October 30, 2013

A sweet, crushing compulsion

Unregulated masterminds of exploitation capitalize on human frailty. It’s an age-old story, but the latest saga, more twisted than licorice, belatedly pervaded the news media two weeks before Halloween. The story of “Candy Crush Saga” made a huge splash in London’s Daily Mail, which called it “the most addictive online game ever.” Within hours, Time.com quoted the paper, reporting that mostly women “spend almost $650,000 a day on the insanely addictive game” causing “back problems, bank problems, boyfriend problems.”

Think Gaming estimates that “Candy Crush” sweeps in more than $860,000 per day and has more than 7.4 million daily users worldwide. King, the British game maker that created “Candy Crush,” won’t say how much it makes. In response to official calls for regulations to protect young users, King reportedly insists that 90 percent of its users are older than 21 and that 70 percent advance to the highest level without paying a penny.

The game is played on a touch-screen grid of brightly colored candies. When a player aligns at least three of the same type, the row explodes, allowing more confections to descend.

According to Kirotv.com, “The company makes its money through in-app purchases. Players can buy items or extra lives to help them complete levels.” They can avoid paying by getting extra lives from Facebook friends. But compulsive users exhaust that option and get into trouble.

“I call it ‘crack candy,’ because I imagine giving up is like trying to break a crack habit,” one told Daily Mail. “I hadn’t heard of it until I saw that many friends — all intelligent, creative women — were playing it on Facebook.” Jim Edwards of Businessinsider.com explains how a colleague’s “Candy Crush” habit peaked at $127 per day. “(I)t’s an ingeniously constructed ‘compulsion loop,’ combining easy access, random rewards and constant progress in an almost never-ending stack of levels,” he writes. “Users often only discover they’re addicted to ‘Candy Crush’ when they run out of their daily allotment of lives — and are locked out of the game in a period of forced withdrawal that lasts up to 24 hours.”

I refuse to play it. Call me a wussy; I refuse to try heroin, too. But I recently saw it being played two Sundays ago on ABC’s evening news. “Every time you reach a certain level, you get a sense of satisfaction,” said Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, assistant clinical professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York. “We’re listening to music, which is very soothing, as we’re playing it (and) we hear a male voice that’s giving us all this positive reinforcement.” After the same story aired the previous Friday on “Good Morning America,” ABC’s chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser commented on the striking gender bias of its appeal.

“Most Internet gaming problems you’ll see in men, in boys. But here, whether it’s the voice or the colors or the look or the fact that it’s not as violent, you’re seeing women hooked on this … it’s not violent like the game guys play — unless you consider smashing candy and killing calories to be a form of violence.” Though 40 percent of “Candy Crush” users are male, according to New Zoo, women between 25 and 55 reportedly are its most loyal demographic. Besser said medical professionals have yet to classify it as an addiction, but it shares symptomatic properties such as “people lying about the time they spend on this. It’s affecting relationships and work — and school for kids.”

I learned about the “Candy Crush” craze a couple months ago via an NBC network feed on WAVE-TV. After it aired, meteorologist Brian Goode was brazenly getting his digital fix on the set. I couldn’t resist texting my concern to one of his colleagues. As if he wasn’t already wired enough — spending hours each day preparing weather porn (fancy on-air graphics) and being a Facebook fiend — now there’s this.

But advising on how to manage their time usually triggers a need for anger-management tips. I have neither the time nor the temper. I’m equally disinclined to ask folks whether they have an addiction. Everyone knows denial is the first symptom. All I know is that Time.com got it right: “Whatever enterprising therapist is the first to open a ‘Candy Crush’ Addiction Treatment Center is going to make bank.”

And that I’ll save bank, because I’ve lost my appetite for post-Halloween clearance candy.