Everything you ever wanted to know about 2048, the Internet’s latest impossible hit game


From left to right: Doge 2048, the original 2048, Beyonce GIF 2048.

Angry Birds was at least amusing. Flappy Bird was comical in its dumb futility. But there is really no explaining the appeal of 2048, the nerdy, minimalist, frustrating Internet game that a 19-year-old coded in March… and has since taken the Internet by storm.

Per the Wall Street Journal, Italian teenager Gabriele Cirulli invented the game on a whim one weekend — an effort, apparently, to see if he could code a game from scratch. He was surprised to see it launch 100,000 tweets and countless cheesy knock-offs. It’s even more surprising, perhaps, that people are still tweeting and knock-off-ing, a full 30 days later.

Let’s try to understand this strange phenomenon!

2048 is a popular single-player game for Web and mobile. It’s a type of “sliding block puzzle” — think Threes!, on which 2048 is based, or the old-timey game klotski — that’s played on an almost Sudoku-like grid. Like Sudoku, it also involves some math. The object of the game is to combine the numbers displayed on the tiles until you reach 2048.

Okay, well — not that much math. It takes a couple seconds to get a hang of the gameplay, but once you get it, it’s easy to see how people drone away hours (…or days) on the thing.

Basically, 2048 presents with with a 4×4 grid. When you start the game, there will be two “tiles” on the grid, each displaying the number 2 or 4. You hit the arrow keys on your keyboard to move the tiles around — and also to generate new tiles, which will also be valued at 2 or 4. When two equal tiles collide, they combine to give you one greater tile that displays their sum. The more you do this, obviously, the higher the tiles get and the more crowded the board becomes. Your objective is to reach 2048 before the board fills up.

Yeah, so, the math behind 2048 is easy — but the game itself is very hard. That said, plenty of people have beat it. Just search “2048” on Twitter for a full catalog of the gloaters.

Lots of people have, in fact, done just that! Neil Shader at the Daily Dot has a detailed guide to his strategy, which begins by building up lots of small numbers on the side before collapsing the whole board upward. Meanwhile, one of the creator’s personal friends created a handy YouTube tutorial to explain his strategy. There are, essentially, a variety of ways to win — but they do all caution against any unplanned moves, which, frankly, is easier said than done.

Well, to answer the first question, developers have made lots and lots of 2048 spinoffs simply because they can. The code behind 2048 is open-source, which means anyone can tinker with it. Hence an explosion in hybrid or customized games: Doge 2048, Doctor Who 2048, Beyonce GIF 2048 … the list goes on. (To be honest, the absence of numbers in these spinoffs only makes them more difficult.)

The second question is a little trickier. Puzzle-solving is a fundamental human interest; so fundamental, in fact, that some neuroscientists believe that it’s the key to human consciousness. Explained the neurologist and author Daniel Bor in 2012:

Why do we love crossword puzzles and why are people addicted to sudoku? That’s what a huge bit of the cortex is primed to do — to spot [patterns] — and once we spot them we can assimilate them into our pyramid of knowledge and build more layers of strategy, and knowing how to do that makes us incredibly successful at controlling the world.

Moreover, Bor explains, solving puzzles feels good. The promise of eventual pay-off is what keeps people playing, even when they know they should probably stop.

Duh — 4096! While the game technically ends when you hit 2048, the game lets you continue past that. Some people claim to have pushed their tiles into the tens of thousands.

But maybe it’s a better idea to sign offline while you’re ahead. Even Cirulli, the game’s creator, thinks people are playing too much.

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Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey | April 23