Why Candy Crush Is Like Life

The cognitive science of Candy Crush Saga

Posted Mar 29, 2015

Candy Crush Saga
Source: Candy Crush Saga

The British Member of Parliament Nigel Mills was caught last week playing Candy Crush Saga on his iPad for more than two hours during a committee meeting on pension reform. He may soon be out of a job, but at least he’ll have the lessons he’s learned playing the game. You see, Candy Crush is a lot like life. I don’t mean to say life is just a grid of colorful confections waiting to be destroyed by your pointer finger; I mean to say they both rely on the same set of cognitive processes. Here’s a rundown:

Spatial Reasoning
This is the obvious one. To crush the candies, you need to spot nearly-complete geometric patters and complete them. Often, spotting them two or three moves ahead is necessary. Applications: Packing the car, moving a couch down a stairwell.

Working Memory
Strategizing several steps ahead requires holding each intermediary stage in mind as you ponder what to do with it. This requires holding information in working memory, a form of memory sometimes likened to a scratch pad. Applications: Remembering a phone number long enough to write it down, figuring out if your enemy’s enemy’s enemy is your friend or enemy.

Looking several moves ahead is hard mental work. You need to want to put the effort into achieving geometric greatness. Applications: Getting out of bed, taking over the world.

You also can’t do much without the ability to concentrate. Distraction can make you lose sight of a goal, miss a potential crush situation, or struggle to maintain your working memory without its being wiped clean. Applications: Following a conversation, driving a car.

Impulse Control
It’s easy to just complete whatever simple patterns are in front of you begging to be crushed. Complete a threesome now, or aim for a potential fiver down the road? Sometimes you have to resist short-term goals to pursue distant, riskier ones. Applications: Saving money, planning revenge.

Probabilistic Reasoning
Everyone wants to get those special candies, but is it worth waiting around for the chance to make five candies line up? You could spend all day. It’s good to have some intuitive sense of likelihood—in the past, how frequently has that opportunity come your way? Applications: Avoiding traffic, investing.

Flexible Planning
Sometimes you spot several candies in the same vicinity just begging for another to come along and make a color bomb. Or a striped candy and a color bomb are one candy away from each other and you just need to crush the interloper. So you spend a dozen moves trying to make that happen, ignoring the rest of the board. Disengagement from a goal you’re obsessing over when it’s not happening can be crucial. Applications: Vacations, marriage.

On each board, you have to meet multiple requirements—achieve an adequate score, fill all the orders, drop all the fruit to the bottom, slow the growth of chocolate, prevent bombs from exploding, etc. At any given moment, some are more pressing than others. You have to keep it all on your radar simultaneously, while occasionally moving them up or down the list of priorities. Applications: Running a meeting, getting through high school.

Sometimes the right strategy seems obvious, and you keep hammering away at it. But instead of relying on brute persistence and luck, there might be another special candy combination to try, or another order in which to break up the blockers. Yes, there is an element of divergent thinking in the game. Applications: Conducting a science experiment, negotiating with your kids.

Just like in Candy Crush, success in life requires adeptly applying all of the above. Balancing different risks and opportunities, on different time scales, while monitoring your own thought processes is key to excelling at work, practicing a hobby, raising a family—or dieting. You have to know when to take the candy in front of you and when to leave it. And when to just put the iPad down.