Candy Crush Saga and the Hänsel and Gretel Economy

[I was going through some old drafts of posts-never-completed this morning and decided to delete the ones I’ll likely never complete. Others, like this one are parts of ideas or beginnings of drafts that never got finished but don’t deserve to be deleted because there is something there worth keeping. So I’ve decided to just post them as-is.]

Letter_a_2

"'I Am Afraid!' Said Gretel, 'How Full of Ghosts the Wood Seems!'"

“‘I Am Afraid!’ Said Gretel, ‘How Full of Ghosts the Wood Seems!'”

bout six weeks ago I started playing Candy Crush Saga.

A few days ago I stopped playing it at Level 147, because after dozens of tries I just cannot seem to beat it. I just can’t beat it, that is, without investing more money into “powerups” that might make winning possible.

Technically the game isn’t rigged (that I know of), but realistically it is. It is a fine tuned software machine attractively clad in plenty of color, good game play and appropriately satisfying sound effects—rigged to extract value by occasionally throwing up nearly unbeatable challenges, creating frustration and then offering easy completion at a price. It manipulates the human social relationships—”friends”—to exert pressure to “compete” and not to leave. The success of Candy Crush Saga’s formula is demonstrated by the fact that it is both a top “free” game and, at the time of this writing, the number one top grossing app in the Apple App Store.

In recent weeks, as I have played Candy Crush Saga, I have through about the way it exhibits features of our “new” economy—an economy that is big on consuming fantasy and desire even as it encloses us in its comfortable confines and transforms us into something that it can consume. It entertains while it extracts regular payments. It permits us to rent fleeting enjoyment while we increasingly own nothing. It offers the appearance of free will, while foreclosing the possibility of really making a choice. Perhaps because Candy Crush Saga plays on childhood fantasies of sweets that I thought of Hänsel and Gretel. The game economy attracts us with its house of goodies and serves up a constant trickle of sweets, even as it captures us and turns up the heat—baking us into tasty treats to be served up for consumption whether as money or data.

“O horror!—she gets poor trusting little children to come to her crunching, munching, nibbling house, in order that she may feast upon them, attracting them there by the means of magic cookies.  When they are munching cookies and greatly enjoying themselves, the cruel witch seizes them and throws them, with lightening-like quickness, into the oven, glowing with heat. Then when they have been in the oven the right length of time, they come out with their skins all brown, for they have become gingerbread children.”

***

Letter_acutesy, pastel-colored, candy-themed game might seem a bit out of character for me—but I am someone who played FarmVille for months before giving up the digital homestead and writing My Farmville Obituary. The explosive growth of casual gaming—”social-causal” gaming, in particular—is fascinating and being an anthropologist makes “participant observation” a convenient excuse to satisfy my curiosity by playing games. Regardless, I loved playing Candyland as a child, so maybe there was something that deep in my child-mind that predisposed me to the idea.

I wouldn’t call my first games fun or exciting, but they were enticingly distracting. I enjoyed the puzzle aspect of trying to meet the goals of each level by moving and matching the brilliantly colored candies. I managed to maneuver the pieces into the required order to create special super candies just often enough to enjoy the satisfaction of their destructive powers. The music was monotonous, but its never ending repetition strangely paralleled my own repetitive behavior. I’d play a few stages, then get stuck on a particularly stubborn level, set the game down for a few hours and then come back to try again. As I completed each level, my game piece advanced along a candy path into the future. The game wanted me to link up with my Facebook friends, but I decided to keep my Candy Crush playing a secret from my friends.

“How lovely this sweet smelling air,
Oh, see the beauty shining there!
A little house of tarts and cake,
The roof, too, tarts and cookies make;
The sugar windows gaily shine,
The gables are of raisins fine:
And see about the house—immense—
There runs a ginger-cookie fence!”

The first few dozen levels went without a hitch. I passed them with a modest amount of work, a little patience and with the presence of mind to set the game down whenever I couldn’t pass a level after a few tries. The game gives you five “lives” before penalizing you by having to wait for them to regenerate. Typically I took that as my cue to take a break—until my lives filled up.

Moving along the candy road.

Moving along the candy road.

Candy Town. Candy Factory. Lemonade Lake. Chocolate Mountains. My sweet game life was moving along at a fairly even pace.

Some of my students told me that playing Candy Crush Saga was “addicting.” I wouldn’t describe my experience in that way. To me addiction conjures up images of junkies giving up their lives for the object of their desire—chasing it above all else, even cleanliness, health, work and life. It wasn’t like that for me. Primates like to solve problems. We crave the competition and are easily influenced by social contexts. The repetition of simple tasks can be very satisfying. As a Homo Sapiens I enjoyed the repetition, the colors, sounds and satisfaction of making the pieces fit together correctly. I liked moving along the path to the next screen. I didn’t imagine myself as an addict—I was a chimp trying to get a termite out of a mound using a rudimentary tool.

“O wonderful cookies!  Each one I eat makes me eager for more.
I feel as if I were already in Heaven.”

Sure I had moments where things got tough, but persistence and patience and luck usually saw me through the more difficult levels. A few times I even considered connecting with my Facebook friends for help. But then I’d clear a level and my hope moving forward would be restored.

Help for a price.

Help for a price.

Then, I reached a level that was really tough to finish. I tried solving it many times, only to be frustrated by losing. At one point, I was only one move from finishing the level. I just needed to remove one piece of candy to advance—to move onward along the happy candy path.

So, decided to buy a Lollipop Hammer to crush and destroy the offending piece.

So,

“The children were so busy over their feast of dainties, that they did not notice the evil, wrinkled face leering at them.”

“Come, little mouse,
Come into my house;
I’ll treat you fairly,
Feast you rarely;
Chocolate, tarts and marchpane too,
With cream-cakes, I have made for you;
St. John’s bread, wedding-cake besides,
Rice pudding, too, the oven hides;
Almonds, figs and raisins fine;
Use as you will this house of mine.”

“Come, little man,
Stuff all you can!
Eat, bird, or die—
Cake-Heaven is nigh!”

generate a system–a walled garden, perhaps even populated by your friends, within which you can be enclosed and within which wealth can be extracted.

This in-app purchases make wealth extraction easy and impulsive–$.99 cents here or there, $1.99. Interestingly, once friends are involved paying a bit extra to “get ahead” becomes desirable.

This has made Candy Crush Saga among the top free apps in the Apple App Store even as in-game purchases have pushed it to the number one top grossing game at the time I am writing this.The game itself is “free”—among the top free apps in the Apple App Store for months—and yet offers numerous opportunities for players to pay to cheat the rules.

Of course, it isn’t just about your credit card. There is also data to be harvested–game behavior data, age, friends.

The fascinating thing is that this walled garden is candy coated desire.

In the first weeks, the game offered me hours of entertaining gameplay and more than a little bit of enjoyable frustration. For a free game, it has cost me more than I expected.

I had been sitting in my living room reading and decided to take a break. As I often do, I reached for my iPad for some causal entertainment. I found Candy Crush Saga at the top of the charts on the Apple App Store and remembered seeing that some of my friends and students on Facebook were playing it.

[Hansel and Gretel images and quotes from: Hänsel and Gretel: A Fairy Opera adapted from the libretto of Adelheid Wette. Norreys J. O’Conor, Trans. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1909.]

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