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

And for yet another part, the mallets attached to the bottom of each platform create a constantly changing environment, which the player must negotiate even while attempting to maintain careful control over the copter. In Flappy Bird, only the position of the pipe opening changed from point to point. But in Swing Copters, the player must plan for the future position of the mallets. This is easier said than done. Their oscillating motion suggests predictability, but the reality of future planning—even a few moments hence—is unsettled by the need to maintain very careful attention to the copter’s swings.

Taken all together, these design features make Swing Copters far less emotional and more intellectual than Flappy Bird ever was. In that respect, the newer game is likely never to achieve the lift of its predecessor, all full of the urgency and surprise of its arduousness. Furthermore, even half a year later, the whole space of game design has been forever altered by Flappy Bird’s unexpected success and quick disappearance. To pursue his own game design practice at greater depth, Nguyen has released a refinement rather than a novelty, but into a noisy marketplace obsessed with novelties. It’s a risk, but a worthwhile one: By abandoning Flappy Bird’s “addictive” call to play to high scores through persistence and rhythm, Swing Copters opens the door to the sublime chaos of peak performance instead.

* * *

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.

Presented by

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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