My “Scrabulous” stats show that I’ve played six games of the popular application and have lost all of them. Three of my four current games are looking the same way.

The thing is, I don’t care. “Scrabulous” is my most frequent online distraction. I just can’t get enough of the mental grind. Granted, it’s obviously aping “Scrabble,” and it was documented on the front page of The New York Times on March 2 (below the fold, but still) with due cause. You can’t deny it looks like a copyright violation all the way to the hilt.

Regardless, it’s an all-consuming addiction. (Scene: four apartment mates, four laptops, a lot of swearing and whooping and outcries of “triple-word score motherfuckers.”) Remember “Snood,” with all those smiling faces and endless hours on “Pentagon City”? And there’s “Minesweeper,” “Solitaire” and “Hearts” for you PC pagans, chess for Macsters and beer pong (as opposed to double martinis) and pinball for you analog types.

The point is, simplicity matters – and it’s addicting. Facebook applications are milking this adage for all it’s worth: “Scrabulous,” “The New York Times News Quiz,” “Chess Pro,” that geography game/vacuum of time and relevance, etc., ad nauseum. If a game is familiar and/or easy to master, then it’s nearly set to go viral – regardless of whether it’s on Facebook or not. When the basics of gaming fascination are tapped into, who knows what to expect.

Case in point (for the time being): “Crayon Physics Deluxe.” At February’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Petri Purho, a 24-year-old Helsinki Polytechnic Stadia student in Finland, received a good chunk of positive feedback for his low-fi, low-intensity creation. Designed for tablet laptops, the program has the simple premise of making a ball hit a star. The caveat is that you need to draw boulders, bridges and swinging pendulums in order to coax the ball to its target. It’s all simple physics – gravity and force, momentum and fulcrums. The official video is a little overdone with deep, sensual “Oriental ambient” music, but the seed of a legitimate point is there: Take pleasure in the simple things and master the fundamentals of science – you know, something deep like that.

Remember TI-83 graphing calculators? As a history of art major, I haven’t owned a calculator since high school, but damn do I miss “Drug Wars” and “Racer.” Simple codes, simple premises, hours of entertainment. Rumors of “Doom” on the TI-83 Plus were never verified, but, much like the lost gold of El Dorado, it was a rumor you wanted to believe in.

It’s a question of evolution.

While the modern gaming industry is mostly involved in a perpetual quest to recreate reality as a means for survival and relevance (the humans, dinosaurs and the flu of the animal kingdom – some thrive, some don’t), the tried and true are the simplest of organisms (the cockroaches, sharks and amoeba) that happily thrive at the bottom rung of the hierarchy.

Game Boy will always hold a special place in our hearts. Game Gear won’t. Nintendo over Sega Genesis; “Mortal Combat” over “Tekken.” When the goal is to be as complicated as possible there is an inevitably higher failure rate. You can’t fail with the ubiquitous. It’s already entrenched and familiar.

“Halo 3” and “BioShock” will eventually look like “GoldenEye” and “Sid Meier’s Colonization,” respectively – it’s only a matter of time. That end of the spectrum – with PS3 and Xbox 360 games mimicking the natural patterns of rippling water, shadows and human physiology – is the evolutionary opposite of “Minesweeper.” When the next nuclear winter of 1 billion-bit entertainment follows an ice age of Xbox 360 product recalls, you can still try to “shoot the moon” against the computer and you can still play a little “Yahoo! Bridge” when the mood strikes. Maybe it’s far-fetched, but there will always be a niche for simple ingenuity.

Johnny Chung Lee, a doctoral student at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, has a bunch of YouTube videos that are step-by-step, DIY Nintendo Wii modifications. Using the Wiimote technology (those magical sensors that simulate bowling, golf and other “physical” pursuits), Lee’s projects include a low-cost, multi-point interactive whiteboard (mmm, so geeky) and a head-tracking, virtual reality setup. Innovative, simple stuff that sounds complex but is made for laymen.

The gaming industry might feel like CGI-saturated Hollywood sometimes, but it’s important to remember the bread and butter of computer-based distraction. Take a second and wax nostalgic over “Chip’s Challenge,” “Tecmo Super Bowl” for Nintendo, “Spider Solitaire,” “SkiFree” and “______.”

Don’t deny it. We all have a personal favorite to slip into that blank spot.

Long live the cockroaches.


PCs, for all their bugs and failings, have always dominated Macs on the gaming front. That was especially true in the mid-’90s, which witnessed the birth of dozens of mind-numbingly awesome games that, thankfully, can still be found with a little Googling.

“SKI FREE”: Everyone remembers the first time that gray stick figure Abominable Snowman hustled out of nowhere and devoured your blue sweater-clad skier, incidentally scaring the shit out of you. “SkiFree” gave you three options: slalom, tree slalom and free style. And that’s all you needed to suck the life out of countless hours in middle school computer labs.

“PIPE DREAM”: You’d think the name “Pipe Dream” would elicit more potty humor than it did (or maybe that’s just us), but really, it was all about connecting pipes in an unbroken line so the nameless green sludge made it to the exit – to the Atlantic Ocean!

“RODENT’S REVENGE”: You guided your rat to the cheese while avoiding the cats. Bada bing. Bada boom.

“MICROSOFT BOB”: Before Google Reader and Windows Vista, “Microsoft Bob” was the desktop organizer of choice for, I think, no one. It consisted of a guide (with your choice of a dog, a robot or whatever – a total precursor of that annoying Microsoft Word paperclip) and an interactive house in which each room held groups of programs for your enjoyment. Yes, it failed. No, it wasn’t actually a game you played. Yes, it was closer to the Berenstein Bears then Linnux. But it went nobly into that desktop organizer sunset. RIP.

“TETRAVEX”: Sudoku is the bastard son of “Tetravex” – both useless, boring and infuriating. Oh, the hours lost to that damn green screen.

“JEZZBALL”: The game wasn’t nearly as eye-catching as some of its comrades, but hell if it wasn’t well designed. Red and white balls bounced within a 2D gray room and your goal was to build walls between the balls, trying to seal them off and shade away 75 percent of the room. It sounds complicated, but it’s horribly simplistic and addicting. After every level completed, a new ball is added to the mix and the game becomes that much harder. There may be no evidence but I’d bet that around nine balls, more second graders screamed the word “fuck” for the first time than at any other moment in their lives.

“CHIP’S CHALLENGE”: Little, geeky Chip gathered computer chips to unlock doors in a puzzle world. Apparently there was a grand back-story involving love, but we didn’t care. There were monsters and pixilated fire – that was enough. But no one finished this game. No one. Don’t even try to tell us that you found all the right colored keys to make it through the 100 different levels. Yeah, you jotted down every new level code on a post-it so that you could resume in level 18 after spending seven hours trying to beat it. You didn’t get past it. But it’s still the best original time-waster around.

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