The hard work of keeping up with social games

In 2006, writer and raconteur Merlin Mann came up with the concept of Inbox Zero as a way of managing the deluge of email in our lives. The idea was to get down to no messages in your email inbox as quickly as possible. Who hasn’t felt that crush of email? Managing email is a huge amount of work. It can be stressful.

So why do I feel the same stress about the games on my phone?

Right now I’ve got five songs waiting in Let’s Sing, five games waiting in Scramble With Friends, six games waiting in Words With Friends, and six more in Draw Something. My game inbox is 22 items away from zero, and the push notifications keep on coming. A new song. My game will be forfeited if I don’t move soon. A new drawing. A new challenge.

Games are supposed to be fun. And all of those games I’m playing are fun, when I’m playing them. (Except when someone is whipping me at Words With Friends—that’s just depressing.) The games themselves aren’t the problem. It’s the ever-increasing sense that I’ve got another set of tasks to discharge.

When I’m in a place where I’m focused on playing a game, it can be a great experience. The other night I played Let’s Sing for half an hour with a few other people, going back and forth every couple of minutes. That game makes me laugh a lot. (Disclosure: It was co-written by my colleague Lex Friedman.) But I’m pretty busy these days, and some games—especially one that requires that you sing out loud—can only be played in certain environments. So the notifications pile up.

Adding to the game to-do-list stress is Zynga’s diabolical system to force people not to forget about their games. As users of Words With Friends and Scramble With Friends know, if you don’t make a move within a few days, you receive a push-notification warning that you’ll forfeit your game if you don’t go soon.

It sucks to forfeit a game you’ve been playing for a while, especially if you’ve been playing with a friend. (Shouldn’t friends be understanding when you’re very, very busy?) What’s worse, though, is making a move out of obligation, laying down letter tiles when you’re not in the mood just because the game will punish you if you don’t. Gaming under duress isn’t fun. It’s work.

I don’t think there’s a technical solution to this problem. Which is not to say there couldn’t be a few tweaks. Turn-based games could let you limit the number of active games you’re willing to play at a time, so if a friend asks to play and you’re full up, you could agree to start a game with them when you finish one of your existing games. Zynga could let players opt out of auto-forfeiting of games. (We’re all friends here, right?)

But ultimately, this is a human-being kind of problem. I need to carefully pick the games I really want to play, and the friends I want to play with. I need to turn down game requests when I’m overwhelmed. I need to turn off push notifications and alert sounds for most of the games I play.

I can’t believe I’ve just thought up productivity tips for playing games on my phone, but this is apparently the world we live in. Take control of your social-gaming experience and you, too, can finally reach Game Inbox Zero and take a well-needed break from all that fun you’ve supposedly been having.

This story, "The hard work of keeping up with social games" was originally published by TechHive.

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