A Kind of Gathering Panic

In 2006, entrepreneur Charles Forman began a website called iminlikewithyou.com, a place for bored youngsters to flirt online. The next year, media executive Dan Porter, former president of TicketWeb and cofounder of Teach for America, joined the team. They changed their name to the acronym OMGPOP and began making online games. Early this February, the company released a simple Pictionary-style game, Draw Something, on the Apple App Store. Six weeks later, the game had 13.3 million daily active users, according to AppData—the most for any iOS game by a margin of more than 5 million people (Zynga’s Words With Friends was second, with 8 million). The day after that market report, on March 22, FarmVille maker Zynga bought OMGPOP for an estimated $200 million.

And so a single game’s somewhat crude purpose became repurposed crude, the black gold kind. The kind of jackpot geyser developers dream about while making love to their spouses. Competition in the mobile-gaming landscape is intense, its customers fickle. The fact that a simple drawing-and-guessing game can erupt into a phenomenon that ends in eight zeros suggests two things: 1) We are a malleable people, at the whim of any momentum greater than our own; and 2) Keyboards have leeched the humanity from our thoughts. As children we made turkeys from painted palms, cartoons out of thumbprints. As adults we type emails and poke at virtual buttons. We miss using our hands.

My first Draw Something game is against, if her profile picture is true, a young woman with a child. Call her Lola. Three words appear, each of ascending difficulty. I choose HEART. I swipe two fluid motions on the screen with a thick Red pen, then use a thinner pen to mark a small half-moon on the heart’s surface—the kind you add to a circle to make it a sphere. Not two minutes after I send my drawing, a message pops up on my iPod: Lola has sent her guess. I watch as my heart is drawn on the screen, and phantom fingers tap the correct letters to spell my drawing. “Drawsome!” the program tells us. A coin is deposited into each of our accounts.

Once the game is over, so is your creation. 

This is how the dance begins. Eventually Lola sends me her drawing, an apple or aardvark reconstituted on my screen as if by invisible touches, and I fill in the blanks from a stack of letter tiles. The goal is to successfully name each others’ drawings as many times in a row as possible. A “Turn” counter measures your progress. Guess wrong enough times, or give up and “pass,” and the counter resets to zero. Increase your odds of success by blowing up a chunk of unused letters with a Bomb. The game gives you five to start. You also use Bombs to blow up words you don’t wish to draw. Burn through these and you can buy more from the in-game store: 10 for 400 coins, 20 for 720 coins, etc. 

Lola’s next picture is a bit of a cheat—she begins with a chunky black circle, ending in a point, dissected by shaky black and yellow lines. Two more circles give the appearance of … wings? Just in case I haven’t caught on, her final lines provide a clue: I STING YOU, she draws. I tap, “B,” “E,” E,” and hoo-rah, another coin each.

The cruelty of mathematics begins to weigh on me. I now have 12 coins in the coffer. I only need 388 more to buy 10 more bombs. Hmm. During my next attempted drawing, the full spectrum of OMGPOP’s evil reveals itself. 

Let’s draw PIZZA, shall we? Wait a second—my available colors are Black, Red, Yellow, and Blue. A pedestrian glop of melted American on a burnt crust. My pie requires a more nuanced palette/palate, so I tap the “+ more colors” icon. An array of packages present themselves to me, each containing five new hues. A “beach package” sells you shades of seashells and sand; “mardi gras package” throws purple and gold over your bared fingertip brush; “ice cream package” offers the deep brown of chocolate, the pale cream of vanilla, the unfortunately-chosen pink of a male dog’s erection. Each set will run you 249 coins. I tap one, in case my first taste is free. The game says I don’t have enough coins, but would I like to get some? Yes, very much so, thanks. I’m now in the Coin Shop, where I can buy 400 coins for $1.99. Want every shade of color? Buy 3,000 coins for $9.99. Like owning fake currency? Buy 10,000 coins for $24.99, saving a remarkable 50 percent.

We’ve been here before. The selling of upgrades is not new to social gaming. But here—in the digital equivalent of paper and crayons, in a game optimized for innocent whimsy and intentional hilarity (Hey! This drawing is bad because you can’t see the screen below your chubby finger! What a crack-up!)—the selling of color strikes this Something Drawer as cynically capitalistic at best, insidious at worst. The sound of my audible response and subsequently dropped iPod: “Oh my gosh,” <<pop>>.

/ / /

That OMGPOP began its life as an online dating site makes sense—its latest product exudes a certain intimacy, short-lived and somewhat messy, the type best thrown away in a tissue. But for that brief moment a connection is made. More often than not, the result on my screen is the same as in the sack: embarrassment. There is a special kind of mutual humiliation that comes with watching a stranger guess your drawings. As Draw Something plays back each of your awkward scribbles, you observe the other player choosing letters to spell out their best guess. Toward the end of one particularly feeble attempt at AMAZON (I drew a female stick figure with a bow and arrow, dotted two big circles chest-high, then erased one dot), my partner began combining random letters in the hope that my scattered scratchings were in fact an illustration of “ANAOMIS” or “SAOMTIZ.” On my side of the glass I shook my head at the misunderstanding; on the other side, the guesser undoubtedly grew concerned I had suffered a mid-picture stroke.

