Why Is 2048 So Fun?

(if I was really clever, I’d come up with 2,048 reasons)

Here’s the link to the game, again.

Having spent three hours or so playing 2048 last night, and becoming severely sleep-deprived in the process, I wanted to think about why the game was so fun, considering it’s cross between mental maths, sudoku and Tetris, which can all be addicting if you can get into them, but I’ve never been able to grasp any of them particularly well. The most confusing part of this game is that its not directly competitive in the same way that all other viral apps are: Flappy Bird has a high score, Angry Birds has levels to clear and Temple Run had a best distance to beat; although there is a high score in 2048, I feel I don’t pay attention to it, for me, the enjoyment comes from playing, not beating, the game.

And this lack of focus on judging your performance in the game is important; I really loved the original Temple Run, but my insanely high score of twelve million meant that playing the game for half an hour, to get 10 and a half million points, felt like a waste; the difficulty of beating my score in such a score-focused game meant there was no real point to playing it.

But in 2048, the actions involved in playing the game are much more satisfying to complete; perhaps it’s because we’re making big numbers when we play it – an act of creation – as opposed to fleeing for our lives from ghostly apes – an act of avoiding destruction – but I think the mechanics of the game are even more important. In Temple Run, the mechanics never change, but the focus on the final score means your game can be judged a ‘success’ or ‘failure’. Similarly in Angry Birds, there is less of a need to 3-star every level, but the constantly-changing mechanics of the new birds means that the game feels perpetually incomplete, that there will always be a new thing to learn how to do (which probably fits in with Rovio’s visions for the Angry Birds brand).

And neither of those problems are present in 2048; you can play forever, without fear of judging yourself, and the mechanics don’t change, meaning that you have a firm understanding of where you are in the game, and how to play it, rather than being perpetually on edge in case they introduce another new bird.

If there are changes in gameplay, they come because you build bigger numbers as the game progresses, and must find a way to incorporate them into even bigger numbers; this emphasis on the user defining the difficulty of the game is very important, as it means that 2048, by virtue of clever mechanics alone, has created a game that is more adaptive to the skill of the user than any amount of Star Wars: Force Unleashed PR nonsense. Essentially, it always feels like I’m playing at my own level, as the better I do, the harder it gets; there are no stars to rank my successes against some vaguely-defined idea of ‘perfecting’ a level – the game works because every bit of progress raises the challenge in an appropriately difficult way.

On another level, the game is great fun because the constant arrival of new ‘2’ squares are both the means by which we create new numbers, and develop the game, and the means by which empty squares for new numbers are taken up; we need the 2s to play the game, but they’re a massive pain in the arse in the process, a piece of analysis my sister deemed as ‘so meta’.

Therefore, we come to both love and loathe the arrival of new 2 squares, and determining how to use each new arrival is integral to the game; the game is very, literally, economical, as the resources of 2 squares keep on coming, and it is up to us as players to determine how best to use them. The genius of the game is, of course, that the conditions we have to use those 2 squares in are entirely of our own making, meaning that the game feels both weirdly confined with its 4×4 grid, and infinitely expansive, creative and personal, as everything that happens in those 16 squares is all down to us.

The ambiguity of the game’s title also makes it perpetually fun; the website offers up the challenge ‘get to the 2048 tile’, but what does that mean? Does it refer to a score of 2048, because that’s easy – I got 2,500 within the first day of buying the game. I think it refers to a specific arrangement of the tile itself, as the site mentions the ‘2048 tile‘. Perhaps there is a maximum value of numbers in a square, and when all the squares are appropriately ‘maxed out’, the game will be over? The highest I’ve got in a square is 256, so there must be highest numbers to get to, right?

But that model contradicts the very mechanics of the game, in being able to combine squares of equal value; if all squares have a value of x, can’t you just stick them all together to obtain 16x, and start all over? And if that’s true, the game should be infinite in length, so what’s the significance of having a numerical, target-like value in the game’s very name?

The point is that there are no definitive answers, and we’ll attempt to find them by playing the game; it combines endless ambiguity with logical mechanics, giving us a sense of false logic, that any unknowns surrounding the game can be solved through the almost-mechanical addition of 2 squares together. And perhaps that’s the masterstroke of 2048; like all viral apps, it’s phenomenally addictive and amusing, and we don’t know why. It’s just that in this case, there are no starred levels or golden coins to mark our progress, and show us how close we may be to finding out the truth of this game’s brilliance.


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