I'm now on level 1,079 of Two Dots. I've exploded fireballs, bombs, ice blocks, multi-colored ladybugs, horseshoes, time travelers, bricks, chutes, and of course, colored dots. I can't say how many hours I've spent playing, because some levels take me days to beat while others I conquer in under three minutes.
In Two Dots, the goal is erasure. Each level presents its own settings, objectives, and special tools and weapons to help or thwart you, but the premise is the same. A round begins with an array of multi-colored dots spread across the screen, and it’s the player’s job to connect two or more same-colored dots to clear them. Connecting four dots of the same color into a square disappears every dot of that color in a thrilling and efficient use of a thumb swipe. When you disappear the required number of dots in an allotted number of moves—plus ladybugs, or bricks, or bombs, or ice blocks—you beat the level.
I play when I'm in line at the market and when my boyfriend’s out of town. I play when my writing goes stale and I’ve been in my house alone all day and need to give my brain a break. I play when I’m talking on the phone with someone who makes me nervous and when I’m in the car at a red light trying not to let the claustrophobia of being trapped in line tip me into panic. I play as a reward when I accomplish something that I was avoiding, and I play to distract myself from the physical symptoms of anxiety while I accomplish something I was avoiding.
During air travel, while forced air whistles inside a creaky cabin and the landscape tilts nauseatingly below, I play level after level to keep my fear in check. Playing in bed before I sleep numbs my brain just enough so I can drift off into a deep, dreamless slumber.
Americans are feeling more anxious these days, and with people growing more divided by the hour, there's no lack of reasons, especially as a woman, to feel afraid of losing basic rights, protection, and care. But my anxiety would be happening in the best of times—when activated, it shoots obsessive, intrusive thoughts into my head probably thousands of times a day. Am I going to faint? Am I going insane? Will I lose control of the wheel and steer off the bridge? Will I scream in the meeting? Will I strip off all my clothes while I’m teaching? Will I slit my wrist? Will I bang my head against the ceramic tile in the shower? Will I suffocate? Will I go crazy? Will I throw up?
These thoughts come unbidden from ten to hundreds of times a day, causing a surge of adrenaline to course through me, which in turn causes my heart to race, muscles to shake, mouth to go dry, and head to grow dizzy and lightheaded. My pupils dilate, making lights too bright and garish. I reel with nausea as my stomach cramps, blood drains from my face and head, causing pale lips, dizziness, the whole shebang. The thoughts return almost immediately, no matter how many times I brush them off, swat them away, talk back to them, or write them down.
My psychiatrist says they are a result of an exhausted mind stressed by chronic anxiety and too little serotonin. My therapist says these attacks will stop once I stop being afraid of them. Another therapist says they are due to OCD and disordered thinking and that I should be on more medication. Medicine helps, but not enough. Therapy helps, but inconsistently. Friends and family help, sometimes, when they’re available and in the right mood. But you know what has helped most reliably? You guessed it.
Two Dots is a game with just the right amount of strategy and luck to make it compelling, satisfying, and calming. We already know that video games can make us feel really good: As the neuroscientist David J. Linden wrote in Psychology Today, “video games can activate the brain’s pleasure circuits.” He cited a Stanford University study that showed when participants were asked to click on as many moving balls as they could, pleasure centers in the brain—nucleus accumbens, amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex—were activated.
One reason games can be so alluring, according to psychologist Douglas Gentile, whose work focuses on video gaming and addiction, is because they satisfy an "ABC" of human needs. "The A Is Autonomy, we like to feel we're in control," he said. "B is Belonging, we like to feel connected to other people. And the C is Competence, we like to feel that we're good at what we do."
My therapist told me that the body metabolizes adrenaline in two to three minutes. That means if I can distract myself from catastrophic thinking for just two to three minutes when I get an adrenaline dump from a sensation that alarms me, the adrenaline will be metabolized and stop dilating my pupils, twisting my gut, and making my armpits and palms sweat. The trick, in other words, is to focus on something else for a little while.
But it is very, very hard to ignore the thought or visceral sense that you are in danger. All physical and psychological wiring we come with is programmed to take fearful thoughts and feelings very seriously. My therapist taught me breathing exercises and affirmations and physical movements to distract myself once the adrenaline and catastrophic thoughts start. Those didn’t really help. Once I discovered Two Dots, everything changed.
Distraction techniques are a popular tool in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one of the most effective types of therapy for panic and anxiety disorders. One therapist taught me to drink water, list all the blue things in a room, sing a song, when I started to feel the onslaught of anxiety symptoms ramping up. This is called Attention Bias Modification Treatment, and it works by shifting attention from a threatening stimulus—like anxious thoughts or physical sensations—to a benign or benevolent one, like colored dots.
If only I could also connect fear-to-fear, symptom-to-symptom, hormone-to-hormone, and force them to cancel each other out; use their collective energy to burst their bubbles, explode their grasp on me.
More from VICE:
I play Two Dots not only to distract myself and sharpen and redirect my mind, but also to determine whether something I'm feeling is more than just a bout of anxiety. If I feel dizzy, dry-mouthed, nauseous, or shaky, I play five minutes of Two Dots. If I still feel that way after the game, I can be worried. But if all the symptoms fade while playing, it’s not appendicitis, heart attack, stroke, anaphylactic shock. True physical illness won’t be alleviated by an in-app purchase, but anxiety might be.
The game is a harbinger of normalcy; a reminder that the world I know in my non-anxious moments still exists. I can access it through my phone, which, though stress chemicals are making me feel as if I’m losing my mind, I still know how to operate. One of the most terrifying aspects of anxiety is a feeling of derealization or depersonalization, which is a disorientation in one’s own body and surroundings. The world goes wonky—internal processes like thoughts and feelings take on an out-of-body, exaggerated magnitude that feels at once foreign and claustrophobic. But if I lose myself in Two Dots, I enter a familiar world where I know the rules, connect pink dots with pink, brown with brown, watch them explode.
