With today’s exclusive Forbes interview with developer Dong Nguyen, I believe we may have reached the end of the Flappy Bird saga. And while everybody and their mother has now had their say on the love-it-or-hate-it mobile game, I think a bit of context may be helpful in understanding Dong’s decision to remove the game from app stores permanently.
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First, a quick review for those of you who haven’t spent the last week or two flying a pixellated bird into pipes: Flappy Bird is a mobile game developed by Vietnam’s .GEARS studio, which is actually just a single indie developer by the name of Dong Nguyen. It’s a very simple game; players tap on the screen to flap the wings of a bird as it flies forward with the objective of keeping it in the sweet spot that allows it to pass between green, Mario-style pipe obstacles. It had actually been online for months, but it took off globally over the past few weeks following a high-profile Youtube video about it. The game’s simplicity and difficulty made it instantly both loved and hated; incredibly frustrating but instantly re-playable. But the attention proved too much for Dong, who announced over the weekend he was taking the game off the app stores. In an interview with Forbes, he said:
Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed. But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.
The decision to remove the game has gotten him almost as much flak as the game itself did—I found several death threats directed at Dong in response to the news on Twitter—and it can be a little difficult to understand.
I can’t claim to know exactly what Dong is thinking, but it’s worth pointing out that gaming addiction is considered a serious social problem in many Asian countries, including Dong’s home of Vietnam. This is partially because unlike Westerners, many Asian gamers (especially teens) play their games in internet cafes, which means they’re totally unsupervised. It’s hard to be sure whether that actually leads to more serious problems with addiction or whether the emphasis on the evils of gaming in Asia is just a reflection of a different media culture, but the Vietnamese press certainly has put some effort into conveying the message that games can be dangerous. And high-profile crimes, like the murder of a 7-year-old girl by a game-addicted teen in 2011, have helped further stigmatize video games.
This is not to say that Asia doesn’t love games, of course. But it’s important to understand that when a game is called “addictive” in the West, that conjures up images of a kid staying up all night playing Halo. In much of Asia, it evokes bloody tableaus like the one described above. My focus over the past couple of years has been China rather than Vietnam, but in that time I’ve seen numerous stories of gaming-addiction-related murders, and these stories are widely circulated.
As a developer himself, I’m sure Dong is aware that his simple mobile game is not addictive in the same way that a time-sink MMORPG game like World of Warcraft can be. Even so, though, the term “addictive” has been thrown around a lot in connection with Flappy Bird, and I’m guessing that sounds a lot more like an accusation than a plaudit to most of Dong’s friends and family members. Given the unwanted media attention and the negative comments and death threats coming his way since the game blew up, it’s not too hard to see why Dong made the decision to take his game off the app stores for good.