Flap­ping the bird

Most people would ar­gue that Flappy Bird isn’t a very good game. So why can’t they stop play­ing it?

Australian T3 - - OPINION -

By the time this goes to print the Flappy Bird phe­nom­e­non will have well and truly died. In fact, as I’m writ­ing this it’s al­ready dead.

By now you know the story: a wholly un­re­mark­able iOS and An­droid phone game be­comes an overnight sen­sa­tion, for rea­sons no one knows. A pun­ish­ingly dif­fi­cult game, Flappy Bird was so seem­ingly un­fair that it prompted users to share their against-theodds high scores with friends. People had fun with it, and yet its very cheap­ness – its lack of so­phis­ti­ca­tion – made com­men­ta­tors sus­pi­cious of its suc­cess, to the ex­tent that the game’s cre­ator, Dong Nguyen, re­moved the game from all plat­forms be­cause it “ru­ined his sim­ple life.”

Let’s not waste any more time split­ting hairs over the specifics of Flappy Bird as a piece of soft­ware. The most in­ter­est­ing as­pect of the phe­nom­e­non, in my view, is how it rein­vig­o­rated de­bate about what con­sti­tutes a good game.

Most of the mil­lions of Flappy Bird play­ers will prob­a­bly ad­mit, when asked, that the game isn’t very good. It’s a sim­ple one-but­ton af­fair through an un­chang­ing land­scape of Nin­tendo-in­spired as­sets. The ques­tion is, why isn’t it a very good game, and why did mil­lions play it any­way, es­pe­cially in a cli­mate when in-app mon­e­tised ‘free-toplay’ games like Candy Crush are con­sid­ered the height of gamerly ba­nal­ity. Flappy Bird pro­vides you one sim­ple task and does not re­quest re­mu­ner­a­tion.

I’d ar­gue that Flappy Bird is ac­tu­ally a very good game. There’s no ar­gu­ing that it isn’t sim­ple, low-budget and of­ten very frus­trat­ing, but the time I spent talk­ing about this game with co-work­ers – one-up­ping their scores, ban­ter­ing about our strate­gies or lack thereof – is some of the best fun I’ve had with a game for a very long time. At a time when ‘so­cial gam­ing’ means shoot­ing your friends in the face on vir­tual bat­tle­grounds, this was a breath of fresh air.

But it isn’t just the shar­ing of scores which made the game good – it felt, from a purely tac­tile point of view, fun to play. For this rea­son alone, games as sim­ple as Flappy Bird – or Can­a­balt, or Tem­ple Run – are more ap­peal­ing to me than many mil­lion dol­lar Triple A ti­tles, strewn with dra­matic cutscenes and op­er­ated by clumsy QTE op­er­a­tions.

Not to dis­credit those ex­pe­ri­ences, be­cause here’s the thing: games can be vir­tu­ally any­thing. They can pro­vide hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences, but main­stream au­di­ences tend to value these ex­pe­ri­ences us­ing con­sole-cen­tric Triple A ti­tles as the yard­stick. The re­al­ity is that this is a tiny part of gam­ing cul­ture – if not the mar­ket – and it prob­a­bly proved too be­wil­der­ing to some that they were hav­ing such a good time with this stupid, sim­ple game.

Let’s face it though: for its set­ting – a smart­phone – and its de­mands on your in­tel­lect – barely any – Flappy Bird is a per­fect game for cer­tain times. Flappy Bird is not a guilty plea­sure, it just bears a set of val­ues which you needn’t take too se­ri­ously. My high score is 104.

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