WEST PALM BEACH -- Felicia Levine wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
A few months back, Levine -- the editor of The Boca Raton Observer lifestyle magazine, as well as a licensed clinical therapist -- began receiving repeated Facebook updates from friends about how they'd reached the next level of something called Candy Crush.
"I had no clue what Candy Crush was," she says.
One day shortly thereafter, she was out to lunch with a few girlfriends and remembers that "the conversation among my friends was about how they were all spending so much time playing this Candy Crush game on their cellphones that their husbands had started complaining about it."
Levine's clinical instincts immediately kicked in: "I've counseled enough clients with compulsive-personality issues to recognize the early red flags."
That night, with her live-in boyfriend, Paul, out for the evening on a work assignment, curiosity got the better of the 48-year-old Deerfield Beach resident. After all, how alluring could this video game really be? So she signed up and started playing.
Several hours later, she recalls, "Paul told me that when he came home and said, 'Hey, honey!' I didn't respond -- because I was still playing and didn't even notice he'd walked into the room
"And that's when I understood what my friends had been going on and on about."
Candy Crush craze
Introduced in 2012, Candy Crush Saga has quickly become the Internet's most popular "casual" video game.
Designed for a largely female-targeted audience, the rules, format and goals of the game are similar to previous casual-gaming iterations, such as Bejeweled and Tetris. You can play Candy Crush free at Facebook and/or do likewise as an app on your mobile device.
Featuring a variety of colorful "candy" lined up on a grid, the game is, essentially, a series of simple, then increasingly challenging, puzzles to solve.
However, the basic tenets and ultimate objective never change: On each level, you're allowed to make a certain number of "moves" in order to line up three identical candies in row. Once that's achieved, the candies are "crushed" (disappear from the screen) and a new set of candies appear. Thus, you've ascended a "level." (Congratulations!)
Ah, but there's the rub.
Described on Slate.com by an amusingly shamed Candy Crush confessor as "simultaneously simple and satanic," Candy Crush lets players experience an initial rush of success in ascending levels that becomes more difficult to attain.
"The variable 'reward schedule' of a non-repetitive game keeps players engaged, so they're continually chasing the next win or challenge," explains West Palm Beach licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Rachel Needle. "I hesitate to call it 'addictive,' but there's definitely the potential for compulsive and/or excessive usage."
Especially when ego and competitiveness are thrown into the mix.
For Facebook users, your progress up the levels can automatically be sent in updates to your Facebook friends (as well as fellow Candy Crushers who you probably don't even know, so you can see how you measure up). Likewise, theirs can be sent to you.
A 'freemium' experience
What's especially insidious, though, is the so-called "freemium" aspect of Candy Crush. Yes, the game is free to download/play. You even get five complimentary "lives" at the outset. But if, in your quest(s) to ascend to the next of the 400 increasingly difficult levels, you lose those five lives, then you're kicked out of the game for 30 minutes.
Get "killed" again, you're out for another 30 minutes ... and so on.
However, a mere 99 cents buys you more lives, and lets you bypass the forced hiatus. Other pricing structures let you purchase more "moves" when you've exhausted them on a given level.
So, theoretically, yes, it is possible to play Candy Crush for free.
Just as, theoretically, it's possible to eat one -- and only one -- piece of M&M's when you open a single-serving bag.
But spending a few (or a few dozen) discretionary dollars on a pastime whose reward is simply pride and an intrinsic sense of fleeting accomplishment won't impact most people's financial well-being.
However, cautions Dr. Needle, "When this -- or any -- online activity becomes excessive, and removes you mentally from what's physically around you, that's when it can begin to interfere with your real-life relationships."
So, to paraphrase the most memorable line from the movie "WarGames": If you possess the type of obsessive/compulsive personality traits that might make it a struggle keeping the world's most popular online casual video game in proper perspective, your only winning move with Candy Crush might be not to play.
What is Candy Crush Saga?
It's an online video game that's part of what the industry calls "casual gaming" -- that is, simple, straightforward, non-violent, puzzle-type challenges.
According to AppData, around 45 million people play it monthly in some form; on Facebook, some 16 million users play monthly -- making it the social media site's most popular game ever.
It's the most-downloaded, and top-grossing, app on both Apple and Android smartphones.
A spokesman for the game's British creator, King, told The New York Times that it's played on mobile devices more than 600 million times a day and that the game's "target demographic skews towards women between the ages of 25 and 55."
Candy Crush is estimated by Think Gaming to earn $633,000 daily -- or some quarter-billion dollars since its April 2012 debut.
The game is part of the industry's evolving "freemium" market. The app is free to download, as is playing. But, as players ascend "levels" and "staying alive" becomes more difficult, the option to purchase more lives and/or playing "moves" for a nominal fee becomes available -- and especially enticing.