Two Dots’s depressing locus of control

After a remission of about six months, my depression came back at some point in August; shortly afterwards, I developed an affection for the Facebook-integrated mobile game Two Dots.

There are other games that speak to depression in a more obvious way, and probably provide a healthier sense of catharsis. Night in the Woods is a game in which probably all of the main characters are depressed; they talk about mental health in frank terms, as well as discussing what the options are for recovery, and what’s at stake in choosing to pursue them or not. Also everybody is a fursona, and there’s a Guitar Hero-inspired mini-game, and I have a crush on the crocodile person. There are many lovely things that exist outside of the crushing darkness of the characters’ huge eyes and the protagonist’s nightmares.

Two Dots is a game for depression. But it’s not about depression in a narrative sense. Nor is it a game-for-change game built specifically for DSM 296.xx Major Depressive Disorder. Rather, it’s a game that was made in and for a world that engenders depression in anyone who is paying enough attention.

Depressed time

Two Dots uses delay mechanics (a game design principle which I wrote a book about) to encourage players to indulge in sessions of about 20 minutes at a time a few times a day, rather than going on a long play binge that lasts for hours and hours. You can spend money to extend a play session, and sometimes a special item is available in the store to give you 24 or 48 hours of infinite “lives”, for a wicked weekend of puzzle-solving. This might lead one to assume that the delay mechanic is there to make you spend money, and that’s true to an extent, but it’s rare for this particular kind of microtransaction to make up the bulk of a game’s revenue — that usually comes from the “power ups” that influence a player’s success. Delays are only secondarily about money. They’re primarily about emotion.

The delay mechanic in Two Dots is constantly forcing me to suspend hope. I may believe that I have what it takes to complete a puzzle; I have a strategy, and just need to execute it perfectly. I can smell the potential victory. The delay mechanic means that just as I’ve worked out a strategy, I run out of “lives” that I can spend on attempting to execute it. The satisfaction that felt as though it was at my fingertips is deferred to a future time.

There are a few things that I can do to process this denial of a dopamine hit. One is accept the offer to pay money for more lives or more turns — “you’re so close” assures the notification text, and part of me wants to grab onto that glimmer of hope. There’s probably a healthy option that has to do with accepting delayed gratification with equanimity, but that’s not accessible to me right now. Another option is to refuse to accept hope in the first place, and begin my play session expecting only limited satisfaction. One day I will complete this puzzle. It probably won’t be today.

The old platitude says that one must live in the moment and find happiness in the present. Depression consumes my present moment, while diverting my attention to the past and the future. Two Dots orients me always towards a future: a map stretches beyond the “horizon” of the top border of my phone screen, pushing ever onwards over plains and mountains, above the clouds, to places I won’t reach for months.

It also extends the present moment. I have no idea how long I have been playing for when I finally run out of lives. Has it been ten minutes or an hour? I don’t know, because I’ve been engrossed in dozens of tiny movements that individually take less than a second. Two Dots, like many (but not all) videogames, warps time around itself. It has the power to consume hours of my time, if only I’d pay it the fee and give myself over to it completely for a while. During my first weekend with Two Dots I paid for unlimited lives. I felt like I was vanishing from the world for hours at a time: precisely what my depression wants.

Depressed probability

Two Dots feels, moment-to-moment, like a game of skill, suggesting an internal locus of control — a belief that the things that happen to you are a result of your own actions. Yet a great deal of your success relies on which coloured dots fall into the grid, suggesting an external locus of control — what happens to you is a result of external forces. The probabilities involved in this are hidden to the player. It’s obvious that if there are more colours involved in a puzzle, the chances of getting matching colours are lower, but beyond that, there are a number of mysterious elements to the algorithm’s functioning.

The first few levels in each area of the game’s map are easy tutorial puzzles. In these, it’s possible for all of the replacement dots to be the same colour. It’s not clear what triggers this, or whether it is possible to make this happen in later puzzles — perhaps you can do it by clearing the board of all dots? This implies that the dot selection algorithm is not just acting out a simple probability problem: the pool of potential dots changes depending on the state of the board. Which means that an external power is controlling the game state, and influencing your chances of success.

Playing Two Dots forces you to constantly focus on what you can control, while being unsure of what is going on outside of that. It encourages you to act on a belief in an internal locus of control, even stating that your successes are “remarkable!” as though they had not occurred thousands of times in other players’ handsets. It’s a blatant lie. Nobody will remark on my success. And I’m not even sure I had much of a hand in it.

