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10 December 2014

Pity the MP caught playing Candy Crush in a committee – he’s only doing what evolution demands

My contention is this: Nigel Mills was unlucky - the frivolousness of the way he chose to divert himself was not sufficiently disguised. The rest of us just zone out by checking our emails.

By Helen Lewis

Christmas must have come early, because I come here to defend a Tory MP. The unfortunate parliamentarian is a backbencher called Nigel Mills, who was caught by the Sun playing Candy Crush during a meeting of the work and pensions select committee. The paper called him a “shameless MP” who “brazenly lined up the game’s coloured candy icons on his taxpayer-funded iPad while sitting beside fellow MPs”. I’ll admit to being intrigued over how you brazenly line up tiny pictures of sherbet lemons, but there you go. Perhaps he flicked his hands up from the iPad controls and thence into a V-sign at Britain’s Hard-Working Families (copyright George Osborne).

The first I knew of the story was at 7.20am on the morning of the Sun’s article, when the Today programme asked if I’d talk about it 20 minutes later. On air, we went through the usual dance in which I explained to John Humphrys what a computer game was and why on earth anyone might want to play one, while he did his impression of a time traveller from the 18th century, disgusted by the excesses of modern life. (As a veteran of at least three of these conversations, I’ve decided he is clearly overcompensating. I bet he leaves the Today studio, goes home and fires up Mortal Kombat, screaming “FATALITY!” in the same voice he uses to interrupt politicians. If not, I hope he carries his apparent hatred for modernity to its logical extreme and forsakes, say, the washing machine, insisting that a mangle is the far superior way to clean his clothes.)

My contention is this: Nigel Mills was unlucky. He was bored and he was doing what many of us do in meetings, namely jumping to the nearest available distraction. He was just unfortunate that the frivolousness of the way he chose to divert himself was not sufficiently disguised. Everyone else in that committee meeting was probably playing a game, too: the game of Surreptitiously Checking Email.

I’ve been in press conferences, briefings and public lectures where the audience was an illuminated sea of smartphones. Surely no one believes that all of those people need to know what is happening right now in the world outside? It’s highly improbable that they are all carrying nuclear launch codes or are waiting for an organ transplant.

No, they are part of a culture in which many of us park our body in one place while our mind goes somewhere else. It is, among other things, a tiny act of rebellion against corporate life or social responsibilities: you might be able to lead me to a room where people talk about “synergies”, it says, but you can’t make me pay attention.

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Our most recent guest editor, Grayson Perry, has a theory about men’s watches: he thinks that men want to wear jewellery but are afraid that it’s terrifyingly unmasculine. So they insist that they need to wear a watch – even though their phone has a clock on it – by camouflaging it as a useful “gadget”. Phones are an extension of this: Apple’s great genius was selling stylish accessories to men by pretending that they were useful. (“What do you mean, this MacBook is just like carrying a designer handbag? It’s made of brushed aluminium, the manliest material of all!”)

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A similar delusion besets the habitual twitterer or email-checker: this is Serious Business and entirely relevant to their job. But actually, the mechanism is the same one that makes Candy Crush “addictive”; a repetitive activity yields a result that is sometimes pleasurable. Instead of the joy of lining up three liquorice allsorts and clearing a tough level, the Covert Emailer occasionally receives an exciting message. But excitement is not guaranteed: usually, it’s yet another an announcement about canteen opening hours or a plaintive request to improve the state of the third-floor sinks. It’s like a facilities management-themed game of Russian roulette – and that’s what keeps you coming back. Worse, unlike playing a game, constantly checking emails raises your stress levels, according to a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia to be published in February’s Computers in Human Behaviour. They found that participants who were instructed to check their emails only three times a day reported feeling happier and less overwhelmed than they did when asked to monitor them continuously.

If distraction is so bad for us, why do we do it? We can blame evolution. Our brains are finely tuned to seek pleasure and the squirt of chemicals you get on receiving new information is pleasurable. At the same time, it was quite useful on the savannah to maintain an awareness of your surroundings even while concentrating on a particular task, given that your surroundings might well contain something with big teeth and claws.

Our brains are astonishingly adaptable, but their fundamental chemistry makes two and a half hours of listening to people talk about pensions a formidable challenge. My favourite comment on the saga came from the Tory MP Edward Leigh, who told the BBC: “I survived nine years as chairman of the public accounts committee and I just about managed not to go to sleep and not to play computer games but, my God, it was boring. So if Nigel has to keep himself awake by playing computer games, good on him.”

As ever, we talk about wanting MPs to be more like “ordinary people” but when one of them does something extremely ordinary, like getting bored, we feign surprise and offence. Let he whose mind has never wandered in a seminar cast the first stone.

By the way, I looked at parliament’s website: Nigel Mills hasn’t missed a work and pensions select committee meeting since June. He made 46 out of 51 sessions in the previous year. I’ll take someone who plays a few games of Candy Crush over those parliamentarians who don’t turn up at all.