The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird

Why playing stupid games staves off existential despair

Games are grotesque.

I’m not talking about games like Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt, games whose subjects are moral turpitude, games that that ask players to murder, maim, or destroy. I mean games in general, the form we call “games.” Games are gross, revolting heaps of arbitrary anguish. Games are encounters with squalor. You don’t play a game to experience an idea so much as you do so in an attempt to get a broken machine to work again.

In this way, games are different from other media. Sure, a movie or a book or a painting can depict squalor, can attune us to the agony of misfortune. But unlike film and literature, games do not primarily depict human events and tell stories. And unlike sports, games do not primarily showcase physical prowess. We don’t watch or read games like we do cinema and novels and paintings, nor do we perform them like we might dance or football or Frisbee. Rather, we do something in-between with games. Yes, we “play” games like we do sports, and yes, games bear “meaning” as do the fine and plastic arts. But something else is at work in games. Games are devices we operate.

Sometimes that operation simulates piloting a mecha or a pro athlete or a space marine, but more frequently it entails more mundane activities: moving cards between stacks as in Klondike solitaire; swapping adjacent gems as in Bejeweled; directing a circular, discarnate maw as in Pac-Man. Some machinery is fantastic, but most is ordinary, forgettable, broken.

If you look past the familiar shimmer of Super Mario Bros. and Super Bowl Sunday, there in the middle you will find the unsung paragons of gaming: games like Chess and Go and Backgammon; Tic-Tac-Toe and Dots and Boxes and Crosswords; Monopoly and Candy Land and Sorry!. These are games that frustrate more than they titillate, because operating them involves minimal effort yet considerable misery. It’s not the misery of boredom or stupidity, but the misery of repetition. The misery of knowing what you want to accomplish but not being able to, whether thanks to the plodding pace of a child’s board game, or the bottomless strategic depth of a folk classic. Whereas football yields its beauty through the practiced triumph of the human body and will over circumstance, Sorry! delivers only the stupid, gratuitous anguish caused by our decision to play it in the first place.

Every now and then a game comes along that forces us to admit this inconvenient truth of games. Recently, we have been graced with such a one, a free mobile throwaway called Flappy Bird. The game was first released last summer, but as the year wound down it experienced an unexpected surge in popularity. By the start of 2014, the game had nested itself at the top of the Apple App Store free charts.

Flappy Bird is a stupid game. You control a bird so cute as to signal deformity. Tapping the screen causes the bird to flap, making it rise slightly before quickly falling. The game asks only that you pilot the bird through narrow passageways between two green, Super Mario-style pipes that issue from the top and bottom of the screen. A point is awarded for every pipe you pass. But touch anything and the cute bird tumbles beak-first into the ground: game over.

Game over in Flappy Bird

Flappy Bird is a perversely, oppressively difficult game. Scoring even a single point takes most players a considerable number of runs. After an hour, I’d managed a high score of two. Many, many hours of play later, my high score is 32, a feat that has earned me the game’s gold medal (whatever that means).

There is a tradition of such super-difficult games, sometimes called masocore among the videogame-savvy. Masocore games are normally characterized by trial-and-error gameplay, but split up into levels or areas to create a sense of overall progress. Commercial blockbusters like Mega Man inaugurated the category (even if the term “masocore” appeared long after Capcom first released that title in 1987), and more recent independent titles like I Wanna Be The Guy and Super Meat Boy have further explored the idea of intense difficulty as a primary aesthetic. Combined with repetition and progression, the intense difficulty of masocore games often produces a feeling of profound accomplishment, an underdog’s victory in the dorky medium of underdogs themselves, 2d platformer videogames.

Left: Mega Man (Capcom, 1987), Right: Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2008-2010)

Even though Flappy Bird borrows from the same platformer tradition, it’s no masocore game. For one part, masocore is more of an aesthetic community than it is a material aesthetic; like the poetry and painting that emerged from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, masocore games arise from a dedication to a particular kind of play experience, or perhaps even more so a disgust with the rise of facile, “everybody wins” casual games since the turn of the millennium.

But Flappy Bird is not difficult because it wants to oppose any regime in particular; a fact made flesh by its deployment on the mobile platforms that have only accelerated casual play. Flappy Bird is not difficult to challenge you, nor even to teach the institution of videogames a thing or two. Rather, Flappy Bird is difficult because that’s how it is. It is a game that is indifferent, like an iron gate rusted shut, like the ice that shuts down a city. It’s not hard for the sake of your experience; it’s just hard because that’s the way it is. Where masocore games want nothing more than to please their players with pain and humiliation (thus their appropriation of the term “masochism”), Flappy Bird just exists. It wants nothing and expects even less.

The game seems to have come from out of nowhere. It was created by a lone, 29 year-old Vietnamese developer named Dong Nguyen, who has mostly denied requests for press interviews after the explosive success of his game. Nguyen operates under the shingle .GEARS, which has released several other games with a similar avant-pixel aesthetic and simple gameplay. While tech press outlets accustomed to megalomaniac entrepreneurs motivated only by fame and wealth have reframed the creator’s timidity as “mystery,” Nguyen’s own words likely explain the situation more accurately: “The popularity could be my luck.”

Nguyen’s status as outsider artist may be the key to the game’s deftly indifferent design, even if it can’t explain its success. .GEARS’ earlier games are much rougher and less refined than Flappy Bird. In Shuriken Block, the player taps on the screen to deflect throwing stars that would otherwise lodge in the heads of a row of cute pixel samurai. A correct tap issued more quickly yields more points than one at the last minute. But an observant player can simply turn the game into a joke, tapping constantly at the top of the screen to achieve as high a score as patience affords. In Super Ball Juggling, the player taps the right and left sides of the screen to individually control two soccer players juggling balls that rise to different heights with each bounce. After a few singular practice juggles, balls appear simultaneously on both sides, and the player must struggle against the absence of a continuous rhythm to perform well at the game.

.GEARS games before Flappy Bird include Shuriken Block (left) and Super Ball Juggling (right)

But rather than improving upon these and other game design techniques, Flappy Bird actually regresses, offering fewer rather than more crutches for either novice or expert play. It even withdraws from the gentler onboarding of Super Ball Juggling. Contemporary design practice surely would recommend an “easy” first pipe sequence to get the player started, perhaps a few pipes positioned at the bird’s initial position, or with wider openings for easier passage. More difficult maneuvers, such as quick shifts from high to low pipe openings, would be reserved for later in the game, with difficulty ramping up as the player demonstrates increased expertise.

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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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