Amy Bruckman, who did some of the first serious academic work on online communities, has a thoughtful post about giving up Words With Friends. “It’s a fun game, and making a move takes only a couple minutes,” she writes. “You can play right away after your opponent, or you can wait a day. It’s creative, challenging, and fun. So what could be wrong? Well, one big thing: WWF was slowly taking over my life.”

What follows is a thoughtful examination of how “casual games” manage to insinuate themselves into our lives.

Consider the following situation.  I’m picking my kids up at aftercare at their elementary school.  When I arrive, they are somewhere in a large school building (Doing art in the cafeteria? Out on the playground?) and they are paged to come to the lobby.  It usually takes about five minutes for them to stop what they’re doing, clean up, travel across the building, find their backpacks and coats, and be ready to go.  So it’s a perfect time to make my WWF move, right?  Perfect except that if I’m playing a couple different games, I won’t be done when they arrive.  So I put away my phone, but part of my brain is still thinking about my move (what words end in ‘u’? ‘Tofu’?  ‘Bayou’?) rather than paying full attention to what happened at school today.  Until I finish making that move, I won’t fully be there.  And it’s like that through my entire day. The little gaps I have don’t match the amount of time it takes to make my WWF moves.  The fact that you can play on your phone makes the temptation pervasive.

A couple years ago, Bruckman wrote about giving up Farmville:

Playing Farmville doesn’t take much time. After ten minutes, there’s nothing much to do… Except ten minutes here and ten minutes there starts to add up after a while. And the ten minutes can happen at inconvenient times in your real life routine, which can be disruptive.

I have no patience with anti-Farmville snobbery. Because snobbery is what it is, filled with unexamined class and gender biases. This is a fun game. Or hobby. It’s got a number of really insightful design features, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount by playing it seriously for a few months. There are reasons why it’s wildly popular, and those reasons are worth understanding. But it is indeed time for me to move on.

This is a terrific example of the kind of self-examination we should all learn to do when considering how to use (or not use) technologies. Part of the issue is that while these are described as a lightweight casual games– in contrast to strategy games you can play for just a minute or two, and there’s not a lot of deep multi-turn strategic thinking in contrast to chess– the interactions that Farmville, Words With Friends, Mafia Wars, Drawsome, and similar games sets up with your fellow players is designed to encourage constant play:

The design of WWF draws you into playing more and more games in parallel.  Once you start a game with anyone, it will suggest you as an opponent to other friends.  And it seems rude to decline, especially when invited by someone you are fond of but haven’t seen in a while.  After each game, it asks both parties if you’d like a rematch.  If you don’t say, “OK, one more,” your opponent probably will.  It seems impolite not to–especially if you just won.  And pretty soon one game at a time becomes four or five.

I played Drawsome for a while, and gave it up in part for the same reasons: it was taking up more of my time than I liked, but I also felt kind of manipulated by the system. It’s less fun to do things with friends when you’re being nudged to do them, and that holds true for family reunions and school events and online games. And having spent a non-trivial part of my high school and college years playing many more hours of video games than I like to admit, I tend to watch out for addictive behavior on screens.

Part of what I admire about Bruckman’s posts is that she acknowledges that these are well-designed games– and that that is part of the problem. We’ve now reached the point where companies are quite thoughtful about how to design interactions that create flowish experiences, or that manipulate social norms to encourage us to keep playing. The challenge for us as players (and as parents) is to recognize what companies and designer do, and to enjoy but not be manipulated by them: to enjoy our time playing, but to know when we’ve gotten everything we can from the game (or social network, etc.) and to stop.