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The big news this week is that I'm getting a new phone. I'm excited, of course, because really I think about this first as a fancy new toy, one that will allow me to play games on the go—not just Tetris, but the more nebulous social "games" for which sites like Facebook and Twitter have opened the door. I am going to be texting like a Japanese 13-year-old with a two-hour round-trip commute, people.

Some background: I've had a Razr for about 2½ years now, starting on Verizon and switching to T-Mobile when I discovered I'd moved into a tiny Verizon dead zone—a move that didn't exactly thrill me, since I found that the T-Mobile Razr interface did not compare favorably to the Verizon one, and in the past year I've had two friends get unceremoniously dumped by T-Mobile for roaming too much,[1] so I was starting to get a little antsy about sticking with them if I changed phones.

And I really wanted to change phones. Periodically, I entertain myself with some Internet window shopping for various fancy-schmancy electronic devices; cell phones have been a favorite focus of this pastime for the past few months. And then, a couple of weeks ago, I went on a bike trip with my father, who had just recently acquired an iPhone. Despite the fact that I have a longstanding and, I freely admit, partially irrational hatred of Apple products, my resistance to them was substantially worn down by a week on rural roads and bike trails with the iPhone. For one thing, we were able to use it to figure out how to get over the highway bridge across the Missouri River into Jefferson City, which apparently only has a bike lane on one side It would not be overstating the case to suggest that the iPhone saved my life, since my father's initial plan of action was to try to cross the bridge in a lane of highway traffic. More mundanely, the Twitter mobile site (me) and Twitter iPhone app (Dad—it was his phone, after all) made it much easier to micro-blog our various adventures.

My father hadn't had the phone for very long, and is not much for mobile games, so he hadn't collected that many apps, but when we spent the night with friends in Columbia, he did track down the "light saber" app that one of them mentioned was a favorite of her brother-in-law. A couple of years ago in this space, I discussed the distinction between games and toys—the light saber app, having no defined goals or scoring system, seems to fall pretty clearly into the toy category. It is satisfyingly customizable, with a variety of saber colors to choose from and, I believe, the option of "good" or "evil" sound effects. Its greatest use, I imagine, is in the company of another iPhone-owning light saber-wielder, preferably one unafraid to make a spectacle of him or herself.

I was still more attracted to functions like easy texting and mobile use of websites like Twitter and Facebook, however; plus I like the tactile experience of a physical keyboard. What I really wanted was a G1, but given the possibility that T-Mobile might drop me at any moment, leaving me with a proprietary phone that would require at minimum some kind of hack to be of any further use to me, I didn't really want to risk it. After comparing various devices and networks, I decided to go with the AT&T Quickfire—similar to another phone I had previously lusted after, the T-Mobile Sidekick, it features a pull-out QWERTY and 3G coverage, although it doesn't actually connect to wireless networks. It was also available for free with a 2-year contract—this is important for a penurious graduate student.

And while it may lack the variety of applications, games, toys, and otherwise, available to flagship smart phones like the iPhone or G1, it occurred to me that I don't really care that much about that stuff (at least, I don't care about $200-worth about them). Maps and email can be handled via mobile websites, and most of the time I'm not far from a computer or terminal for those purposes anyway. What I really want out of a cell phone is 5-15 minutes of entertainment while waiting for the bus, or walking from my office to the gym, or taking a short break on a bike trail, and all I really need to entertain myself for that length of time is a few text messages. A text-capable cell phone is itself a toy. Maybe the best kind of toy, in the way that small children and cats gravitate toward the box in which any expensive amusement was packaged. . . .

Simple casual games like Tetris or Hexic are the bread and butter of the mobile game market and an adequate pastime for someone trying to ignore her fellow bus passengers. But just the ability to text grants one the ability to participate in various forms of banter and small talk that can blur the boundary between interaction and play. The latter is, of course, a subset of the former, and many people are already making attempts to formalize games within social networks and websites. In addition to Facebook's wide selection of third-party applications, there are "social games" like Spymaster specifically set up to use Twitter as their platform. Like an old school RPG-by-email, these are games where (typed) utterance is action: every Tweet is a performative speech act.[2]

A game like Spymaster is relatively formal, but consideration of such systems leads one to consider, as well, run-of-the-mill friendly banter through sites like Twitter and Facebook. My initial Twitter use was sporadic mainly because texting on a Razr is clumsy and time-consuming—in other words, not terribly conducive to bantering with anyone. I did use it to microblog last year's father-daughter bike trip, but that was a matter of necessity—with no other device available, it was the only way to let friends know how the trip was going. On this year's trip, given the choice between my Razr and my father's iPhone, there was no question which device I preferred. It was really only my discovery of TweetDeck that led me to begin Twittering outside of bicycle touring trips; as an academic glued to her laptop, it's a nice, low-key distraction that I can run in the background.

Given the friendly interface of TweetDeck, my Twitter use skyrocketed, and I was able to participate in multi-turn interactions rather than the terse exchanges to which I had felt limited by the Razr. A few days ago, a round of incredulous Tweets about a friend's failure to have ever seen Dirty Dancing morphed into the two of us spending several hours in an attempt to push #roadhouse and #swayzophilia to the level of trending topics.[3] Was this a game? I refer to it as such in the footnote, and it doesn't seem inappropriate. At the very least it's a kind of play. And conversational play is a major building block of relationships. Consider the Sims; if you want them to build relationships with each other, you need happy speech balloons.

The network switch, too, is actually in a way an advantage; although leaving T-Mobile means no G1, it also means that I can reactivate mobile Facebook. For some reason, mobile Facebook doesn't work on T-Mobile (or US Cellular). As both an academic researching Facebook and a Facebook user obsessively updating her profile, the loss of mobile access was a major blow when I switched from Verizon to T-Mobile. Given the increasing number of people who list their phone numbers in their Facebook profiles, as well, mobile Facebook access has demonstrably non-frivolous utility . . . but of course I care more about instant photo uploads. More happy speech balloons, more fun with friends, more opportunities to perform relationships through status update comments and photo tagging. No doubt Peter, Paul & Mary would be horrified, but the new cell phone is, if you ask me, a marvelous toy.

[1] I know, this is supposed to be the whole point of T-Mobile, right? I had to get a Missouri area code because they don't cover Madison, but they were perfectly happy to ship the phone to Wisconsin—and then they go and terminate a good friend's Florida contract because, after six years of living in Wisconsin, she is suddenly roaming too much for their taste. Cell phone contracts: they're for you, not the cell phone provider.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Performative_utterance

[3] Unfortunately, we started this game a couple of hours before reports broke about the death of Michael Jackson, which hampered our efforts considerably.




E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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