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Cell phone silliness

If making calls and storing telephone numbers weren't enough, the latest cell phones feature games to play on their tiny screens.

[Images courtesy of Nokia]

©New York Times, published March 27, 2000

Cell phone users certainly seem busy. Why would they walk down the street deep in conversation unless they didn't have the time to sit down to make a call? They grab their phones the minute they walk off airplanes because standing at a pay phone takes those few extra minutes they just don't have.

But they apparently are not quite busy enough. Some cell phones now come with games.

Consider one called Snake -- a game that features a a hungry snake roaming the screen in search of food. Given the screen's quality, the snake is nothing more than a thick black line on a pea-green background. But by pressing buttons on the phone's keypad, you steer that black line up, down and sideways. The result is something of an awkward slither at right angles.

The object of the game, which is available on any Nokia phone in the 5100 or higher series, is to slither the snake toward food while avoiding the imaginary electric fence that surrounds the screen. Bits of food (little dots) appear in random areas on the screen, and they are gobbled as soon as the snake passes over them. The more the critter eats, the more points you rack up.

The snake also grows with each bite, making it increasingly difficult to move his elongating body without accidentally eating his tail -- a mistake that ends the game. Another hazard is that electric fence. If the snake touches it, he is zapped. Game over.

The concept is nearly as simple as Pong's and about as graphically sophisticated. But for someone with time to waste, it fills the void. Within seconds, a person can become engrossed in satiating the appetite of this little black line, as long as no one calls to interrupt.

Snake is not the only time waster on the Nokia phones. Others include Logic and Memory, a game that also can be played with a deck of cards. And Nokia is not the only company to stock its phones with games. Games are becoming a standard feature on mobile phones, competing in some ways with similar games on those other wireless gadgets, personal digital assistants.

Even Nintendo announced last fall that it was forming a new company with the popular game developer Konami to develop software that will let Game Boys use cell phones to download games from the Web. Nintendo plans to release the software first in Japan. "The days when costly, movielike, realistic video game software attracted attention have gone," Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi said in September. "People now want simpler games."

Makers of advanced video-game software might take issue with that statement. But simpler games do have advantages in the world of handheld gadgets. Screens are small and battery power is at a premium. Besides, people using cell phones are usually going somewhere. They are busy people, remember? They don't have time to get deeply involved in a virtual swashbuckling adventure. Something the equivalent of crossword puzzles for the solo traveler will do just fine.

So far, the other phones that offer games are made by companies in Europe and are not yet available in the United States. One is Benefon, a Finnish company that has put Tetris on its phones in an attempt to attract fans of the game.

Snake, too, has a following. More than 137,000 people have registered to show off their Snake skills on a Web site set up by Nokia for a marketing drive in Europe and Asia last year. At last check, the person holding the highest score was Ozan Esen of Turkey, with 369 points. Other top scorers on the site ( also were outside the United States, in nations such as Singapore and Sweden.

But Warren Schulz, marketing manager for Nokia, expects that Americans will not be far behind. Nokia is beginning to promote the games that will be included on phones in the 7100 series, which should be available in the United States in a few months. One offering will be Snake II, a version with more electric fences in more inconvenient places. In another game, Rotation, numbers are moved on screen until they line up in order. "It's like the Rubik's Cube," Schulz said.

(Schulz, who is an avid Snake player with a high score of 300, has two tips for Snake players: Use both hands to press the buttons, and move the snake in a wide circle so it doesn't chomp on its tail.)

Nokia is looking into how games can be further integrated into phones so two people thousands of miles apart can compete.

The trend toward games in wireless phones is growing, Schulz said. "Right now, it's not the primary driver of why you buy the phone," he said. "But in some markets it could be."

Which raises a point that one would hope is too ridiculous to worry about: Could these games become yet another distraction for people who use their phones while they drive? The possibility has generated discussion on the tech-oriented Web site ( "Great," one person wrote in an online posting. "So now the jerk cutting me off in traffic because he is on his cell phone might be just playing a game!"

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