2048, a simple online puzzle game, is almost perfectly addictive. Using the arrow keys, you bang tiles of the same number together — 2 and 2 become 4, 4 and 4 become 8, then 32, 64, 128, and so on — with the goal of getting to 2048. It's hard to win but easy to play, and while you're driven to do better in each round, it's not stressful or frustrating. The numbered tiles make it feel like you're at least doing basic arithmetic, and they're less tacky than the pieces in Candy Crush. Because no clicking is required, the motions feel like second nature. It would take tremendous willpower, or a real hatred of fun little games, to not get sucked in.
On Saturday, after casually clicking a link to the game from Facebook, I played for two full hours. The game's creator, Gabriele Cirulli, estimates that since posting the game over a week ago, people have played the game for over 500 cumulative years.
In an email Monday afternoon, Cirulli, a 19-year-old from northern Italy, said the game has been played 42 million times, by over 4 million people. This means not just that lots of people are visiting the game's site, but that they're playing the game over and over and over again.
Over the past few days, my Twitter feed has indicated as much, flush with a mix of praise for the game and a shuddering fear that it will ruin us all — or at least our productivity. "Help" and "I can't stop" are common refrains.
And for that final push over the edge into "big thing of the internet" status: a Doge parody version now exists:
Some have pointed out that the game bears similarities to the popular iPhone app Threes! but Cirulli says he was inspired by an app called 1024! and another web game also called 2048. "I made my own version just for fun in a weekend, as an attempt at building something enjoyable," he said. "I really wasn't expecting the amount of attention it would get."
"I really liked 1024 but I felt the pace was a bit slow, and that was one of the reasons why I built 2048," Cirulli said.
And I agree: 1024 is too slow. I downloaded the app, and its differences make it way less fun. It's hard to get the tiles to clunk together properly, and the generally slower pace means you end up thinking just a little too much.
Cirulli said he doesn't plan to make an app or monetize the game. "I feel that I shouldn't do that for ethical reasons: I think it'd be unfair to profit from a concept that I didn't invent," he said. "The fact that 2048 is open source also means that it's easy for anyone to get the code and package it as a mobile app. I have no problem with that, but it also wouldn't make much sense to publish an app when many are already out there. My current strategy is to keep refining the web version, which is also playable on mobile."
2048, like the late great Flappy Bird, may not look like much, but it moves rocket fast while providing near-instant satisfaction. That's at least in part what makes these games different from other titles they may superficially resemble.
Cirulli's game is also addictive, he says, because "[It} is also very unforgiving, which leads you to easily messing up the match and having to start over, but it doesn't make you feel bad about it." It is incredibly hard to win — Cirulli said of the 42 million games, the winning 2048 tile has only been achieved 347,000 times — but it's somehow not discouraging.
And it makes sense that we're so entranced by games that, like these, you can play on an endless loop, almost faster than your eyes or fingers can follow, and which provide round-the-clock satisfaction. The click-into-space puzzle aspect of the game is a lot like Tetris, but at the pace we're used to now. It feels a whole lot like pulling refresh over and over again on Twitter and Instagram on a good wifi connection.
And that may be the most incredible and terrifying thing about 2048: It makes Tetris seem like waiting in line at the supermarket.