On Playing Games, Productivity, and Right Livelihood

By

One week last spring I said it out loud for the first time: “Sometimes I play so long, my fingers go numb.”

I said it while straddling the man I loved. We were fully clothed, on my bed, in my newly cleaned and de-cluttered room. (Every time I look around and see the empty spaces, I feel virtuous. Like someone should give me a medal for the basics of being an adult.)

I told my then-boyfriend about my fingers going numb from holding my phone in the exact same position for so long and he laughed in this explosive way where his face crumpled up, which meant I’d surprised him. He said, “Oh my god, you’re so cute,” and turned his head to the side to laugh at me more, his stomach tensing under my hands. But it wasn’t cute that there was, again, a game I couldn’t stop playing.

I don’t want to tell you what it’s called, but it’s free and it’s on my phone. Let’s call it The Game. Even now, writing this, I’d rather be playing The Game, when, according to most people who know me, I love writing. But playing The Game is easier than writing.

There was one weekend last year I went on a bender, playing The Game for hours both days. After I finally closed the app, I couldn’t look at anything, people I loved, the church outside my house, without seeing screenshots of The Game wallpapered thinly over them. In late April, I drove to a week-long camping trip in the desert; The Game was a film over my eyes. When I closed my eyelids at night in my tent, I could still see the pixels of it in the moonless dark. I don’t want to tell you that at least one night during that week, I played it for a few minutes in my quiet tent, to help myself fall asleep, away from cell phone reception and the sounds of the city.

There are always things that need doing in the hours outside of work. Plane tickets to buy before they get more expensive. Scarves to knit, books to read, stories to write, a book to edit, a house to clean, laundry to do. I could fucking volunteer, or talk with a friend who’s having a hard time, or exercise, something I claim I can’t find time for. Instead, often, I’d rather play this game. Not constantly, but a lot more than I’d like to admit.

I could uninstall it from my phone, like I did to the last one. But I don’t want to.

With periods of respite, I’ve been this way for a long time.

*

In middle school, I played The Sims for seven hours at a time, until 1 a.m. or later many nights. It’s still a mystery how it was possible to keep up this level of commitment to The Sims and get the grades expected of me, but somehow I managed. Necessity breeds creativity.

On a few Sim houses, I allowed myself to use cheat codes, just for the thrill of having all that financial freedom, but mostly I genuinely enjoyed the challenge of getting a Sim out of their lower-income starting places and into better jobs. The hardest career path, of course, was the politician, with the goal of one day being mayor. All that socializing and your Sim was liable to just collapse in the middle of a party from exhaustion. I’m not working in politics, but I feel that way sometimes now. At a Shabbat potluck a year ago I fell asleep, sober, on the couch in the living room of a house I’d never been to before.

Within the little charter school I attended through eighth grade, a small group of us had completed all the math offered, so our school made an agreement with the high school across the street to allow us to enroll in geometry there. We’d travel to the high school in a group, talking to each other in Sim while we walked. We knew their language. We could sing the music by heart. We were so good at that game.

Sometimes, my friends and I made houses for the people we hated, or at least the people who bothered us, and then did awful things to them. We gave them too many children, not enough money, and witnessed them suffer in poverty. Or we drowned them in the pool. Or we set them on fire in a room without a door and watched them run around, trying to escape. We did our share of nasty things in person too, I’m sure—mean comments, blatantly uninviting one friend to an event—but mostly what I remember is being covertly mean to people we didn’t like, through The Sims and in the privacy of our own homes or behind-the-back IM conversations. This was where we let out our aggressions. Also, our adorations. We married our crushes and lived with them in The Sims. Or, more generously, we gave them beautiful lives without us, marble countertops and hardwood dining room tables, leather couches and the most expensive light fixtures, and we just stopped by to visit them sometimes, to eat a meal with them or slap their arm playfully and say flirty Sim things.

If I had The Sims now I’d probably still be addicted to it. I’d play instead of going to real life birthday parties and potlucks, instead of writing or reading or sleeping. I’ve never seriously considered purchasing it as an adult. Partly, that’s to keep middle school inside its proper nostalgia, but mostly I’m afraid of my capacity, or lack of capacity rather, to stop. To control myself. To not waste my life.

*

desert_with_game_overlayI started playing this current game Thanksgiving 2014. Each year, my uncle is like my game dealer, as though he knows I’ll need some activity during those family weekends that helps me disappear into another world, or into myself, or just to chill the fuck out. The games he shows me, the ones I get hooked on, are usually logic-minded, with an element of chance—never too complex. I show up at their house exhausted, not even knowing I’m exhausted, and then spend days in pajamas, doing as little as possible, although I always bring work—work-work and writing work—and life tasks and a few books I want to read. I almost never do any of these things. Instead, I sit in the comfiest chair and play my game. At night, I’ll take a break and we work on jigsaw puzzles together or watch movies until late. My cousins and I play board games, do silly voices with each other, and eat leftover turkey sandwiches. It all feels deeply indulgent.

