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I got a new smartphone recently, and I'm not going to lie to you—the first thing I did after importing all my contacts was install Fruit Ninja. Then I downloaded Words With Friends and started a game with my mother in law. Next up was Drop7, for which I have an irrational fondness despite some truly irritating bugs in the Android version (I first played Drop7 back when it was a browser-based alternate reality game called Chain Factor in 2007, and I guess nostalgia beats out my love of functional leaderboards).[1]

Then I got around to changing my ringtone.

I resisted getting a cell phone at all for a really long time. I held out until 2005, and even then gave in only because it was the only way I could have telephone access at all where I was living. Most people I know who are still wary of cell phones have a sort of general gadgetphobia, which was definitely not my problem—even as I avoided getting a cell, I was happily carrying around a Palm m105 (complete with a folding keyboard!) and wearing flash drives around my neck. I just really, really don't like talking on the phone.

I'll tell you something I do like, though: compulsively checking my email. So I watched the rise of the smartphone with interest, and when the T-Mobile G1 was announced I got right in line. Email! In my pocket! And casual games!

It's not as though I really needed another gaming platform in my life. I didn't even need a portable one—I'd owned a Nintendo DS for years, and while it's a little bulkier than a smartphone, it also has an actual d-pad. And people can't call me on it.

But one can only check one's email so many times a day (especially when one has it set to push notify and one feels foolish when one manually refreshes for the third time in a row), and a touchscreen interface with Internet connectivity is just a social game waiting to happen.

Or possibly an anti-social one. I find the ways people use cell phones—particularly by playing games on them—to avoid communicating or otherwise interacting with others really interesting. It used to be that the "don't talk to me" signal in a crowded waiting room was reading a book, but now it's just as likely to be Angry Birds. People who are determined to ignore your cues can still interrupt you, of course—now they just say "What are you playing?" instead of "What are you reading?"—but on the plus side you can always snarl "Can't talk. Limited lives!" in order to put a speedy halt to any potential conversation. Not that I've ever done that.

A cell phone is also a little easier to carry around than a book, for many of us, which means that Plants vs. Zombies is handy when an unanticipated waiting room-type situation crops up. Stuck at the mall with your mom while she tries on "just one more thing, honey"? Let's see what's new in the app store!

If you're anything like me or most of the people I know, though, you don't limit your cell phone gameplay to times when you're alone (or surrounded by strangers and sort of wishing you were alone). I start to feel ignored, neglected, and annoyed when a friend has a lengthy conversation on her cell phone while we're spending time together, and I certainly try to avoid that behavior myself (I mean, even more than I usually try to avoid phone conversations). But noodling around with a game of Bejeweled falls somewhere near "knitting a scarf" or "painting nails" on my personal hierarchy of socially acceptable multitasking, and I know I'm not the only one. Next time you're at a movie theater, spend a little while people-watching before the previews. There's almost certain to be at least one person hanging out amidst a group of friends who aren't giving her the side-eye for flinging a few birds at pigs while they chat.

Which is not to say that playing a game on your phone while spending time with people who are in the same room is always going to be okay. Social mores are fluid, even amongst a static group. Also, some games are too noisy and irritating to be borne. I'm just saying.

But cell phone gaming can be an aid to socializing, too, instead of a hindrance. Words With Friends has the "with friends" bit in the title for a reason—although if your friends play the kind of cutthroat game some of mine do, you might not stay too friendly with them for long. If you're less of a sore loser than I am (or just better at the math aspect, so you can win once in a while), you might enhance an existing relationship via a shared activity, which you can do "together" even if you're miles apart and playing at quite different times of day. Or you could make new friends with a complete stranger, via the random-matching function that lots of long-distance social games have built in. There's a ton of potential.

My first forays into gaming socially via smartphone didn't even involve apps intentionally designed to foster that kind of behavior. Since I basically had a little corner of the Internet in my purse, I did the same things with my phone from the start that I do with my computer, which includes play-by-post-style roleplaying games. The itty-bitty keyboard makes it a little harder to do, but being able to get multiple turns in over the course of a day that includes a lot of time away from home is a pretty excellent way to spend more time with my gaming group. I can't recommend it as a good plan for killing time during family reunions, though. Trying to explain to one of my uncles about how I was composing a reply to someone who was flirting with my character in a Star Trek-themed game I was playing on "the internets" was kind of awkward.[2]

Playing with a cell phone can definitely be an extended-family-friendly activity too, however. At a more recent family gathering—Thanksgiving last year—my father's youngest brother introduced his wife to us for the first time. She was the only person in a crowd of twelve who had never met everyone else before, which would be intimidating enough even without all of the pressure of trying to make a good impression on in-laws. Then on top of that there was all the weight of family tradition that comes with a big holiday meal, in-jokes and stories that span generations, and having to pretend that everyone's cooking is delicious.

I wasn't surprised to see my new aunt taking a little break from all of us by playing a game quietly on her smartphone at one point. I myself had checked out several times to check my email and make sure the Internet hadn't caught on fire or anything while I was eating turkey, and I'm used to Flemings.

But when I looked over again a little later, she wasn't playing alone—she was teaching my dad Fruit Ninja.

Of course, Mom gave me the Eyebrow of Disapproval just a few minutes after that, when I was playing Bejeweled instead of listening to my grandmother, so I'm not saying that cell phone games are the universal key to family bonding. But a game that can be played in a handful of minutes on a touchscreen is often a good choice for a beginning player, and the experience gap tends to be a pretty big separator between many gamers and those who don't (yet) share their hobby.

Our wider cultural ideas about the appropriateness of cell phones in various situations are in pretty constant flux, and the games that we can play on them are subject to the same nebulous social boundaries. Which sometimes means that, in my enjoyment of the awesomeness of games in my pocket, I manage to damage a social connection by accident. But it would be worth trying to navigate the shifting conventions for all the times I've managed to make better friends by sharing a game, even if it wasn't for the entertainment value of solo play.

And while I'm being honest, it's worth it for all the times I've been able to not-too-subtly signal to someone that I'm not interested in socializing on purpose, too.

[1] Incidentally, how hilarious is it that Chain Factor's fictional creator was an anti-establishment villain who railed against "the corrupting influence of retail software and advertising" and "vacuous, marketing-driven movie spin-offs," while the actual creators—Area/Code—specialized in working with big media firms (like CBS, the client for Chain Factor) and would eventually be subsumed into the social-gaming juggernaut that is Zynga, enabling sales of Drop7, the transparently rebranded and previously free Chain Factor, across multiple platforms? Hahaha! The only thing funnier is that Drop7 actually has less content than Chain Factor. It's still a fun game, though. And the new graphics are better.

[2] It's possible that if I had tried to clarify the situation a little further and told him that I was playing an original character in a version of the new reboot universe inspired by the 2009 film, and that the character who was trying to pick her up was a James Kirk from a mirror universe of the original series, someone's head might have exploded. Probably mine. Next time I'm going to say, "Oh, I'm just checking my email."




Robyn Fleming started playing D&D when she was six, and, many years later, met her husband through a MUD. When not gaming, she teaches martial arts, and writes speculative romance under a pseudonym. Basically, she's a huge geek.
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