Thursday, February 21, 2013

Drop7, Or Why Is It So Difficult to Put to Bed the Suspicion of Cosmic Agency?

I have a 12-minute walk to work, which is just about enough time to squeeze in a single game. I’m that annoying guy who almost plows into you on the sidewalk because he’s staring a hole in his smartphone. But I’m not scanning text messages. I’m playing Drop7, and it’s serious business. If there’s any reaction elicited, it’s barely audible muttering at a grey disc I’ve worked tirelessly to crack open, only to reveal the most unhelpful numbered piece relative to my given predicament.

Playing Drop7 during my walk to and from work each day shifts the game from amusement into a more intimate category: ritual. This means the game always occupies at least some narrow portion of my day. And this steady exposure means it’s always hovering on the periphery of thought. If I’m mentally teasing apart an an issue, Drop7 will occasionally insinuate itself into the conversation - “Sooo...what are you guys talking about?”

Lately I’ve been thinking about the hardwired impulses that prompt humans to suspect divine agency in matters that function on blind chance. If one of my devoutly religious parents bumps into an old friend, they’ll refer to it as a “divine appointment”. God was mysteriously guiding their steps so they’d encounter that person. If something bad happens, it's God coughing loudly to get their attention for some reason that it’s up to them to suss out. Or it's a test. Or it's a loving, corrective measure. If something good happens, it was a blessing. If they find a parking spot right in front of the grocery store on a rainy afternoon, it was God effectively saying, “Don’t worry, I got this.”

In the believer's mind, nothing is outside of God’s divine governance. The world’s orbit feels tighter as a result, more prescribed, less erratic. It’s reassuring to believe that even lamentable circumstances have some cosmic purpose, however inscrutable. In his book Breaking the Spell, which examines religion as a natural phenomenon, philosopher Daniel Dennett teases apart the evolutionary benefits of assuming agency with knee-jerk swiftness. He gives the example of a dog curled up by the window, dozing on a winter day. Outside a lump of snow becomes dislodged from the roof and falls with a loud thud to the ground. The dog springs to its feet instinctively and growls, believing it to be some stalking predator’s footfall. The dog interpreted agency where there was none, and his survival chances increased ever so slightly as a result. If it had been a bear, he would’ve been alert and ready to respond to the threat.

I notice the vestiges of this evolutionary hardwiring when I suffer the unraveling of a Drop7 round. The puzzle pieces hatching from the grey discs are randomised by some algorithm I don’t understand, yet it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the game is toying with me in some conscious, deliberate way. The best-laid plans of even the most talented Drop7 player get utterly scuppered when a crust of tightly bunched 1s form an impenetrable shell over the field of play, making it impossible to excavate deeper into the bedrock of discs concealed beneath. It’s what my little brother and I affectionately christened 'the death knell’ when we played Tetris together while roommates in college - the point in a game where you know there’s absolutely no way to climb out of your current predicament. And playing Drop7 is like opening a Matryoshka doll constructed out of an endless series of nested predicaments.

Much like in life, things can be going extremely well - perfectly, in fact - and will just suddenly implode without warning. The swings of fortune in Drop7 are enough to make you tear your hair out in clumps like fistfuls of garden weeds. You can be doing everything right, executing a plan with discipline and precision and then the random lottery of pieces will abruptly hatch a doomsday sequence of pieces (1-1-1 is Drop7's equivalent of 6-6-6). It puts you in the mind of Job who’s muddling along, enjoying a prosperous life until one day God lets Lucifer start using him like a lab rabbit from a PETA advert, seeing if Job will deny God after having a sufficient volume of shampoo squirted into his eye. I confess to frequently imagining Drop7's designer Frank Lantz serving as precisely this sort of lab technician.

I once read an interview with an Apple engineer who worked on the iPod's shuffle feature. He mentioned being repeatedly confronted with iPod owners who were convinced that their MP3 player had a particular taste in music. They refused to believe that the shuffle function was truly random, and that there wasn’t some sentient little elf living inside it who decided it would be funny to cue up Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” at the most consummately inopportune moment. One customer swore up and down that his iPod actually preferred funk music. It was pure silliness. But there it was, cropping up again, that impulse to ascribe agency to a random universe.

There’s a freedom in striving to shuffle off that primal suspicion, both in life and in games. It’s the reason I can continue to play Drop7 each morning on my walk to work, and again on my way home without spiking my old iPhone 3GS onto the pavement when the death knell gongs. The path between home and work is so predictable, so circumscribed and orderly. How beautiful that we can find room in our lives to welcome something so potentially fizzy and shambolic. Sometimes things go well, sometimes things go poorly, and eventually the game ends. Finding a way to let those three realities hang gracefully in balance with one another is the goal. After each new random complication arises, Drop7 waits patiently, as mute as a mountain.

It’s up to me, and only me, to decide what on earth I'm going to do next.