Welcome to No Shame November! This week we’re diving into the pop culture we love that society tells us we shouldn’t.
In NBC’s fantastic afterlife comedy The Good Place, chronic worrier Chidi Anagonye describes his anxious interior monologue as “the sound a fork makes in a garbage disposal.” That noise – grating, inescapable, wrong — is what my brain sounds like too. I have the superpowered combo of anxiety and ADHD, both of which work together to spin my racing thoughts into an intrusive tornado that almost never blows away.
One of the other symptoms of my ADHD is hyperfocus, an involuntary state of mind that kicks in when I’m totally engrossed in something. When I’m hyperfocused on a jigsaw puzzle, a book, a Wikipedia black hole, or anything else that grabs my attention, the rest of the world may as well not exist. I’ll miss notifications, forget to eat, and generally stay rooted in my spot of interest until I’m jolted away from it by something big enough to move my brain along.
I didn’t know I had ADHD when I was growing up; I wasn’t diagnosed until my late twenties. For decades I worked around my periods of hyperfocus and inattention to build a teetering scaffold of functionality that made it possible to live with my loud tornado brain. One of the tricks I learned in college is my most embarrassing gamer habit. I go hard on match-3 phone games.
Match-3 games like Candy Crush, Candy Crush Soda Saga, Candy Crush Jelly Saga, Homescapes, Gardenscapes, and so many more are the spammy, runty cousins of “real” mobile phone games. They exist to create addictive feedback loops that keep players swiping at colored icons to match three or more little peppermints or whatever in a row, until we pass a game level and move on to the next banal swiping adventure. They are endless, they are mindless, and they are weapons in my battle against thinking all the damn time.
Games have always been a point of hyperfocus for me. My parents didn’t let me play video games as a kid, but that never stopped me from seeking out the consistent rewards and microdoses of serotonin games could provide. As an adult, I use match-3 games as the perfect way to give my brain a break with a built-in timer. All of the match-3 games I play have a lives system, so all I get are five tries to swipe my way to complete mental numbness. Once those lives are up, it’s game over for a couple of hours. It’s hyperfocus, but with a built in timer.
Before the pandemic, I played match-3 games on my subway commute to work. The effect was essentially time travel. I’d get in the car, take out my phone, and in a blink of my mental eye I’d be at my stop to work. I didn’t think about my to-do list, or the showtime guys dancing around ten inches away from my head, or what would happen if the train got stuck and we all slowly asphyxiated in the tunnel underneath the East River. I barely even thought about matching candy and crushing levels. I thought about nothing. I temporarily ceased to exist.
When every waking moment feels like thrashing in a mosh pit I never paid to dance in, experiencing nothing is bliss.
That may seem like a dark victory, but when every waking moment feels like thrashing in a mosh pit I never paid to dance in, experiencing nothing is bliss. I have played literal thousands of levels in these games — seriously, adding up my current levels in the games I’ve been playing for more than five years puts me at around eight thousand levels passed — and recall absolutely nothing about them. The time I spend there is wasted and banked forever.
Hence the shame. I know match-3 games are a waste of time. I’m accomplishing nothing when I play them and my eight thousand–plus levels of success are so meaningless I feel bad describing them as successes at all. I’m young! I’m busy! I could have learned how to play an instrument, developed a skill, or spent time developing my interpersonal relationships with those precious hours. Instead I swiped, five lives at a time, and let my moments slip away into the sweet, garbage candy abyss.
I need the silence, though. I need to not think. In a year that treats the experience of time like an ever-stretching, ever-collapsing slinky forged in hell, I crave the power to willingly opt out. There’s no escaping my racing thoughts; they always come back in the end. I just do this objectively silly thing to give my brain a moment to catch its breath before it has to start running again. I would not go so far as to describe match-3 games as self care, but I think there’s something important about how careless they make me.
Once while on a cross country flight, I snagged a lucky break with eight hours of free lives in one of my match-3 favorites. In between napping and peeing, I played that game the whole flight through. Upon landing, the older man in the seat next to me tapped my arm to get my attention. “You know,” he said as if he was imparting great wisdom, “those games kill brain cells.” He smiled and I did too.
“Sir,” I replied with politeness he did not deserve,”trust me. I have plenty to spare.”