Paradoxically, mobile games stave off age of isolation

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As seen in the March 7 print edition

Robert Katz, web editor-in-chief

In Damon Albarn’s newest single, “Everyday Robots,” the Blur and Gorillaz frontman decries cell phones as dehumanizing devices that transform us into “standing stones, out there on our own.” The song echoes a sentiment held throughout the modern world, with many outspoken thinkers and scholars concerned about the isolating effects of personal technology.

One of the most visible culprits is the mobile video game, which has developed over seven years (whatever you had on your Motorola RAZR V3 back in ’05 doesn’t really count) into a cultural centerpiece. With the Angry Birds series at over 2 billion downloads since December 2009 and Candy Crush Saga at over 500 million downloads since April 2012, it is pretty obvious that someone is playing these games.

Their prevalence is noticeable, especially in school. These days, smartphones are ubiquitous, a fact made clear when we look up from our miniature screens to see others in the hallways, outside of class, or even at the lunch table, immersed in their own. So, yes, perhaps the musical philosophers of our day got part of it right (ahem, Arcade Fire), but if we step back we can take into account just what these games are doing for us, instead of to us.

The current virtual fad is Flappy Bird, a charming ornithological adaptation of the Greek tale of Icarus (an eerie interpretation given creator Dong Nguyen’s recent clash with fame). In other words, tap the screen to make the bird flap its wings and try not to hit the pipes extending from off-screen voids. For many, its difficulty is what makes them keep coming back to it.

Such is the beauty of Flappy Bird. For a generation that has been labeled as entitled and self-pitying, it is refreshing to see the birth of another culture of competition and self-improvement. Of course, this attitude is inherent to academics, but what is crucial is that these games (including Angry Birds and Candy Crush Saga) do not matter. Our fate in life is not tied to whether or not we dodged 77 pipes or cleared every world. As they say, it’s just a game. But that’s why this trend matters. When we share screenshots of scores and monitor leaderboards, we strive to succeed at something that doesn’t involve riches or social standing or charity. It barely involves reputation. We care about the raw satisfaction of getting better at something we enjoy. We care about sharing that progress with the people we esteem, and building rivalries in which we can afford to hassle and tease each other. We are in an era of sportsmanship on the go.

It can be (and is) argued that young people spend too much time staring at screens and sitting inside. But I believe that other concerns in life keep us chained to our devices far more than the occasional three-minute game of Tetris does. Is the rise of the mobile video game having much more critical and deep effects on our teenage minds, perhaps in ways so diabolical that we may wake up one morning with our rooms unadorned, our bookshelves bare, our credit cards practically stuffing the wallets of corporate shadows, and our brains pumped with intellectual soma?

Maybe, but I have a game of Super Hexagon to get to.

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