The Game is not particularly complicated but it’s complex enough that it doesn’t seem worth it to try to explain it here. (When I first started playing, it actually seemed too confusing for me to ever love.) Basically, it involves placing dots of different kinds in the best places on the screen, a little like Tetris. The sense of accomplishment comes from how high a score you can achieve. There is no winning. This is important; the ceiling is infinite. I prefer the blitz version. It’s faster, so you rack up points more quickly. You also lose more quickly, of course. While playing, I negotiate with myself like a child might: just until this song is over. Just for ten minutes. Just until at least 250,000 points.

*

It was in college that I first studied Buddhism and other Eastern religions and learned about non-harming. In Jainism, I read, monks walk barefoot and don’t travel in the rain to avoid accidentally crushing insects with their feet. In one Sufist fable, the idea of right speech means asking: 1) is it true? 2) is it necessary? and 3) is it kind? If the answer is no to one of those questions, you don’t say it.

bug_in_rain

But I wanted modern day answers to this business of non-harming. I was intensely anxious about the actions I took, words said each day. At night in the bathroom, I’d review everything I could remember, looking for mistakes and potential solutions to those mistakes, while picking at the skin on my face, shoulders, and back.

*

A number of years ago, when the company that makes The Game was closer to its peak, I remember telling my mom I might apply for a job there. We were driving back to San Francisco, on 101, the water stretching out to our right. I didn’t apply. I couldn’t square it, ethically, at the time. I had recently graduated college and wanted to do something that would be completely beneficial for the world: a purely good thing. I didn’t know yet how difficult it was to know if something constituted a purely good thing, at least the way I was defining it then.

That fall, I’d lie in bed in too much pain to walk and play my favorite mindless game at that time, Bubble Spinner, for hours. I was physically ill in a number of ways, including anemic, sometimes sleeping sixteen hours or more in a day and still exhausted.

At the time, I was unemployed and obsessed by the question of how to live a good life (as in, morally good) and what employment I could feel proud of. This obsession slightly overpowered a constant fear that I might never actually get a job that would support me financially and also not totally devour my soul. It was the middle of the recession; I’d graduated from college nine months earlier with a liberal arts degree, and I was losing multiple days each month to physical pain, a combination of chronic back pain I’d had since childhood and symptoms of endometriosis.

Right Livelihood, in the Buddhist sense, was on my mind a lot while I lived for free or cheap in each of my parent’s partner’s houses, counted every dollar I spent, babysat and worked temporary jobs, and read at cafes, nursing a cup of tea ($2). I thought the goodness of the work came from some outside source, or looked a certain way, or must be like something specific I could identify and seek out, if I could just understand what that characteristic was. I wanted to figure it out, and I needed to figure it out before my bank account was completely empty.

*

I grew up and still live in the Bay Area, the center of many cultural movements, one of them the cult of productivity. We document our steady creative process, we idolize the youngest doing the most, we want to fit as much as possible into one day, we are always trying to maximize and minimize and be more efficient. A guy I was dating a few years ago, explaining his reading choices, told me, “Time is my current most-limited resource.” I thought he was so damn logical we could probably never date. Twice recently, I’ve found myself saying out loud the exact same sentence as he did that day, and it feels true.

scheduleBecause I write while working full-time now, friends of friends sometimes come to me for advice on time management, on balancing creativity and work. I talk about finding a job that doesn’t drain you—that ideally even gives you energy or fulfills a pursuant interest. I talk about not watching TV. I talk about bite-sized goals. Saying no to all but the most important social invitations. Not drinking alcohol, so you have your mornings.

A little over a year ago, close to burning out on many fronts, I left a few of my ongoing, extracurricular commitments. I did this in the name of my writing and health. Thanksgiving rolled around, my work responsibilities calmed down a little, and with all that extra space, in flowed not more creating but instead the first game I’d allow myself to get obsessed with since the Bubble Spinner days of unemployment. I can’t remember what that first game is called anymore, although I’m sure one of my family members would. The only reason I quit that game was, when I upgraded my phone, all my apps got deleted and with that, all my progress. (That game was leveled.) I couldn’t imagine doing it all over again. I let that game go. I thought I was through that phase of time-wasting, just a brief relapse, until two Novembers ago, the Thanksgiving when I downloaded The Game and it all began again

*

I once read a piece about young gamers who were, I think, South Korean. What I remember clearly is they spent twelve or more hours each day in a little booth practicing their game of choice. The luckiest had loved ones who brought them food throughout their days of playing. The article was journalistic, but I read it wanting the writer’s advice. I wanted to know what it meant to spend a life this way. How much damage can you do to anyone else if you stay quiet and alone all day, if all you’re doing is rearranging the same sets of pixels on a screen with your fingers on a touchpad or a keyboard for points or to complete levels? If you have nothing to show for your day, I wanted to believe, nothing can hurt anyone.

