Why Is Everyone You Know Playing ‘Flappy Bird’?

Even if you haven’t been keeping up with the latest mobile games, chances are you’ve heard of Flappy Bird. Currently it’s the hottest game on the planet and it’s probably the most unexpected.

Flappy Bird is the brainchild of a completely unknown app developer based in Vietnam named Dong Nguyen. It looks like it was made by a high schooler who just learned how to code. It certainly doesn’t scream “success.”

The game is essentially this: you control an 8-bit pixelated bird whom you maneuver by tapping on the screen as the bird flies from left-to-right. In its way are green pipes that were definitely lifted directly from an early Mario Brothers game. Touch even a feather on one of those pipes and you lose. Complicating matters further, your bird constantly feels the pull of gravity, making each moment a desperate negotiation in parabolic calculus. You need to get between the pipes without hitting them. Look, I know it sounds dumb, but here is the thing: it’s really, really addicting.

Part of the pleasure of Flappy Bird is just how hard it is. And it is very hard. Harder than any game you’ve played in the last month. It’s an unforgiving, anxiety-inducing bloodbath of restarts. You restart so often that more time is spent at the start screen then actually in the game. It’s enough to make you want to quit after your first “game over.”

But you don’t…

There is an unfiltered, beautiful joy in making it past a set of pipes. Each perfectly executed “flap” probably lights up the reward center of your brain better than drugs or sex ever could. For one thing, its harder to score a point in this game than it is to get laid. The ecstasy is short lived, however. Only a second later lies another set of pipes, and you’ll probably fail.

After downloading the game (free to play, supported by ads that scroll at the top) based on nothing more than a desire to see what all of the fuss was about, I found myself playing until my phone warned me that my battery was dying. The weirdest part was I don’t think I got any better.

This isn’t a game that rewards experience, it’s contingent solely on execution. Levels are randomized and no other factors exist. While playing, it’s just you, your bird, and the onslaught of pipes. It’s put up or shut up time. True gaming bliss.

Not to say that Flappy Bird is a good game or an original game or anything else that could explain why this game is popular rather than any other game of similar style.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled trying to quantify its success. The best anyone can come up with is a protracted, wordy shrug.

For example, here is Polygon’s stab at what makes this game work:

First, they want games about birds. If Tiny Wings and Angry Birds weren’t enough to convince you of this then Flappy Bird, with its malformed duck-like avatar, should settle the matter. Indeed, people are so crazy about birds that they won’t care that the bird in Flappy Bird appears to be a horrifying cycloptic version of Cheep Cheep, the flying fish enemy from the third Super Mario Bros.

Second, polish does not matter. Not only is the visual language of Flappy Bird almost entirely re-appropriated from early NES games, but it seems to be engineered and designed by someone still learning how to create games. There are frequent slowdowns and animation glitches in the Android version but, more importantly, Flappy Bird has absolutely no sense of what indie game developers call “feel.”

Third, people want games that are bone-crushingly difficult, but not punishing. Probably the most commented on aspect of the game is just how hard it is to maneuver your cyclops-duck through the endless gaps between pipes, which constitutes the game’s only challenge.

It’s a good list that explains why we play a game like Flappy Bird. It’s probably even right. But it isn’t why this game is the game. For that we need to stop thinking that people are rational actors. Like the stock market, most of what makes something go viral is forces beyond our free will.

According to Nguyen, Flappy Bird is being downloaded several million times per day. Consider me on that list. And I downloaded it not because of the birds, or the “feel,” or the difficulty. I downloaded it because everyone else had downloaded it. Peer pressure is a powerful force. If everyone else was jumping off a bridge, I probably would too if I felt I was missing out on a socially significant moment in my generation if I didn’t.

What Flappy Bird does show is that the next “big thing” can come from any where. This simple game should be held up as the banner for indie gaming. Not because its the best indie game (or even a good one), but because it demonstrates that the world is primed for games that come from any where. Call of Duty will still sell millions of copies of their latest game, but in 2014, so can some guy in Vietnam.

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