How far into the Heart of Darkness do we dare to venture? How simplistic must mobile games get before we cease calling them games at all? We may have reached the end of the road with Flappy Bird, the #1 app in the world on Android and Apple devices, and a cultural phenomenon that really, has no right being a cultural phenomenon.
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Like nearly all mobile games, Flappy Bird is not a new idea. Players navigate a pixelated bird through a series of constricted Super Mario Bros. warp pipes, where striking any surface equals instant death. Your chance of death multiplies exponentially with each gate passed, and a double digit score is something to apparently brag about to the world.
It harkens back to the old flash title, the Helicopter Game. Rather than tapping, players held down their mouse to avoid obstacles and rack up a high score by dodging obstacles in a narrow corridor. Flappy Bird takes the concept and makes it stupidly hard thanks to tap-based physics that make controlling your bird borderline impossible, and collision boxes that will have you striking surfaces you believed you were nowhere near.
Flappy Bird is not a game. It’s an addictive collection of pixels you don’t win, you simply play until you’re frustrated enough to delete it. And yet, it’s tapped into some primal sense of accomplishment for this, the attention-deficit world we live in. Have nothing to do for more than a few moments? Whip out your phone and flap your way through some pipes. You’ll be dead in seconds with each attempt, and therefore the game can kill any span of time from half a minute to hours.
If Twitter is to novels as Vine is to movies, then Flappy Bird joins the party in relation to video games. It’s the absolute minimum the medium can be reduced to. You can’t write something much shorter than 140 characters without it still making sense, nor can you film something for under five seconds and have it be worth watching. Twitter and Vine, hugely popular in their own right, have reduced their respective mediums to the bare minimum of consumability, taking the world’s attention spans with them. And simply put, it’s nearly impossible to make a game that takes less time and effort to play than Flappy Bird with each new go. I agree with CNET’s Nick Statt when he says:
“Now, when I say ‘worst smartphone game,’ I don’t mean objectively bad, lacking in quality, or all around worthless. I mean ‘worst’ in the way that Netflix is the worst thing that happened to your reading habits, or Seamless the worst thing that happened to your diet. Flappy Bird is simply just the worst — the worst thing to happen to everything and anything you’re doing at any given moment.”
Flappy Bird both simultaneously reassures and worries me. It would seem to be evidence that traditional video games are not in danger if games like this and Candy Crush are the most popular game apps the mobile scene is putting out. It’s like saying trash like Real Housewives ever really had a chance of killing a show like Breaking Bad. Traditional games are simply not threatened by something so obviously inferior.
But it’s worrisome that we live in a world that would rocket an almost entirely mindless game like this to insane levels of popularity. Forget video games, what does that say about society as a whole? Have we reached a level of boredom bordering on dangerous if we’re spending our time en masse on something so pointless?
In Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem, there’s a collective of monk-like humans who live simple lives in a walled-off enclave in search of knowledge. If they break any of the enclave’s rules, their punishment is to sit in a room with an unlocked door and memorize expansive chapters from a tome known only as “The Book.” They’re meant to study each increasingly long chapter, take notes, and be quizzed on what The Book contains. The catch is that each chapter is nonsense. Words and stories and theories that have internal logic, but only barely, and have no practical application to the outside world. The punishment isn’t imprisonment or torture, it’s the time the convicted loses by studying something so utterly meaningless, and the unfortunate knowledge they’re forced to retain that never has any practical use in their lives, crowding out information with real value.
I suppose this argument could be made about all fictional media, which could be said has little impact on the real world, but that isn’t true. Movies, books, shows and even games can absolutely influence people’s lives through their stories they tell or challenges they force their readers, watchers or players to overcome.
But Flappy Bird? Flappy Bird is a chapter in The Book. The time spent there is lost forever. The skill required to achieve high scores is wasted potential with no benefit whatsoever to the player. To brag about a score here is to boast to a friend how many times you managed to punch a brick wall before stopping.
I don’t necessarily begrudge someone who would make such a game, I begrudge a society that would turn it into a phenomenon. As someone who writes about games for a living, it’s sad to me that Flappy Bird even shares the same category identifier as the legions of truly worthwhile games in existence. Rather, Flappy Bird and Candy Crush and all the rest aren’t video games, they’re carnival games, rigged to be addictive and impossible and pointless. You don’t even get to take home a stuffed animal, as there is no winning. You simply play until you hate it so much you erase the game rather than look at it for one more second.
Mindless fun is a perfectly acceptable form for a game to take. Mindless rage brought on by addiction is the dark side of game design, whether it’s killing player’s crops, making them pay to skip a countdown timer after death, or causing their little bird to crash into walls. It’s a disease I hope stays locked in the realm of mobile, and never makes the leap to traditional console and PC gaming. Flappy Bird is the enemy, and we must stay vigilant. Is it harmless? Is it really? I’m not so sure.
Platform: iOS, Andriod
Released: May 2013