There are a lot of mysteries out the in world to be solved. For instance, what comes after death? Are toast and bread really two different things? Do ghosts exist? (But seriously, that toast thing.) Many of them have been lumped into a large pile under tarp labeled “Unsolvable.” A few others go into the question of faith versus science. And then there’s Flappy Bird.
The question, of course, is how did it get so popular. It is, by and large, a terrible game. It’s not that it is a supremely difficult game, but it is just so incredibly boring. Flappy Bird generates absolutely no emotion, save for some modicum of regret when you realize you helped contribute to the bottom line of an abomination.
There is absolutely zero meaningful variance in its gameplay. You tap to make your little weird avian-shaped creature flap, forcing it to briefly ascend before drifting back down. You are always progressing forward, attempting to dodge two pipes, horizontally aligned and only varying in vertical placement. It is beyond rote. (The creator, however, begs to differ.)
Of course, you are unlikely to discover this quality given most people rarely get beyond the first two or three pipes, and then they usually quit. This probably resulted in it mired within the bottom of the App Store rankings since its release last summer, but since the start of the new year, it has come to reign atop the free charts.
So now we have an awful game ginned up over the course of three days by a single developer that is chock full of ripped-off assets generating over $50,000 a day in ad revenue. It’s absolutely crazy, especially considering it has superiors in every one of its facets. As an endless runner, it lacks any deviations from a singular pattern that makes runs unique or interesting. As a masocore title, it doesn’t take a significant stand against or with any specific aspect of difficulty in video games.
As Ian Bogost puts it, “Flappy Bird is difficult because that’s how it is.” But the difference between that and being difficult with a point or purpose is nuanced enough that many people that may not pick up on it. This even includes those totally enmeshed in the industry, like how developers keep describing their games as “Dark Souls-like” without understanding what that means.
With that in mind, consider who is downloading Flappy Bird. Word of mouth and negative coverage is enough to shoo away players with some sort of tap into the pulse. Really, it’s the users that play games but refute the title “gamer.” It’s the people that play Candy Crush and find themselves suddenly with a fat $4,000 credit card bill.
And there’s nothing wrong with that crowd. They can enjoy whatever they want in whatever manner they choose. They can call themselves a gamer, a non-gamer, or even an ostrich. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the amount of critical analysis going on in their minds, which is to say little to none.
That, however, is not their fault. It’s like being angry at a baby who just learned how to walk for not being able to do a back flip. These people are just learning the conventions and tropes of video games. Soon enough, they’ll probably gain the same sort of video game tunnel vision we all have, the one where we see digital scenes but we only perceive interactive objects like walls for cover and weapons and objectives. But until then, they’re still stumbling every time they stand.
Eventually, they will learn. To many of them, video games are still in some nascent form. Truth be told, actually, they are for everyone. The avant-garde is producing games that many have come to debate the merits of calling them “video games.” Only now are titles that don’t contain the words “Madden” or “Call of Duty” gaining massive recognition and appeal. Hell, they’re even getting nominated for Grammys.
The point is, those people—the ones that download and play Flappy Bird with sincerity—are learning. We are all, but they’re learning what makes a good game and what makes a bad game. They’re learning the difference between having fun with a game and simply having time surgically removed from your day at the cost of dollars and cents per in-app purchase. They’re discovering that addiction is not the same as a meaningful interaction.
Once they learn that, we’ll stop having games like Flappy Bird and Red Bouncing Ball Spikes at the top of the charts. (All right, so Red Bouncing Ball Spikes might involve goosing the count, but a sizable contingent of casual players blindly buys those #1 spots on faith alone.) We all have a lot to learn, but the first step is to know that you shouldn’t download Flappy Bird.