The same praise you've always loved, now in video game form!

E3 is an annual video game trade show that is without question the single biggest event of the year for the video game industry, which makes it the biggest event of the year for my ad agency as well. Game developers go to E3 to show off their latest games and systems to a breathless army of neckbearded video game journalists in hopes of ginning up hype as well as the value of their publishers’ stock. It’s a bevy of demos, flashy presentations, and trailers upon trailers – so as one would imagine, the past few months have been pretty busy for me and my coworkers.

Now, however, we’ve passed the point of no return – E3 is next week, and any work that was going to go onto the floor at the Los Angeles Convention Center was finished and sent to client last week. The pace at the office has slowed way down, and there’s no greater sign of that than the fact that last week my boss told me to download the sensationally popular iOS game Bejeweled, which is made by one of our clients, and “Play it for awhile to familiarize yourself with the game.”

In spite of how much time I spend playing video games, I really don’t get a whole lot of variety in my experience. Every single video game jockeying for space on my shelf is some flavor of shooter, most of them with heavy science fiction influences. My favorite movies range from Boogie Nights to The Incredibles to Children of Men, but when I’m playing a video game the only experience that really interests me is one where I can shoot people with huge guns – almost as though there’s a Republican deep inside me trying to break out.

Not only is my taste in video games limited, but so is the way that I play them. Between handheld gaming devices and the exploding iOS gaming market, you can conceivably play a video game just about anywhere at any time, but I do all of my gaming the way I’ve done it since 1996 – sitting on my ass in front of a TV, at home, usually without pants on. Up until last week, I didn’t have a single game on my phone besides Words With Friends.

When I play a video game, I want to play an immersive, big-budget title with a great script and innovative gameplay. I play for experience – not the arbitrary points doled out in role playing games to determine your character’s level*, but the same sort of experience people seek when they go to the movies.

*”Tonight, on Let’s Guess Why Truman Is Single!

iOS and handheld games tend to be simpler experiences that are usually a little lighter on story, often designed primarily to occupy quick patches of idle time throughout the day. It’s not really the type of experience that I’m after, and I’m also wary of the idea that I need to have entertainment locked and loaded at all times. Life is full of idle time and boring moments; I don’t want to spend all of mine staring at my phone.

But then, my boss told me to download Bejeweled – and fuck me, is that game ever addictive!

Everybody who’s familiar with Bejeweled can go take a break for awhile, because I’m about to give an exhaustive rundown of the rules and gameplay for the people who haven’t played the game:

You look at a bunch of jewels and try to match the identical jewels to score points.

Okay, everybody, come on back! We’re done with the rundown!

Yes, Bejeweled is simple – but so is the chemical formula for heroin.* Within 30 seconds of downloading the game on my phone and beginning to play, I realized that my life had changed forever. I had been a person with a bunch of hoity-toity reasons for why he didn’t play iOS games; now I was a person who played Bejeweled.  

*At least, it looks that way on Wikipedia – I don’t know shit from chemistry, so it could actually be the most complicated chemical formula in the world.

A lot of science goes into making junk food psychologically addictive – corporations have entire labs full of scientists who, through extensive study and focus groups, have concocted formulas that make the experience of eating potato chips and drinking Coke so fun for our bodies that it’s extremely difficult to stop, even when we want to.

Video games do the same thing, but instead of creating irresistible combinations of taste and texture to get us hooked, game developers bait us with sounds, colors, and positive reinforcement. Have you ever wondered why legions of people play Call of Duty more fanatically than any other multiplayer shooter before it? It’s because you’re always getting rewarded – the game is full of purposefully low benchmarks so that once you start playing you’re immediately bombarded with electric guitar sound cues and congratulations for having killed five people, or fired 100 bullets, or been called three different racial slurs by the same 12-year-old opponent.

At a visceral level it feels good to get praised every minute or so, no matter how trivial the thing you’re getting praise for is, and you’re naturally inclined to chase that feeling.

Bejeweled is that same science at work. When you match three jewels (the minimum number needed to score) into a chain, they cheerfully jingle. When you chain up four for a powerup, it’s a soft explosion. When you achieve a cascade – a chain reaction wherein the new jewels falling into place onscreen form chains of their own to net you even more points – it sounds like a slot machine fucking a fireworks display, and it’s glorious. As though that wasn’t enough, a deep voiced announcer periodically interjects encouragement like “GOOD!” or “EXCELLENT!” which gives the impression that God himself approves of your ability to locate and match jewels.

Getting the player hooked is a tactic as old as video games – remember how I spent like $40 on Galaga that time? – and I don’t really begrudge any game developer who uses relatively harmless psychological tricks to sell his or her (but probably his) product.

At the same time though, I feel pretty pathetic lying around my room matching colorful jewel sprites all evening when I could be feeling pathetic playing any one of the big budget Playstation 3 games I was addicted to before last week.

Fun is a hell of a drug.

Truman Capps will now return to playing Bejeweled.