Draw Something has been popular enough lately that you probably know someone who plays it. I certainly do. Two of my coworkers have been playing it quite a lot lately, both with each other and with other friends outside the office. As resistant as I normally am to social games, particularly ones that can be played on Facebook, this one looked fun enough to draw me in. I mean, let’s face it: who doesn’t like to draw? It’s a skill that we all have, something every child knows the appeal of, but unless you’re an artist by vocation, you probably don’t do it very often. Draw Something gives you an excuse to exercise your long-neglected drawing urges, and adds just enough constraints to provide cover for your lack of talent.
That said, I’ve already grown tired of it. It’s gotten repetitive, partly due to actual repeated words — the other players in the office complain about this, saying “How hard would it be to hire an intern to vet a few thousand more words?”, but I suspect that there’s a bit of a birthday paradox going on. But even without exact repetition, I’m finding subsequent rounds with the same partners too similar to stay interesting. And without the ties of a social network platform to keep me playing beyond the point of enjoyment, that’s that. It might sustain my interest more if there were some permanent record of the pictures you’ve drawn and seen, so that I could feel like my creative efforts were building something, and so I could show them off to other players after the fact. I suppose I could take screenshots manually, but that would only work if I could consistently remember to do it.
Let me describe the basics of the game before going any farther. Draw Something is a game played asynchronously by two people. First, one of them has to draw a picture from a randomly-chosen word. You get a choice of three words per round, designated “easy”, “medium”, and “hard”, although it’s easy to disagree with the categorization sometimes. Once your picture is complete, you hit a button and it’s sent to the other player, who watches the picture get drawn stroke by stroke, just as you drew it (except sped up a little), and has to guess the word, building it out of a scrabble-hand-like bin of letters, some of which are unneeded. Once they either guess right or give up, they draw a picture for you to guess, and the whole thing iterates indefinitely.
Now, there have been a lot of games very similar to this, both online and off. I remember one web-based variant in particular that had a number of people in a chat room, all watching the drawing as it was taking place and competing to be the first to guess correctly. That seems like the more typical version, but its dynamics are completely different from those of Draw Something. For one thing, it was synchronous. That’s the traditional model for parlor games: a bunch of people sit down together for a game session. Putting such a game on the web just means that the players don’t all have to be in the same room (or even the same continent). Draw Something, by contrast, is designed to be played in spare moments throughout the day. Not only does it not demand simultaneous participation by both players, it actually forbids it. For another thing, Draw Something isn’t competitive — or at least, not within a match. There may be competitiveness among players in different matches to see who can maintain the longest unbroken chain of correct guesses (as the game keeps track of this figure and displays it prominently on the main menu), but within a match, your goal and the other fellow’s are the same. Whenever a picture is guessed correctly, both the drawer and the guesser get the same increase in their streak number, and the same number of “coins”.
Coins. That’s the game’s business model. If you have enough coins, you can use them to buy “bombs”, which have two uses. In the drawing phase, if you don’t like any of the words available to you, you can set off a bomb for a new selection. In the guessing phase, you can set off a bomb to eliminate some of the unused letters. Also — and this verges on parody — you can use coins to buy packages of additional colors to draw with. I don’t know of any other drawing game that treats colors as upgrades, but here, your initial color set is pretty meager, and doesn’t even contain a brown or a green, so there’s a strong motivation to buy at least one more color set. The thing is, every purchase costs hundreds of coins, and you only get at most three coins per round of play. (One for easy, two for medium, three for hard.) It’s all set up to make you impatient with earning coins so that you’ll pay money for them instead.
Now, the one thing I remember the most about that older synchronous drawing game I described above was that there were players who started their turns by ignoring the word and instead drawing things like penises, and presumably giggled at the resulting chat room full of people scrambling to be the first to type “penis”. I haven’t seen this happen in Draw Something, and I assume it’s because the asynchronous play spoils the fun of that sort of trollery. The anonymity also plays a role, of course — most games of Draw Something are between two people who know each other. But not all. When I first started playing, and was eager to draw more things, I started up a number of matches with random strangers while waiting for the people I knew to respond, and I didn’t see a single rude picture. I did, however, see inappropriate pictures of another sort: ones where the person didn’t really draw a picture at all, but simply used the drawing interface to write the word. In fact, it seemed like the majority of random players did this, and I’m not at all sure why. Maybe they were just griefing. Maybe they were doing it to get free coins faster. Maybe they just hold the game in contempt, and don’t consider unenforced rules to be worth following (which raises the question of why they’re playing at all). Maybe they just didn’t understand that what they were doing was objectionable — there didn’t seem to be any explicit rule against it.
When I received a written word instead of a picture, my first reaction was to end the match right there. Unfortunately, in the iOS version, you can only cancel matches from the main menu, and it takes a while to get there. You can’t get out of guessing mode until you either guess correctly or pass, and once you’ve done that, it immediately throws you into choosing a word and drawing it. Since I knew I wasn’t going to be playing any more with that person, I would immediately hit the “done” button without drawing anything in order to get back to the main menu and cancel the match. Which leaves me wondering: were my blank pictures sent? Perhaps the word-writers think I’m the griefer, and are wondering at my motivations for sending them an unguessable picture.