Level Head


Flappy Bird’s swift nose­dive from a great height serves to il­lus­trate the dan­gers of par­tic­i­pa­tory on­line cul­ture

There has to have been a time when I didn’t feel like I lived in pub­lic, but I just can’t re­mem­ber it. I don’t mean only about my work (any­one who thinks writ­ing about games isn’t sub­ject to much scru­tiny has prob­a­bly for­got­ten how many com­ments on game ar­ti­cles they them­selves have left), I mean just as a per­son who uses the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia, where the din of a col­lec­tive con­ver­sa­tion is con­stantly roar­ing.

In Jan­uary, I pub­lished an eBook called Breath­ing Ma­chine, a mem­oir of my first days on­line and how it al­ways felt like I was one of a small clutch of people stum­bling through the mys­te­ri­ous dig­i­tal cracks of the vis­i­ble world, there to find weird­ness and ad­ven­ture. Now the In­ter­net is the vis­i­ble world’s pri­mary fron­tier. We’re all Googleable, and all of these things with our real names at­tached are there for­ever. You think you can evade the manyeyed gaze of the Twit­ter col­lec­tive, but some­one will find you. Some­one will tell ev­ery­one who and where you are.

I of­ten feel like game cul­ture has a spe­cial de­pen­dency on on­line con­ver­sa­tion, even rel­a­tive to this ‘new nor­mal’. At least, that’s the only the­ory I have about why col­leagues and I of­ten have more Twit­ter fol­low­ers than some cult celebri­ties and TV jour­nal­ists I idolised grow­ing up. Mostly, this is a good thing – our medium is about in­ter­ac­tion, ac­tion, re­ac­tion, and par­tic­i­pa­tory cul­ture is a boon to the world of play, to its very na­ture.

I think people who play videogames are more in­tel­li­gent and more sen­si­tive than people who don’t. I mean, I might be bi­ased, so let’s round out the gen­er­al­i­sa­tions: I also think people who play videogames are more child­like, de­mand­ing and con­sump­tive than people who don’t. To me, that means the nat­u­ral down­sides of broad on­line in­ter­ac­tion are em­pha­sised, just as a peb­ble tossed in a lake makes big waves. That a small event – a thought­less com­ment, a tiny game re­lease, say – can pro­voke such a tidal wave of re­ply, of ur­gent, emo­tional (or hate­ful) re­ply, seems de­struc­tive to us as play­ers. ‘Ev­ery­one gets to be heard’ is a lovely idea, but be­comes de­struc­tive when we for­get we’re one of tens, some­times thou­sands of people who sud­denly want to talk to the same per­son.

Flappy Bird was a small, free mo­bile game with sim­ple, masochis­tic game me­chan­ics and a bor­rowed (to put it very gen­er­ously) retro aes­thetic. In other words, it ticked ev­ery box on the en­try form for in­die game suc­cess. And it was a suc­cess, earn­ing some $50,000 a day in ad rev­enue and end­less vi­ral pub­lic­ity. Twit­ter users wanted to chat about the game’s bru­tal­ity, its sheer ab­sur­dity, its sup­posed aw­ful­ness, and more and more play­ers wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

But the story of Flappy Bird be­came a sad one: its cre­ator, Dong Nguyen, de­cided to take it down from the App Store af­ter a short life on the mar­ket. “I can­not take this any more,” he wrote on Twit­ter. He also tweeted: “I can call Flappy Bird is [sic] a suc­cess of mine. But it also ru­ins my sim­ple life. So now I hate it.”

Even pos­i­tive at­ten­tion can be very overwhelming for people who aren’t pre­pared to imag­ine that a small ac­tion – re­leas­ing a sim­ple game, one of the un­count­able App Store hordes – just might con­sign them to scru­tiny en masse. But Nguyen paid a par­tic­u­larly high price for be­com­ing an overnight sen­sa­tion: the press billed him as a ripoff artist. Even more un­for­tu­nately, re­sent­ful de­vel­op­ers were quick to try to os­tracise the Viet­namese de­vel­oper as an out­sider. They seemed to ‘other’ him as one of the evil clone en­gi­neers who threat­ened their sup­pos­edly au­to­mat­i­cally le­git­i­mate western de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity.

For a few days, Flappy Bird was a prime­time de­bat­ing point. Ev­ery­one wanted their chance to be heard. Some saw it as a moral is­sue on which they had to take a side. Some thought it was an in­ves­tiga­tive op­por­tu­nity to dig into Nguyen’s life, there to find out whether to sup­port or dis­credit him. Oth­ers saw it as a great big rau­cous laugh.

But prob­a­bly most people wrote a tweet or two about Flappy Bird and for­got about it. The im­pact of a tidal wave might be de­ter­mined by its ex­tremes, but its vol­ume is quan­ti­fied by all of the noise in be­tween. It was too much for Nguyen.

I think it’s a ter­ri­ble thing that hap­pened to him. You might not agree. The fact that game de­vel­op­ers are closer to their au­di­ences than ever now has cre­ated in­nu­mer­able op­por­tu­ni­ties for mar­ket dis­rup­tion – they can de­velop and it­er­ate in pub­lic with the con­tri­bu­tions of the very play­ers they want to ad­dress. They can fund non­tra­di­tional projects. They can ac­cess tools and fo­rums and cre­ate and self-pub­lish any game they like.

But in the Flappy Bird episode, I see an un­for­tu­nate ex­am­ple of how, thanks to the noise of so­cial me­dia, par­tic­i­pa­tory cul­ture on­line may not al­ways be good for games – not un­ques­tion­ably, not with­out caveats. The game in­dus­try can ben­e­fit from its re­la­tion­ship with crowds, but we can no longer pre­sume naïvely to rely al­ways on crowd ‘wis­dom’. Nguyen might, like any game maker, have wished for suc­cess. But he didn’t ask for this.

For a few days, Flappy Bird was a prime de­bat­ing point. Ev­ery­one wanted a chance to be heard

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