Matthew Specktor, senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, recently kibitzed on the thrill of writing letters. Real, physical, handwritten letters. One day he cast out his messages to a busy and distracted populace. And, against most odds, they answered.

“I read them with a kind of gathering panic,” Specktor writes, suggesting that the intimacy of real-world connection has become a special occasion, instead of our daily bread. Strangers shared their histories and fears. Opening each envelope allowed each writer a brief escape into Specktor’s hands; reading their words became a voodoo incantation, a summoning. “The letter triggered […] its own rush of sensory suggestion, the handwritten scrawl that had a jagged, urgent personality.” Click an email and you’re reading words. Open a handwritten note and you’re sifting through the writer’s closet, unearthing secrets they didn’t know they had.

Specktor’s feeling hints at why Draw Something has grown beyond its limited purpose. We see each others’ drawings and in them, we more fully see each other. Another recent app hits similar chords of digital humanity. Swapnote (or Letter Box in Europe), a free downloadable for Nintendo’s 3DS handheld, allows you to handwrite messages, on up to four “sheets” of paper, to people on your Friend List who may then reply. The stylus acts as your real-world quill. Scribble too much and you even run out of “ink.” Both Swapnote and Draw Something, in recreating the tangible act of illustration, trade on the intangible benefits of old-fashioned post: the anticipation of response; the sender’s identity mapped out in a series of swoops and decisions.

But while OMGPOP drops you into the game immediately, with five Bombs to stay alive, Nintendo—for better or for worse—is always teaching. You first read a series of tutorial notes drawn by Nikki (the name sounds like “diary” in Japanese), a Mii character with big brown eyes behind red vintage glasses. She has an affinity for drawing stars and cats. She’s adorable, but you don’t know why; she never speaks or moves beyond the scribbling of her pen. And unlike most Mii avatars, Nikki does not have a real-world corollary. You’ve become pen pals with, essentially, a pen. Her patient tutorial ends and the real-world missives trickle in: sophomoric riddles, earnest game hype, brilliant comics, boring drivel. Pictures captured with the 3DS camera can eventually be sent, too, along with short audio clips. One sender shared his recent pain with an attached photo of his forearm, pricked through with intravenous tubes.

While Draw Something is a competition, tracking high scores and paying out victory, Swapnote is about communication. The project started as a maternity health record book, a way to track one’s thoughts after pregnancy. “I had thought it would be neat to be able to record a child’s development,” writes Diaji Imai, director on the project, “and then give it to him when he grew up.” He was influenced by his sister keeping a diary for 10 years after giving birth to a daughter. The team emphasized the warmth of handwritten notes over the cold anonymity of typed graphemes. There are no fonts or preexisting characters: whatever message you create stems from your own hand, clutching a stylus much like your favorite No. 2 pencil. Up to 3,000 are saved on your system for viewing later. 

Originally developed for Nintendo’s DSi, the project shifted to the impending 3DS and was released for free over the 2011 Christmas holiday. The move to the new hardware allowed the team to take advantage of the glasses-free 3D top screen. You write your notes on one of two layers, background or foreground. Pull out certain words to highlight their importance; etch a picture underneath something else. The combination of old-world letter writing and stereoscopic wizardry doubly wows: a charming simplicity of purpose powdered with stardust. The subtle effect is enchanting, like watching someone take a shower while they doodle in the accumulated steam.

As adults we type emails and poke at virtual buttons. We miss using our hands.

As in Draw Something, when you receive someone’s message you see a recreation of their process. But whereas the iOS game shows every line, erasure, and second-guess, Swapnote takes the finished product only: revisions become invisible, as does your sloppy second-guessing, in lieu of a single fluid draft etched out before your eyes. 

Two other differences separate each program’s system of note viewing. At first they appear trivial. Ultimately, they’re the type of details that distinguish between two card tricks: one is nifty sleight of hand; the other, magic.

When you open a swapnote, the sender’s Mii is seen in the foreground corner of the screen, clutching a giant pencil in their digit-less hands. Then they scribble furiously. We witness the drawing come to life behind them, as if blown up on an old-school overheard projector. You hear the sound of the pencil scratching onto the paper, concurrent with each expressed swirl, dot or curlicue. And on their face, a flurry of emotions wash over the cartoon features: bent eyebrows of focus, oval mouth of surprise, then a touch of sadness, countered by the wide-eyed gape of eureka.

In Draw Something, the focus is on the outcome: you win or you don’t. Sure, there are laughs to be had, watching the uncertain movements of an amateur artist’s hand. If you’re lucky enough to play with an ambitious sort, studying each finger stroke of an incredible image drawn under severe limitations can inspire awe. But the process emphasizes function. You watch and you guess. Once the game is over, so is your creation. As of this writing there is no built-in way to save your picture. Draw Something provides witness to a recording on mute, the uncut footage of silent film playing out behind the smooth surface of a one-way mirror. Swapnote puts you at the desk of the artist, their brow furrowed with effort, their instrument dancing across the page, affecting tangible change. One is sliding paint over glass; the other is cutting into stone. Look closely enough at glass and see microbes of sand, small enough to fall through your fingers. But stone is stone: heavy, lasting. Like the memories of a child. Like a first kiss. Like a shoebox of letters from an old lover, waiting to be read again.