*

The person I was dating when I became addicted to The Game believes that humans require down time. He was always wanting me to let myself relax. He didn’t seem to feel wracked with guilt about lying on his couch for an entire evening alone watching his favorite TV shows, eating his preferred greasy foods. When I told him I’d been lying in bed all day playing The Game on my phone, he usually said the same thing he said if I told him I’d been writing all day: “I’m so proud of you.”

*

After piecing together bits of work for a few months during the Bubble Spinner days, I eventually found a good job at a nonprofit, (ironically) teaching other people how to get jobs. I didn’t stop being obsessed with the idea of Right Livelihood, but I no longer was paralyzed against action by the idea of it. Things needed to be done at work and in my life, and the timeline wasn’t abstract anymore—I needed money for rent and to find health insurance after being denied coverage for a pre-existing condition, and I wanted to go on a road trip with friends and eat an unreasonable amount of sushi. I stopped reviewing each day with such an intense spotlight and instead started simply apologizing for potential mistakes, trying to trust that an apology could be enough sometimes, and that other people would tell me when I messed up without knowing. I wrote a lot, hundreds of thousands of words, until old stories unraveled themselves and new, better ones took up shop. I brought myself into the presence of a medley of healers: chiropractor, acupuncturist, therapist, rabbi, friend. I want to, but can’t, say what came first or second, what caused what. It didn’t feel fast then, but one day I woke up and I felt like a completely different person, and every action didn’t fill me with dread in quite the same way.

*

How much of what I think is adulthood did I learn from The Sims? That we had to keep up a certain number of friends or social relationships to be good at our jobs. That our furniture would just keep getting fancier and fancier, and there wasn’t anything more satisfying to spend money on than nicer kitchen appliances. That a poor flow of movement in our houses would decrease our energy level. (This may have actually turned out to be true.)

phone_handsJust after college, my dad suggested I apply to a job at the company that makes The Sims. He knew someone who worked there. I didn’t apply. I wasn’t sure, still am not sure, that The Sims is good for the world.

I want to say it is. Even water in excess can kill you of course, but regarding the goodness of The Sims, I want to defend it. Maybe my opinion is not the one to trust though. Ask an addict about the virtues of their drug of choice and try to sort out if you’re hearing only justifications. The Sims may have taught me how to take care of myself, or at least a hypothetical adult in the world. The steady routine of working and saving money to create a life for oneself. I remember thinking, these Sims have so little free time when they’re working; Sims didn’t even have weekends. I want to argue it taught empathy. Or at least, I always felt guilty after torturing and killing one of my “friends” on there. Maybe the empathy was already in me and The Sims just showed me its boundaries.

*

There are a lot of things I used to do to avoid being with myself—things I’ve quit, or almost quit.

I used to drink multiple nights each week, to the point of blacking out at least once a month, sometimes once a week. This was in college and my early twenties. Most of us drank a lot, but not everyone blacked out the way I did. I stopped, and now I almost always remember my nights; the times I don’t are regrettable exceptions, when I wake up sweating and guilty, my pillow smelling of gin or whiskey.

I used to pick at my skin until it was reddened and bleeding. For years I thought this would be the reason someone couldn’t love me, but then someone knew and loved me anyway and then I, mostly, stopped doing it.

I used to use men and other people as reasons to be happy, or as reasons I couldn’t be happy. I’m trying to learn how not to do this. I think I’m closer to quitting than I’ve ever been before.

I want to tell you this game is the last thing I have left. I want to believe it’s okay to spend time, even hours, each day in mindless activity. I want to compare it to the other things people do to relax or leave themselves for a little while and tell you it’s the same, or not as bad. Basically, I want your permission while I sit and play this game until my fingers go numb, or I want you to tell me how to quit in a way that you could promise I wouldn’t miss it.

***

Rumpus original art by Amy Wibowo. Amy is the author, illustrator, and founder of BubbleSort Zines, zines that use cartoons and stories to explain how computers work. She has had fun making things at Honda, the University of Tokyo, MIT, and Airbnb.


Janet Frishberg lives in a bunny-grey room in San Francisco, where she's currently working on her first book, a memoir about grief. She's an alum of the Kenyon Writers Workshop and Squaw Valley Workshop of Writers. Her most recent work was published in Human Parts on Medium and Whiskey Paper. You can find more of her writing here and hang out with her on Twitter @jfrishberg. More from this author →