Late one night last week, deep in the thumb-twitching annoying thrill of Candy Crush, I found myself contemplating how much humans must enjoy repetitive wall building tasks.
I’ve spent weeks stuck on this one impossible level, number 147. With five “lives” a day, I’ve been slogging away at it, again and again, only to fail, again and again.
Why? There’s no point to this and the multitude of other games out there where a gamer plays and dies, and even when they win, simply carries on to the next. The work has no product, simply time wasted. It makes me wonder, are habit and rote action of any evolutionary benefit?
Our ancestors certainly knew how to fill their time with repetitive tasks: Sleeping and hanging out in trees while grooming your troop mates are certainly fiddly activities, which our primate relatives still engage in today (where they survive). Perhaps obsessive compulsive disorder traits and the ability to engage in repetitive tasks are phantom remnants of literal nitpicking?
Agriculture is perhaps another kind of fiddly pursuit. Certainly each day, a farmer spends intellectual capital on planning ahead, thinking about future weather patterns and cultivation, sure, all complex tasks. But how much time is spent on weeding? Before the Green Revolution and widespread use of fertilizers and other amendments, humans spent a lot of time on manual labor — and still do in places where subsistence farming remains the norm. Even in today’s technological societies, how much time do farmers and their workers spend driving tractors in endless repetitive grids?
We humans are pretty good at assembly lines too, as Ford and his descendants proved in our post-Industrial manufacturing economies. Though soon, I wonder if computers and robots will replace us in that repetitive mind-numbing work, and I hope we will have more leisure time (that’s another post: the lost dream — or nightmare? — of the end of work).
Our repetitive “habits” usually lead to productive outputs: comfort, food, cars, whatnot. If we cede those fiddly activities to machines, what will we humans do with our newly found time? Will we simply recreate fiddly tasks?
Perhaps our obsession with repetitive tasks is some kind of weird cross-wiring, a habit that will never get lost entirely. And hence, our modern obsessions with Twitter and Facebook, the ongoing stream of information that we think keeps us up to date but may instead be more twiddly diversion.
And yes, my obsession with Candy Crush: I managed to take a break from the game for a little while, when I had visitors in town not long ago. But I couldn’t give it up completely and soon returned to repetitive play. I am somewhat embarrassed and relieved to report that I finally conquered level 147 very late last night. (I have turned my phone into an expensive game-playing device!)
After reading up online how someone else conquered the level, I spent a cozy evening playing, interspersed with reading a book on the opening of the American West. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I waited for my next Candy Crush life to accrue, would the American settlers have accomplished so much if they’d had the equivalent of Candy Crush?
A little philosophical and scientific reading:
After finishing their chores (the daily repetitive motions of milking the cow, sewing or embroidering, weeding and other tasks), perhaps Kansas settlers’ kids played these games instead of video games: http://www.nps.gov/fosc/forteachers/childrengame.htm