2048’s psychological machinations tempt addiction

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As seen in the April 10 print edition

Max Stahl, comment editor

Screen shot 2014-04-11 at 12.42.25 PMIf I asked you what two to the 11th power was, you’d probably have to stop and think about it. Or you’d pull out your calculator. That’s all right; I don’t really care how good you are at arithmetic. You’d punch 211 into your TI-84 (because if you don’t have a TI-84, you’re not doing real math), and it’d spit out a number you’ve almost certainly become very familiar with over the past month.

That’s because a little over a month ago, on March 9, 19-year-old programmer Gabriele Cirulli launched 2048, a free, open-source computer game that has since gone viral and spawned hundreds of imitators. In the game, numbered tiles appear in a four-by-four grid. The object is simple: combine like powers of two (e.g., two and two, four and four, eight and eight, etc.) to produce the next-highest power, moving the tiles up and down or side to side until you reach 2048. With each move, another tile is randomly added to the grid. You lose when the grid has filled up and there are no more possible moves. It’s a relatively simple game. Moreover, it’s a math game. And there’s a good chance you’re addicted to it.

I don’t blame you. Heck, I’ve been playing it while writing this article. (Yes, to a large extent this article was an excuse to play 2048 and call it work.) The allure of the game has been compared to that of Flappy Bird, 2048’s viral antecedent. Both are simple, easily replayable and challenging. For my part, I’ve never gotten past the 1024 tile, despite roughly 50 attempts at the game. As with Flappy Bird, 2048 challenges players to keep improving their scores, gradually opening itself up to the players as they gain experience. And certainly that’s something that keeps people rooted to the game. But there’s something else at play here, something Flappy Bird never had. 2048, strangely enough, is relatable to us.

Granted, not relatable the way an Arcade Fire album or a Judd Apatow movie is relatable, but insofar as an array of numbered tiles darting across a computer screen can elicit any sort of an emotional connection, the game does pretty well. Often, the resemblance is subtle.

For instance, there’s the randomness of the new tile that spawns in after every move. This is the aspect of 2048 that we cannot predict or control; it can occupy any empty square on the board, always with the potential to thwart even the most carefully executed plan. As in the virtual world of 2048, the real world (of 2014) is nondeterministic, and very frequently we are reminded we have less control over our lives than we might like.

Then there’s the sense of growth the game purveys as you start to reach higher and higher numbers, coming ever closer to 2048. It’s fulfilling. It’s progress quantified. The game does a great job setting goals for you and forcing you to consider both preservation and advancement as you juggle two or three clusters of tiles at once. This condition, too, seems to mirror our hectic, goal-ridden lives. We like to believe that we’re constantly building upon our previous selves.

But, of course, these are qualities that many good games possess. What really sets 2048 apart, I think, is its forgiving nature. Even when the board is filling up and it seems like you’re on the brink of a game over, there’s usually a way out. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve saved myself from defeat at the last minute with a chain of moves that clears up half the board. It happens often, and it’s exhilarating every time.

Thus 2048 has constructed a world that follows many of the patterns of ordinary life. It’s presented to us a world that feels real, that feels like it understands. But the truth is that 2048 has deceived us. Its world, so enticing that we can’t help but return to it again and again, is an ideal, a skewed and simplified reality. This can only be expected of a computer game, but it is an important precaution nonetheless. 2048 produces a sort of single-mindedness that could thrive only in a limited environment, like that of a video game. In real life, such unwavering resolve is perilous. In real life, output is not proportional to effort applied. 2048 teaches that if you try again and again to attain that one prevailing goal, you will see progress; you will build on your past successes; you will come closer. And that’s a dangerous lesson to learn, because in many cases it’s simply not true. Anyone who’s ever courted a boy or girl they’re interested in can attest to that.

I fear I’m coming off too cynically. Contrary to what I’ve implied above, I strongly believe that we should have goals and that the prospect of improvement is worth the effort. What worries me is the expectation that games like 2048 foster in us. They spoil us. We spend so much time playing them that, little by little, the modes of thinking they demand seep into our everyday interactions. They lead us to believe that there’s always a way out, that there’s always a second chance, that if we try hard enough and learn the right tactics we can get what we want. And sometimes we just can’t. Cirulli did well to introduce elements of randomness to his game, but ultimately the effort falls short. The player still has too much control. In real life, our influence over the outcome of anything we’re involved in is severely limited by outside factors. I don’t advocate that you stop playing 2048, or any video games for that matter. What I advocate is awareness. Be conscious of how the game might be shaping your disposition; divest it of its subliminal power. 2048 serves as a pleasant escape into a well ordered and comprehensible world, but when we let the patterns of that world affect our behavior everywhere else, we neglect the chaos which pervades our reality. We come to expect too much.

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