In the past month, my family spent at least one full day playing a silly digital game called Panda Pop.
My wife leads the family, reaching level 98. My oldest daughter got to level 97, while I hit level 67. My middle daughter achieved level 62, and our youngest moved up to level 29.
In the game, you bounce a little colored bubble off walls and around obstacles to try to line up at least three colored bubbles. When you do, they pop, and there’s a possibility a panda cub trapped up in the sky may start drifting down toward its mother.
If it sounds interesting to you, let me try to explain it again. It’s a giant waster of time, appealing to our urge to “level up” and beat something of moderate difficulty. It takes about 4 minutes to complete a level, if you’ve done everything right. But it might take five or six tries to get something right. So I completely acknowledge my 24-hour estimate could be off by hundreds of hours, since no one keeps track.
In a word where no one has time for anything or anyone, it’s demoralizing to realize you’ve wasted so much time on a silly puzzle game.
My family had a few weeks’ head start on me, telling me how much fun it was. I finally tried it and was hooked. I should be glad they weren’t trying to push an addictive substance on me, as easily as I cracked.
I think play is an important part of life. That’s why I make time to play games, to laugh and to watch movies and TV. The brain can’t be spinning at full speed all the time. I’m routinely surprised how many good solutions to a problem come to me when I’m not thinking about that problem.
But this game went a little too far. My family would “play together,” which really just meant sitting in a room together. My middle daughter, who is a few levels behind me, loved to taunt me when she caught up with me after school. And I loved to quietly tell her I was ahead again when I could play in the evenings.
But we weren’t really playing with each other, which is the trouble with everything on a device. You can feel like you’re interacting because you see the names of people you know and you love. But is knowing one of my sisters reached level 586 by seeing her name on the scoreboard the same as knowing what’s happening in her life? I suspect not.
We’ve all backed down from our Panda Pop time. Sure, we still slip up for a level or two, but it’s not the dominant form of entertainment in our house anymore.
We recently started playing a decidedly less intensive, less high-tech game, Connect Four. We’ve found that as we carefully drop those colored circles into perfectly aligned columns, we can actually talk, joke and have fun together.
Don’t get me wrong; we’re still a ridiculously competitive family. One night we tried “team play,” where one person would make one choice and the teammate would make the next choice without verbally communicating your plans, and it’s safe to say we weren’t all following the same strategies.
Still, I’ll take that time in front of an 8x8 board with my kids over popping bubbles and saving pandas any day.