There have been no studies on the therapeutic use of Two Dots, though user comments on the app suggest that I’m not the only one using it to help defeat anxious and obsessive thoughts and impulses. The user "Girlzgottagun" wrote, “I love that this game is somewhat mentally challenging yet is still a ‘meditative/mindless’ game that I can use as a relaxation technique [to calm] OCD cravings/urges.” Past studies have also shown gaming's potential to provide some therapeutic value: Playing Tetris, for instance, was found to alleviate PTSD symptoms by disrupting "the formation of mental imagery involved in flashbacks," keeping intrusive memories where they should be—in the past.
By refocusing my mind on a repetitive and engaging task, Two Dots might work the same way—it interrupts the deluge of catastrophic thoughts and images associated with anxiety and panic.Related studies have shown that video games can help alleviate depression by improving mood and heart rhythms, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and disrupting thought patterns of self-doubt. In 2009, The Washington Post told the story of 49-year-old Gail Nichols, who struggled with depression for years. Her favorite game was Bejeweled, which, similar to Two Dots, requires players to organize gems in rows by color. “In her favorite version,” reporter Shankar Vedantam writes, “colored gems drop endlessly onto the screen, and Nichols said she falls into a trance of simultaneous concentration and relaxation that she calls Zen.” I can relate.
I find myself thinking about Two Dots in my non Two Dots life, when I’m trying to untangle something in my mind. When I fought with my boyfriend and we turned away from each other in bed, spines curved away, breathing quietly, I imagined swiping dots away to disappear lines and boxes, making a clear way forward. When struggling with an essay, I turned from the computer screen to picture connecting green dots to expose neat squares of yellow, blue, and white—making order, organizing. When I was sick and lying prone on the couch, I envisioned my body filled with dots of virus, wishing that with one-inch moves of my finger, I could make them disappear.
I play Two Dots so often, some might wonder if it’s to my detriment. How people relate to games—and come to depend on them—is a burgeoning field of study. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NBCI) defines video game addiction as “excessive and compulsive use of computer or video games that results in social and/or emotional problems; despite these problems, the gamer is unable to control this excessive use.” The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, meanwhile, classifies video game addiction as an impulse-control disorder similar to pathological gambling. They list some signs and symptoms of the addiction as “Feelings of restlessness, moodiness, depression, or irritability when attempting to cut down use of the Game; Jeopardized or risked loss of significant relationships, job, educational or career opportunities because of Game use; Lies to family members, friends, therapists, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Game.” To be diagnosed with the disorder, the behavior has to last for at least a year and “significantly impair personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other aspects of your life.”
According to the NCBI, 59 percent of Americans play video games (among 12 to 17 year olds, the percentage is 97 percent). It’s hard to say how many of those people—if any—are addicted to playing, because “gaming disorder” was only included in the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases in 2018, and the designation itself is still controversial. The research that does exist also tends to focus on the potentially addictive qualities of more immersive Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) than simpler iPhone games like Two Dots. Still, one study revealed that out of the 119 online gamers they sampled, 7 percent were classified as “‘dependent’ individuals who were at risk of developing a psychological and behavioral dependence.”
I’m lucky that I don’t have an addictive personality. I can play Two Dots, and when I need to do something else, I can stop. I’m not part of the at-risk population for game addiction, which is comprised of adolescent single males. I am not adolescent, single, or male, and the game does not interfere with my life. In fact, it helps me tolerate it. And it’s much less addictive than benzodiazapenes, which I’ve been repeatedly prescribed to help manage my anxiety for decades. My therapist says my use of it as an attention-modification technique is fine, though he’d like to see me be able to turn my thoughts away from the obsessive and catastrophic unaided.
The worst I've endured as a result of playing was a case of tendinitis in my right shoulder from holding my phone aloft for too long when lying in bed. And while I read a lot less than I used to, I consider Two Dots to be a form of meditation and avoidance that I’m comfortable with.
Though it was with some sadness that I passed level 1,000 a few weeks ago. Two Dots is a litmus test for how anxious I am—how many hours I’ve logged trying to calm down, distract from suffering, anxiety, insomnia, and fear. I passed level 1000 in my doctor’s waiting room before an appointment, which was a follow-up for abnormal heart palpitations I’d had, likely due to stress. It saddened me to see, in levels, how much this past year I’ve needed help to feel ok.
I came home the next afternoon exhausted after teaching and battling intrusive thoughts and lay on the couch to play. I had two moves left on a very hard level I’d been struggling with for days. I scanned the screen and felt my breathing slow. I noticed one square that I hadn’t seen before, tucked in the left corner of the screen. If I swiped the four green dots in the square, they’d explode not only that square but all green dots on the screen, not to mention all the green ladybugs, and then any ladybug-adjacent blinking bombs. I carefully surveyed the screen to ensure this was the best move. I swiped. All the green dots exploded. The ladybugs fluttered off, the bombs detonated, and the points racked up. I won, for now: Like anxiety, Two Dots can go on infinitely if you let it, worlds and weapons like symptoms rearranging and expanding.
Two Dots will save your scores and progress, and show you those of your social media friends when you log on to the app through Facebook. As I advanced from level 15 to 150 to 300 to 800 to 1,004, I marveled at how many of my friends had played as much as I had. I wondered what compelled them to log so many hours, and where they played, what they were trying to avoid or decompress from. As I pushed on into the higher levels—700, 900, 1,050—the number of friends I was competing with dwindled from 50 to five. Now, at level 1,079, I'm almost alone in the stratosphere, but still I climb—higher and higher, seeking a crown in an empty kingdom.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.