guide a cartoon bird through a series of pipes but at least I enjoy it.
The point I started out with here is that Flappy Bird reminded me that I’ve been thinking about spending less time doing both pointless and unenjoyable things. It was a stark reminder of how easy it can be to lose time that way, because there’s so little to disguise it as something worth doing.
I’m taking a cognitive-behavioral therapy approach to the task:
- Recognize when I’m in the middle of a non-enjoyable activity
- Interrupt myself, stop the activity
- Be prepared with more pleasant activities I can readily substitute
I might have to reserve some time for the squalor of futile video game pain, though, when I’ve been stuck in bed for three days and have gotten thoroughly sick of all the “pleasant activities” I’m physically capable of engaging in at the time. That is why I picked up Flappy Bird in the first place, after all. I wanted something, anything, different, and running a bird into a pipe over and over again was at least a change from focusing on how my lymph nodes had turned into ping-pong balls covered in tiny razors.