The Rising (and Fall) of Flappy Bird

One strange new spectacle of the information age is the accelerating lifespan of fads. Things flash across the web, are seen by millions, and then vanish.

The social media drawing game Draw Something was, for a brief time, the biggest game in the world. It was so huge that social gaming powerhouse Zynga paid $200 million for its creator, OMGPOP. While the ink was still wet on the contract, Draw Something crashed and burned, shedding its 10 million daily users and doing serious damage to Zynga.

The latest pet rock was a mini-game called Flappy Bird, but it came from the exact opposition end of the creation spectrum as the mega-million-dollar behemoth Zynga. Flappy Bird was created by one young Vietnamese man named Dong Nguyen. The game is perfectly simple and strikingly artless, but its combination of easy to understand and difficult to master hit a sweet spot for many gamers.

Flappy Bird has one input: tap. The game field is a side-scrolling series of tubes lifted straight from Mario games. (Nintendo has said they don’t intend to sue and did not demand that the game be taken down.) Tubes extend from the top and bottom of the screen to different lengths, creating a gap between them. The goal is to steer a bird (which really looks more like a fish with wings) through as many gaps as possible. This is done with one tap, which makes the bird rise. After each tap, the bird falls. Thus, he’s only kept in the air by a series of perfectly timed taps that will enable him to pass through the gap between the tubes. If it so much as brushes one of the tubes, the game stops and you go back to the beginning.

And that’s it. That’s all it does. The first try for every gamer will be a failure. Psychologically, this means the gamer will have to try again, at least to clear the first tube.

But that counter is there mocking you: can’t you get more than a score of “1”? So people try to get a sense of Flappy’s broad movement arcs in order to earn a slightly higher score. This takes many, many more tries, and in the course of trying, the high score gradually goes up a little. It only takes about 5 minutes to get to 4 or 5, but as the string of actions rises, so do the stakes and thus the tension. Once the player has a sense of the controls, the score challenges them to go for higher numbers, since they’ve already invested this much in learning the ropes.

Thus the game enters a compulsion loop that addicted players found hard to break. This simple, nothing game causes the person playing it to pass through several psychological states–curiosity, engagement, attempted mastery, self-criticism, personal challenge, despair, and, most of all, suspense—with the most rudimentary elements. It appeals not because it’s some grand statement, but because it generates a very definite and raw emotional response–tension created by suspense–that some people find appealing. They’re willing to put up with the frustration for that sense of suspense. It’s not complicated or mysterious: it just seems so to people who don’t search out that particular psychological state.

But why did it catch on? It had no marketing, and was largely ignored upon release in May. By summer it had started to find an audience in Russia and Australia. By December there was a huge spike in US downloads, and by January it was number 1 in 107 countries.

At the point, it was fully viral, and ultimately logged 50 million downloads. The game was free, supported by a single banner that its creator claimed was earning $50,000 a day. Once it became viral, the game itself ceased to matter as a game: it became a new media phenomena that had its own cultural life.

And then, on February 9th, it was gone. The creator had a meltdown, and posted to Twitter: “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.”

And he did just that. Flappy Bird was gone from the store, which had the opposite effect from the one Nguyen desired: now people wanted to talk to him more than ever. (As of this writing, he has never talked to anyone in the media or done any promotion beyond his Twitter feed.) What was a viral game suddenly became a news story covered by everyone from USA Today to Time Magazine. Phones with the game still on it were getting bids up to $5000 on eBay.

The sudden fame and massive media attention was part of what caused Nguyen to pull the game. The viral nature and the angry comments of thousands who were addicted and frustrated by its difficulty troubled Nguyen greatly. He felt that people were misusing the game and it was causing too much disruption in their lives and his own. Demands for a sequel and new content made him realize that nothing more could be done with the original game: any changes would wreck it. The fad was on the verge of being played out, and if Nguyen was more a canny marketing master rather than a fame-rocked indie programmer, the time of its removal couldn’t have been chosen any better. He is now world famous.

Flappy Bird is, technically, a terrible game. But it’s also one which snags certain people and snares them in a feedback loop that taps into our desire for distraction and tendencies toward compulsive behavior. There is nothing more meaningless than nudging up the score of a badly designed mobile app, yet we do it anyway for the emotional charge.

Perhaps its very purity is what made Flappy Bird a hit. It boils down the essence of a certain kind of game: purposeless, simple, and difficult to get right. It’s like a paddle with a ball on an elastic. Nothing is to be gained by mastery, and mastery is difficult, but we try nonetheless, just to prove we can.

In an article of almost sublime wrongness, a professor named Ian Bogost waxes PhDish about Flappy Bird and games in general. That he fails to understand the entire continuum of games from Aksumites scratching mancala-style boards in the dirt to the latest app is made clear by his repeated assertions that games, including things like Go and Chess (!), are mere vectors for human frustration devoid of any higher purpose or social function beyond staving off existential dread:

Flappy Bird is a condition of the universe, even if it is one that didn’t exist until it was hand-crafted by a Vietnamese man who doesn’t want to talk about it. A condition in the sense of a circumstance, but also in the sense of a blight, a sickness, a stain we cannot scrub out but may in time be willing to accept. A stain like our own miserable, tiny existences as players, which we nevertheless believe are more fundamental than the existence of bird flapping games or machine screws or the cold fog rising against the melting snow in the morning. Because the game cares so little for your experience of it, you find yourself ever more devoted to it.

Good Lord, what a load of crap. I know it’s almost impossible for modernists to see beyond their own pinched understanding of the universe, but to make such patently absurd claims and apply them not just to a game with 50 million players (most of whom do not share this view of the universe), but to the entire history of a rich and diverse aspect of human culture, is unalloyed nonsense. There’s more:

To understand Flappy Bird, we must accept the premise that games are squalid, rusty machinery we operate in spite of themselves. What we appreciate about Flappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

Given the vast scope the subject (one for which the writer lays claims to expertise, although I’d never heard of him before) this is as wrong as wrong can be. Games exist on a spectrum, from the raw and primal to the elegant and elevated, tapping into deep human needs for problem solving, emotional engagement, psychological stimulation, socialization, and cultural expression. Games–even contemporary electronic games–are primarily a social phenomena in which participants agree to a set of rules in order to engage the imagination and intellect.

Flappy Bird is on the “raw and primal” end of the spectrum. It’s telos is to offer a stark challenge that leads to initial engagement and emotional stimulation (or manipulation, if you want), crude as that stimulation may be. It’s not a symbol of our existential dread.

_____

Anybody can make a Flappy Bird game using the Flappy Bird generator. Here’s my version: Flappy Alexander VI, in which the worst pope in history has to fly between Lucrezia Borgias.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Tom

    His Holiness seems to fall way faster than the version I played. Was the original this fast?

  • Jakeithus

    I may not have a Ph.D in literary criticism, but as a lover of games, I too found that article to be a vast oversimplification of games in general, and having nothing really to say to my own motives and appreciation of games.

    The games that I love the most challenge my intellect and imagination, which are results that in and of itself counteract the otherwise pointlessness of games. To reduce a game to nothing more than a “device we operate” is to miss so much about gaming. The device we operate as part of a game allows us to experience stories and physical competition in ways that are otherwise unavailable to us. Rather than the stupidity of games speaking to our own pointlessness, I think our ability to transcend and find meaning in the stupidity of games speaks to the Imago Dei within us.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    It’s different from the original.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Well said.

  • oregon nurse

    The social message this game has made most obvious is that people have far too much time on their hands to waste. On the other hand there might be something for neuroscientists to learn about how addiction and OCD develops in the brain.


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