I’ve played sessions that seemed unreasonably smooth: why is that puzzle that seemed impossible a few hours ago suddenly giving me matching set after matching set, allowing me to breeze through by joining up squares? I’m supposed to believe that I succeeded due to my own skill, but the more I examine the system that I’m working within, the less and less it seems like I am actually in control of my own destiny.

About half of my sessions of Two Dots have the same arc to them. I have five lives to spend on failed attempts to solve a puzzle. I’ll start with a success or two, spending no more than one life to get through one or two levels. I get a bit of a rush from this, enough to make me want more and enough to form a memory that this is an activity that makes me feel good. Then I’ll hit a puzzle that seems intractable. I’ll spend two or three lives building a hypothesis about what strategy might get me through. That gives me at most one life to test that hypothesis. It usually fails, simply due to getting a poorly-matched set of dots. I run out of lives, feel dissatisfied, and tell myself that it’s okay, I’ll get that satisfaction I was looking for later on.

If you want to remain depressed, a good way to do this is to invest your energy in things that you can’t control. Two Dots is designed to seduce you into doing this. It is engineered to exert a fairly specific amount of friction, so that I will remain engaged and play at least once per day. It is designed to give me hope and a sense of reward, without actually making it possible for me to play for too long without running out of lives. I’ll probably never know for certain whether the dot colour probability changes dynamically depending on the number of lives I have left, or how long I have been playing for in this session. But I’ll always suspect that I have no real control over the outcome of my actions.

Depressed sociality

Two Dots shows you the Facebook profile pictures of your friends to indicate their progress through the main map as well as the small, time-limited “expedition” maps and “treasure hunts”. As a result, I have a fairly clear sense of who is playing this game a lot at the moment. And because I know these people through Facebook, I also have a sense of who might be dealing with depression at the moment. My subjective reading is that about half of the people in the first group are also in the second.

Normally, depression isolates you, because you only have access to your own mind. Two Dots is like the dive bar of digital sociality: it’s the place you go and run into other depressed people. Unlike a dive bar, it doesn’t encourage you to talk about what brought you here. There’s no way to talk to your friends through the app — you just see their faces there, like ghosts haunting the same building.

If you want to remain depressed, a good way to do this is to see everything as a zero-sum game, talk to nobody, and avoid opportunities to share in the success of others. Two Dots is really good at making you do these things. You’re not comrades in Two Dots. There are no cooperation or gifting mechanics. Your friends are competitors: their faces are only shown to motivate you to keep playing and try to surpass them. If someone else gets more points than you at a particular puzzle, that lowers your meta-game score by comparison. The meta-game has no influence on anything else, it’s just a number representing how much Two Dots you’ve played, but I’m depressed and I want to see my face with a big number next to it to prove that I’m worth something. If I see your face there and I know you’re smarter than me, I want to keep playing to prove to myself that I can do at least one thing as well as you can.

I met a lot of my Facebook friends in real-life contexts that already bring out competitive feelings in me, such as education or professional networks. Two Dots becomes a low-complexity way for me to act out those competitive feelings, and try to assuage my ego a little. At the same time, I suspect that whether or not I succeed is at least in part a matter of whether or not the algorithm is tuned to my success at a given moment. Yet I’m competing at a game that is largely a matter of chance. The “expeditions” are particularly social and competitive, as well as particularly chance-based, throwing in a large number of intersecting mechanics that are difficult to predict. These puzzles have less to do with applying a strategy and more to do with getting in the machine zone, watching the numbers rise and riding the wave of success until it fades. Even if I succeed, it’s not a success that I was wholly responsible for. It’s easy for me to feel the same way about the real-life contexts that I associate with the people with whom I’m competing.

The dichotomy between internal and external locus of control is often invoked in career coaching and leadership training. To at least some degree, this training aims to engender a positive disposition which will enable people to participate in the great game of neoliberal capitalism with greater aplomb. Although studies confirm that an internal locus of control is correlated with lower rates of depression, I kind of suspect that an external locus of control is correlated with actually understanding what is happening in the world around you. This is a rare occasion when I actually do think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: we have a significant influence on outcomes in both our lives and in Two Dots, but we’re not the sole determiners, and final success or failure is down to system issues outside of our control. The problem here is not what is true and what is false, but what the lie is doing to us. Two Dots uses encouragements such as “you’re so close” and “remarkable!” to encourage players to believe that they are responsible for their own success, while refusing to communicate what’s happening on a systemic level that might also influence their success. In real life, the stakes are far higher — I’m thinking here not just about career competition, but matters of survival such as access to healthcare — but the game is remarkably similar.