What the World Can Learn From the Flappy Bird Debacle

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Until smartphones came along—and casual gaming was declared a significant category—popular titles by and large seemed to have been designed with care and passion, things players appreciated. They weren’t necessarily any more sophisticated than the popular casual games we have now, but with much expected of titles to justify the purchase of expensive and otherwise-useless consoles, they had deeper entertainment in mind. Now, however, while there are more great releases around than ever before, successful mobile games seem to largely involve the exploitation of time-sink mechanics for the purpose of inducing addiction and encouraging monetary input.

The Success of Minimal Functionality

Scratch that, I’m not being entirely fair. I admit that I’m biased against games like Flappy Bird, experiences built around extreme simplicity, rhythmic repetition, and a reliance upon the presence of an anxious compulsion to keep playing. I don’t find games like that fun, nor can my acceptance of them be described as anything other than grudging. When I’m bored or idle, which is a lot of the time, I play Picross on my DSi, a game involving inferring the positions of unbroken rows and columns on a grid. It may not tax the upper levels of my consciousness to any great degree, but it requires thought and some limited calculation.

Flappy Bird, though, is about as simple as a game can possibly be. No aiming is present, no basic physics engine, no varied art design or array of unlockable characters, just tapping and flapping, again and again. I don’t mean to suggest that it was made cynically, particularly as the creator had no great financial aspirations for it when putting it together, but merely to note how low the fundamental requirements for enormous popularity and profit have become. I was forwarded a reading test by a friend yesterday; it involved finishing a page of text and being tested on it, then, upon the submission of correct answers, being given a reading speed score. Imagine how astonished I’d be to find something like that raking in tens of thousands of dollars per day in smartphone app stores, yet it is essentially more involving than the games to which I refer.

The Importance of Finely-Tuned Mechanics

At this point, fans of the game may wish to raise the point that there is a fine line between success and failure when it comes to this kind of addictive mechanism, and I fully accept that, for example, speeding the game up or slowing it down by the slightest of fractions may have greatly reduced the appeal. As such, I make no claim that Flappy Bird was not made well, especially given that the history of video games is littered with examples of games that are now looked upon with great nostalgia as paragons of perfect timing above all other things. To digress briefly, what little I’ve gleaned of the basics of ludology I owe to such YouTube luminaries as Campster and MrBtongue, and I strongly recommend checking out their work if you’re interested in this kind of analysis.

The Anemic Demand for Deeper Mobile Gameplay

Returning to the topic at hand, while I see the appeal of Flappy Bird, I don’t like it, and I don’t like what it represents, just as I am concerned by its enormous success. The creator, Dong Nguyen, claims to have taken it down because people were overplaying it, and I believe his judgment on this matter to be appropriate (though I’m not entirely beyond suspicion that he acted for tax purposes, or in response to threats from the Angry Birds Mafia, or as a precursor to a transition into a life as the head of a drug cartel). That people played it extensively does not mean they derived anything real from it, just as it is not in the nature of any other addiction to provide an experience of any predictable nature, a compulsion of any kind being present first and proving its worth second if at all. Flappy Bird is (or was) a standout only by virtue of its ubiquity and mixed reception, things which also left it ripe for analysis.

Not a hero but not quite a villain, as is inevitably the case, Flappy Bird nevertheless tells us quite a few things. It tells us that the problem of Skinner box games is not going away any time soon and is in fact escalating in severity. It tells us that, as professional wrestling personality Eric Bischoff once reminded a generation of teenagers, controversy creates cash. Perhaps more than anything else, it tells us that those of us who wish to see the gaming genre ascend towards an artistic peak are in for a long and often saddening wait, unpleasantly dotted with bursts of frenzied activity around some money-spinning flavor-of-the-month game types.

Or maybe it doesn’t tell us much of anything. It’s just one game, after all. Tap, tap, tap, tap…