doing the most

This Utterly Pointless Game Soothes My Ego

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Source Imagery: New York Public Library

Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.

In i Peel Good, there is only one objective: peel the Thing.

Most often, the Thing is a fruit, but sometimes it’s a root vegetable, or a nut, or, distressingly, fried chicken. On your phone screen, above a narrow strip of banner ads, the Thing — heavily pixelated, like it was harvested from the fields of an early aughts online role-playing game — spins serenely clockwise, its form casting a small shadow in the stark white space in which it is suspended. To peel it, you can use either a peeler or a knife, which you drag around the Thing with your finger. I prefer the knife, because it’s smaller and looks cooler, but really, there’s absolutely no difference between the two tools. Really, there’s no way to fail. Everything in the app is engineered for you to accomplish your one goal: to peel the Thing.

I first heard about the i Peel Good when New York Times restaurant critic, Tejal Rao, tweeted about it. “My niece loves this game where you just … peel mangoes and bitter melon with a knife?” she wrote. Just peeling sounded so pointless. Delightfully, soothingly pointless. Also, a kid loved it, and kids are our future, so who am I to question them? I downloaded it.

The game was indeed pointless, even more so than I had imagined. I thought that maybe, with each successive level, the peeling would get more difficult, and we would earn points with which to buy better, more efficient tools. But no. You just peel, level after level, Thing after Thing. There is no time limit. Unlike the real world, you cannot over peel, accidentally wasting valuable flesh of the fruit or vegetable or chicken. No matter how messily or how slowly you peel, you will be awarded three out of three stars. To get fewer stars, you have to choose to quit the level early. Playing it is what I imagine it feels like to move through the world as a moderately talented, straight, white man — there are so many mistakes ignored and successes prematurely celebrated (sometimes the confetti starts to fall when there are still patches of skin left on the fruit). At the end of each level, you’re presented with a fun fact about whatever you just peeled. Did you know Benjamin Franklin sold chocolate in his print shop in Philadelphia? After level 45, you do.

On any given day, there’s a lot I want to accomplish. I want to work, exercise, write, schedule that dentist appointment, email that person, catch up with friends, go on that date, cook dinner, walk my dog, read that book, watch that show, get enough sleep. A lot of this is done in pursuit of greater ambitions — to have a successful career, a family, a body that basically works. But sometimes, instead of exercising, I sit watching Great British Baking Show reruns, loosening my throat muscles to better accommodate a full sleeve of Oreos. Instead of getting enough sleep, I stay up reading the Wikipedia articles of the Boy Meets World cast, and arrive bleary-eyed at work the next morning, mumbling about how Ben Savage interned for Senator Arlen Specter in 2003. I try to schedule an appointment with my dentist, but it turns out he moved without even telling me? Even though I never answer any of his office’s calls or emails? Okay.

But in i Peel Good, I accomplish my task (peeling) each and every time. When the confetti falls after I peel most of a gooseberry, I get the same feeling I did when my fourth grade soccer coach handed me a participant trophy even though I had spent the entire season sitting cross-legged in front of the goal, yanking out handfuls of grass, and occasionally walking away mid-game for a snack. It was praise I knew I had not earned, but that I happily accepted nonetheless. It made me relieved that no one seemed to notice or care about how badly I had fallen short, and hopeful that perhaps I wasn’t quite as useless as I had imagined. (I was indeed that useless.)

No one really gives you participant trophies as an adult, and that’s for the best. But once in a while, it feels good to get three unearned gold stars, to be rewarded for accomplishing the bare minimum — peeling a fruit in a mid-tier simulation game. The triumph, though small and entirely insignificant, is a momentary balm for my vague disappointment at failing to accomplish the more significant things I set out to do that day. Because even the smallest, most inane successes are more encouraging than none at all.

This Utterly Pointless Game Soothes My Ego