Swing Copters: The Randomness of the Universe, Captured in Pixels

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It’s rational that peak sports performances tousle  the divine, the cosmic. When you know every other factor can be under your control and yet still things can go wrong, paranormal explanations are the only explanations that make sense. Sports superstitions pit the reasoned precision of the honed human body and mind against the endless unknowns of the universe in which sport must take place.

But usually such a realization takes a substantial time investment to reach. Whether or not a 10,000 hour Gladwell Unit of dedication is required to become an expert at something, we can reasonably conclude that it takes longer than a few minutes to become a professional-level tennis or baseball or basketball player. Considerable practice and persistence was required before Jordan or Williams or Boggs reached a point in their respective play where skill, technique, and experience collapsed under forces they interpreted as mystical.

Swing Copters offers a shortcut. In just a few short minutes, it’s possible to grasp enough about the game’s tiny system to understand how it works. The game demands only a series of singular, well-timed taps to play effectively (even if not well). After a few initial rounds of disorientation, one’s capacity to operate the system reaches a high level of expertise relatively quickly, at least compared to more complex sports and games like baseball or chess. Swing Copters offers the best of both worlds. It’s simple enough in its design to allow the player to skip the wait for traditional expertise, but complex enough to provide value in having reached a commensurate level of expertise. 

That significance entails facing the rift where performance failures can no longer be explained in terms of intention or ability, but where they face the endless darkness of the unknown. And there, the fog of superstition quickly rolls in. Why was I able to read the swinger’s momentum near the left screen edge last game, but not this one? Maybe I need to clip my thumbnails. Maybe I should use two hands instead of one. Maybe if I sit on the couch instead of standing at the counter. Maybe…

Superstition, myth, and religion offer rationales that fill in the empty spaces between performance and results. Their sorcery acts as a mortar that plugs the gaps between the physical and mental bricks that form the walls of our performances. Without that glue, the edifice would crumble. For peak performance, superstition isn’t a defect but a necessity.

As both a competitor and a spectator, the sublimity of such performance arises partly from knowing that something cosmic is always at work on the court or on the pitch or, yes, even on the smartphone. Some factor always exceeds our prowess and our reason: the wind, the sun, a loose plug of grass, an idle thought. The detritus of the universe is always far greater in volume than whatever action any individual might strive to perform to avoid it.

In that respect, the mystical space between intention and action in sports and in games embodies a version of the infinite. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, beauty arises from form, but the sublime erupts from formlessness, from boundlessness. And in Kant’s view, sublimity is terrifying as much as pleasurable. While natural objects like mountains can be sublime, the formless wake of deceptions that break the athlete’s expertise represent what Kant calls the “mathematical sublime”—a recognition of reason’s inability to grasp and overcome the sheer number of possible snags and complications. In Swing Copters as much as in baseball, all the various environmental, political, social, or material circumstances that might intersect a particular game fill out the torment of sublimity—along with the infinitely tiny variations in gesture and vision that lead a player to swing or tap now rather than then.

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So unsettling is the terror of the mystical chasm between performance and intention in games, even Dong Nguyen seems to be struggling with the implications of having incorporated it into the design of his game. Mere days after releasing Swing Copters, Nguyen uploaded a version 1.1 update that substantially alters the game’s tuning. The first platform is set much higher, offering the player a longer starting run during which to acclimate to the game’s mechanics of horizontal momentum. The momentum itself is dampened, and the gaps in the platforms are widened for easier passage. Quickly, Flappy Bird-level scores become possible: 20, 50, 100, or more. Rhythmic predictability gains tactical purchase. The demons of performative incapacity are exorcised, and the game becomes just another smartphone game.

Nguyen’s unease is understandable. The paranormal and the divine are terrifying and obscene, and we prefer not to face them, even in pixels. Superstition ratchets up to madness more often than it tames itself into habit. But there is something tragic about having touched the sublime in Swing Copters, only to lose it days later. When I ask Nguyen about it, he expresses no regret in having altered the game. “Swing Copters is a game for everyone,” he tells me via email. “Most people are just looking for a fun game with easy control and cute animation to waste their time.”

Reading his words on the screen, about this silly game with a peanut on a rotor, I’m embarrassed to feel my heart leap into my throat as if news of real tragedy has wound its way into my inbox. Imagine Jordan or Williams or Boggs speaking this way about basketball or tennis or baseball! For many—for most, perhaps—a game is just a game, whether it be football or Flappy Bird. But the very point of a game is that can be more than just a game precisely by virtue of being no more than one. A game exists just to invite its players to respect the space it creates merely by virtue of existing. This is no less true of Swing Copters than it is of baseball. What remains different, for now at least, is how willing we might be to accept profundity amid absurdity in the games we play—and, as Nguyen’s hedge bears out—that we create as well.

In its place, some hope for the mystical in videogames remains. The same day Dong Nguyen updates Swing Copter to its post-mystical 1.1 revision, Amazon scoops up the videogame streaming service Twitch for $970 million cash, after Google backed out of the deal. Twitch resembles neither baseball nor Swing Copters; if anything, it’s more like a nerdy version of ABC Sports—an online broadcaster of game events, from conferences to competitive videogaming competitions. Among other curiosities on its channels, tens of thousands of people have been watching FishPlaysPokémon, an unholy farce in which a simple computer vision setup maps a betta fish’s position in an aquarium to Game Boy button presses configured to control the popular Nintendo role-playing game Pokémon Red. As with Swing Copters, no satisfactory justification exists for FishPlaysPokémon, other than the promise and threat that a fish’s seemingly random movements might be able to finish a videogame, like monkeys at a proverbial typewriter.

Or maybe: like a third baseman eating chicken before a pennant. Like God disguised as Michael Jordan, airborne, tongue out, two-shorts deep to ward off the hidden supernatural.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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