Lessons from Obsessions

As an incoming MIT student I feel somewhat obliged to be obsessed over artificial intelligence research or building a rollercoaster in my backyard, but I do get hit by a pang of guilt as I admit that my current dumb obsession is quite far from all of that. In the comfortable confines of my airconditioned room or a metro car, in moments of reprieve from the scorching 37 degree Celsius (that’s 98.6 degrees for you Americans) Taipei heat, I pore over my phone and attempt to beat my highest score in a game called Ball Blast.

It all started because of graduation rehearsal. As each member of our 205-person class walked up on stage to take some obligatorily fake photos shaking our principal’s hand, and as conversation with my neighbor came to an awkward standstill, he took out his phone to kill some time. And there it was. A cannon in the middle of the screen, swipe to shoot, balls with numbers raining down from the sky. Each successful shot from a cannon would transfer the ball’s number to your total score, but if the ball fell too fast and hit you, game over. I sat there mesmerized at the increasing and decreasing numbers, just like how a 10-year old me sat mesmerized in front of a population counter, flinching at close calls (well not in the population counter case), excited to just watch the numbers grow.

There is, of course, and inherent obsessive quality with simple games like these, a desire to rectify your dumb mistakes that cost you the previous round, because you know you will do better this time. Combined with my obsession with moving numbers, you can probably see why I am quite hooked.

Every logical fiber in me KNOWS this is a waste of my time. It’s quite, quite pointless. I am, however, also guilty in spreading this game to my friends, and my motivation to beat their high scores does not help the situation at all.

So, at 2 a.m. when I find myself still unable to put the phone down, I justify my playing with what the game teaches me about human nature. Yes, all this active reflection came about while narrowly escaping cloudy with a chance of number balls, which I suppose supports the notion that when one narrowly escapes a certain death, the nature of life becomes clearer. So with every close death that I escaped, or sometimes unfortunately, did not, I came to a revelation.

I learned to forgive.

More times than I could count, I told myself that this would be my last game. I made promises that I wanted to keep, reminders that stopping was best for me, for my health, for the sake of not getting dumber, for Poor Richard’s pithy remark in his Almanac that “lost time cannot be found again.” And yet, my finger moved to the cannon again, and there, again, came the moving shots and the moving numbers.

Over the past few months, there have been moments where I have felt hurt and betrayed by promises that were not kept, apologies long overdue. And so I waited, waited for the moment these people would finally realize how I felt, waited for the moment I would feel vindicated and my suffering acknowledged. That moment never came. But perhaps, they had simply taken a swipe, started a new game, moved on. It had not even occurred to me to stop and apologize to myself for a broken promise, the appeal of a new game was much too strong. So yes, Ball Blast did, most unexpectedly, show me how to forgive. I saw that in a similar situation, I might have done the same thing.

Maybe this is what makes us human. We are capable of being obsessed by the dumbest things, but also capable of realizing that other people do these dumb things too, just like us. So the best thing to do is really just to forgive them, and start a new game.