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