Last weekend, I decided to delete all of my games and social check-in apps from my phone. I had been checking in weekly (and more recently, daily) since October 2009, and had many hours worth of Angry Bird levels unlocked. So what pushed me over the edge?
I was exploring San Francisco with my boyfriend, specifically the North Beach area. Every time I went somewhere, I checked in on both foursquare and Gowalla; foursquare for the badges and points, Gowalla for the new place stamps and also the North Beachin’ trip pin. With each place, I had to stop in the middle of the street, pull out my phone, turn it on, search for the location name, and check in to the location. And because I was moving frequently from one place to another, I was checking in several times an hour.
Sometimes, I would get frustrated because my signal wasn’t good enough, so I had to move around a little and spend more time on painstakingly slow Edge data waiting for the place list to load. At one point in Washington Square, I felt relaxed for the first time during the day because it wasn’t spent being anxious about recording the check-in on my phone. Nevertheless, I kept checking in until the day was over.
The next day, it somehow hit me that checking in, an act that’s supposed to remind you of being in the present by being deliberately aware of where you are, actually had the opposite effect for me. My favorite and happiest moments were not when I was checking in, or even visiting the touristy areas; it was having conversations and making jokes with my boyfriend as a result of being in a new environment that provided new stimuli for conversation. The experience was all about who I was with, and taking in sights, sounds, and smells of where I was. Every moment spent on the phone is a moment lost.
That thought hit me pretty hard, and I also started remembering all the other times in the past when I’ve played games to pass the time on the bus, walking home, or during other seemingly mundane everyday events, because I wanted to speed up the boring bits (just like in the movie Click). I decided then that I would delete all my games and refused to be tied down by meaningless accomplishments (e.g., reaching level 20 or something in Zenonia, unlocking all Angry Birds easter eggs) that demanded my attention and kept me from being present in the moment, no matter how boring I thought the activity was.
I was reluctant to give up foursquare and Gowalla entirely, after professing my love for them to my friends and committing part of so much social time for location check-in apps, achieving lots of shiny badges, and keeping a location history as part of the things I track about myself. As I was thinking about my history with playing MMORPGs, Neopets (I amassed millions of Neopoints and several painted pets), and random Mafia-type games, I realized that collecting badges on foursquare and Gowalla was no different; it was just a more socially-acceptable (perhaps), grown-up-version of playing games in real life.
That was it. I wanted to keep track of places I visit, but I didn’t want my time and experiences being sucked away by the lures of virtual achievements, so out went all game and location check-in apps from my phone. I can’t describe how freeing it felt, and even though I’ve had moments of foursquare withdrawal since then (and darn it, why did the Android Market have to release Fieldrunners now), I kept reminding myself that doing this puts me on the path to being the person I want to be, and the pangs of withdrawal were quietened.
There are no doubt other aspects of my life that I would benefit from paying more attention to and questioning my actions to make sure they align with my goals, but how would I have the chance to think about them if I was busy indulging in entertainment on my phone? Maybe one day I’ll go back to social location apps…after they’ve perfected automatic check-ins.