Counterintuitively, that space where failure and success rub up against each other becomes ever more noticeable the better one becomes at his or her recreation. For those operating at peak performance in a given activity, the frequency and the effect of surprises are amplified, precisely because a failure to perform cannot be easily explained away by the chasm between intention and ability.
For top athletes (or musicians, or performers), superstition is often the best way to rationalize the apparent randomness of such situations. There, where neither practice nor reason prevail, only appeals to the supernatural or the divine offer comfort. Some neuroscientists have even argued that a tendency to believe in the paranormal signals greater neurochemical capacity to perform well in the first place. For the rest of us, we rarely get to experience peak performance anyway. Fewer, then, are our encounters with the voodoo of small variations magnified across rapidly changing conditions, and the chaos-like effect they can have on outcomes. In sport and in games, secularism is for amateurs, spiritualism for pros.
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Swing Copters is a simple mobile game that offers the layperson an experience of the divine profanity where expertise rubs up against disorder. It’s a game with a history, too: the follow-up to last winter’s unlikely hit Flappy Bird, whose surprising, abusive difficulty helped it nest at the top of the app store charts. Dismayed and overwhelmed by the public response, the game’s creator, Dong Nguyen, pulled the title mere weeks later. “It was just too addictive,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
In Flappy Bird, the player taps to make a bird flap and rise, piloting it through small gaps in a pipe. In Swing Copters, the player taps to reverse the horizontal direction of a bug-eyed peanut of a creature wearing a helicopter’s rotor, weaving back and forth to maneuver the character through gaps in scaffolds flanked by swinging mallets. The novice player will be forgiven for thinking Swing Copters is just Flappy Bird oriented vertically. It certainly looks that way; even the interfaces, the score display, and the visual style match almost completely. But those similarities only help make the strong contrast between the two games more evident.
Writing about Flappy Bird for The Atlantic before Nguyen retired it in February, I called the game indifferent, unconcerned for the human players that were its target operators—“like an iron gate rusted shut.” But like the iron gate, Flappy Bird could still be respected and, over time, conquered. The penitent player, phalangyflected before Flappy Bird, might accept its invitation and flap his or her way through the pipes of its improbable temple. It’s ironic: Despite its imposing difficulty, Flappy Bird was too easy, in a way. Once the player accepted the game as the arbitrary and inhospitable ludic terrain that it was, then that terrain became passable—particularly once deliberateness and care were applied to the effort. For such players, a three-digit Flappy Bird score became achievable. Not easily, to be sure, but not infrequently either.