On quitting mobile addictions

Jake Moore/Staff

Remember “Minesweeper,” the old puzzle game that shipped with every Microsoft computer? Last year, I downloaded it on my phone in a fit of boredom and was immediately obsessed with it. I played it so often that the image of the game would rudely intrude in my head while I would try to have an intellectual conversation with my friend. I knew then that I had to control my “Minesweeper” addiction, lest the game start interrupting other important moments.

Millennials have heard it often enough: We are engrossed by what amounts to colorful dots on a screen instead of the activities happening around us. Our parents lament, “You kids are so hopelessly chained to your phones!” But given the opportunity, they can also get hooked on “Candy Crush” and the like. Who knew that the simple act of matching three candies would be so addictive?

Addiction is a personal experience. We can’t understand the appeal of a game until we try it. So as an experiment, I decided to get myself hooked on the popular Japanese game “Neko Atsume” with the intent of uninstalling it after a couple of weeks. I observed my own interactions with the game and pinpointed possible reasons why my friends loved it so much.

Who knew that the simple act of matching three candies would be so addictive?

In “Neko Atsume,” nothing happens except that you collect adorable cats and take pictures of them. You set out food and toys in your “yard” to attract visiting cats, who gift you with either silver or gold fish when they leave. You can then use the fish to buy more items or food. Here’s how my experiment went:

Midnight, Jan. 26: Downloaded the “Neko Atsume” app. I felt compelled to return several minutes later to see if any cats had visited my yard. Snowball is already playing with the red ball I had set out! My friends had talked about cool cats such as Chairman Meow or Billy the Kitten, so I can’t wait to see them.

I’ve already checked my phone three times in one hour. I do some online research on gaming blogs to see how I can maximize my profits. I should sleep.

Day 1, Jan. 27: I’m getting a little bored in computer science class, so I check my phone. I have three cats! I know they’re fake, but I feel loved.

I send a screenshot of my yard to my group of friends. Someone responds appropriately with, “Welcome to hell.” They give me tips on how to do well at the game.  

There are no cats in my yard, which is annoying.

The same cats keep visiting me. Rage.

I’m building a whole world, so I’m already sad thinking about deleting it.

I panic when I forget about the game for the while — what if a new cat came and left before I could take a picture of it?

Day 2, Jan. 28: I upgrade to the more expensive Frisky Bitz cat food and buy a beach umbrella to attract more cats. I’m already appalled at how much time and energy I’m spending on this game.

Day 3, Jan. 29: I’m saving up to buy the cost-efficient Orange Cube, which holds two cats in one space.

I know they’re fake, but I feel loved.

Day 4, Jan. 30: Now I’m just saving up for a yard expansion. It’s a slow wait.

One week in, Feb. 3: Got the yard expansion! I lose track of my phone for three hours, during which I panic about neglecting my cats, but I am also a little relieved to be rid of them.

13 days in, Feb. 8: I get the next upgrade by remodeling my yard, Western style. I’ve haven’t been getting many new cats, so the novelty of the game has worn off. I’m beginning to feel anxious about my need to constantly check up on them.

Two weeks in, Feb. 9: I tell my friends that I’m going to quit the game this very night. They protest that I can’t quit without collecting all the cats. I take screenshots of my “Catbook” photo album to preserve my memories, but I still don’t have the heart to delete the app.

Two weeks and two days in, Feb. 11: At 9 a.m., I take a deep breath. Without thinking too hard about it, I uninstall “Neko Atsume.” Immediately, I feel a sense of exhilarating freedom. I send a screenshot of my “Uninstall complete” notification to my friends.

Two days after: I still get residual urges to check on my cats before I realize that they’re gone. I don’t know if I’m more relieved or sad. Maybe I should get a real pet instead.

“Neko Atsume” was addicting right from the start. Its makers got the variable-interval schedule of positive reinforcement exactly right. Because I didn’t know when cats would be visiting me, I was compelled to check for them every 15 to 30 minutes or whenever I was bored. The game also let me fill in a “Daily Password” for extra rewards, which kept me coming back every day.  

The simplicity of “Neko Atsume” meant that I could fool myself into checking my phone wherever and whenever without getting too distracted. I was pulling my phone out while watching Netflix, in line to buy Thai Basil and during Daily Cal meetings. With just a few taps, I could feed my cats, take pictures of them and accept my fish gifts before the professor could notice that I was using an electronic device in class. The game was like a never-ending supply of drugs: The cats kept coming as long as I fed them.

I still get residual urges to check on my cats before I realize that they’re gone. I don’t know if I’m more relieved or sad. Maybe I should get a real pet instead.

Although “Neko Atsume” was free to download, I considered buying gold fish with real money, just to speed up the process of the game. It may seem weird to pay real money in exchange for fake game currency, but it’s easy to rationalize buying $0.99 items. In fact, some of my friends have indeed paid to get more gold fish in “Neko Atsume.”

The biggest benefit to playing “Neko Atsume” was social connection. Before my experiment, I thought I could resist FOMO (an acronym now officially part of the Oxford English Dictionary) every time my friends started talking about which cat had visited them or which yard remodel they were buying. After I downloaded the game, we could all check our phones together whenever one of us mentioned cats. I also felt connected to random strangers on the Internet who offered tips on how to play the game. Then the tables turned: I became a drug peddler who introduced “Neko Atsume” to other friends.  

All these addictive elements — the simplicity, the free cost and the endlessness — are not ingrained in the game’s design by accident. Science can help explain why we get addicted: Our brains associate the games with reward. Gamemakers know this, and many games are specifically designed to make us throw money at them.

With scientific engineering lined up against us, there’s no easy formula to quit playing. There are solutions, though. A friend told me, “I was addicted to a game once. Then I just stopped playing it.” But quitting cold turkey takes courage. I was only able to break an addiction toSubway Surfers,” a cousin ofTemple Run,” when I accidentally lost my old phone somewhere in a classroom.

When truly addicted to a game, it helps to remember a few things, most importantly that the game world is not the real world. The “Neko Atsume” yard is a combination of code and graphics that people cooked up on their computers. Uninstalling the app is technically a simple process. It’s heart-wrenching to destroy a world I’ve invested so much time to build, but I should be more invested in my real world. The cats in the game are cute, but real cats are much more rewarding, even if I’m allergic to cat fur.

 Our brains associate the games with reward. Gamemakers know this, and many games are specifically designed to make us throw money at them.

Also, just because there’s a collection feature built into the game, I don’t agree with the Pokemon motto that we “gotta catch ‘em all.” There are much worthier collections I could be completing, such as bucket lists and to-do lists. No one will punish me if I leave my cat collection incomplete. No one will reward me if I do finish it, but they might think “She has way too much time on her hands.”

As for the peer pressure to download addictive games, I don’t need virtual cats to keep my friends. If friendships are based exclusively on a mutual addiction to a mobile phone app, they’re not real. I value my friends enough to sit through those moments when everyone but me is playing the same game.

Phone games bring us joy. Oh, what a rush we get when Mr. Meowgi finally visits us or when we level up on “Candy Crush”! But when entertainment becomes obligation, as “Neko Atsume” did for me, it’s time to press “uninstall.” It’s easier said than done, until I just do it. The alternative is to be a slave for my phone.

Although game creators conspire to keep us glued to our screens, we’re not completely helpless. With the right choices, we can reduce the significance of phone games in our lives and prioritize real goals instead. I hope my successful conquest of “Neko Atsume” will give me the mental strength I need to conquer the next addicting phone game trend. Bring it on, “Two Dots.”


Karen Lin is the multimedia editor. Contact her at [email protected]