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

The creator of Flappy Bird is back with a game offering the sublime agony that comes with mastering a craft—and still failing.

Many of the highest-performing professional athletes are also the most superstitious. Serena Williams bounces the tennis ball five time before her first serve, twice before the second. Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform. Baseball hall of famer Wade Boggs bore a bounty of superstitions. Among them: He ate chicken before each game, began batting practice for night games at precisely 5:17 p.m., and inscribed “Chai,” the Hebrew word for life, into the dirt before stepping up to bat.

Some casual myths are engrained into the everyday fabric of a sport—dribbling a basketball before taking a free throw, for example. But superstition would seem to have no place in world-class sports performance. Athletes like Jordan and Williams and Boggs spend their entire careers honing and refining their natural talents into repeatable performance. What room is there for sorcery in such a practice?

The answer eludes all of us who have not reached peak performance in something—which is to say most of us. Once all other factors are eliminated, once one’s body and experience and technique have been refined near to the maximum, still inexplicable things can happen, and they do.

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.

Of course, achievement implies mastery, and mastery opposes the very concept of treating something for what it is despite its indifference, of respecting it as an arbitrary and alien being in the universe. Communion creates an ongoing respect between one being and another, but mastery subordinates the one to the other.

It was mastery that led Nguyen to disavow Flappy Bird: the game’s unwitting ability to inspire players’ uncontrollable desire to vanquish it. And, thanks to the game’s willingness to yield to high scores via relatively long individual play sessions, such desire led to over-commitment. Flappy Bird began to smother its players, rather than to exist quietly alongside them.

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Swing Copters remedies this failing by being even more abusively difficult than Flappy Bird ever managed. A score of even five in Swing Copters represents profound accomplishment, whereas such scores were easily reachable in Flappy Bird soon after one committed to play it seriously.

Despite looking nearly identical, subtle changes distinguish Swing Copters from its predecessor. For one, the bird’s flap operates only in one direction, up, making the experience of play one of repeatedly flapping against gravity in order to position the bird to rise or fall through the next pipe obstacle. But in Swing Copters, the swinger’s motorized left-to-right oscillations means that movement in both demands exactness. In Flappy Bird, it was common to let the bird fall freely, negligently almost, then to tap rapidly to flap him back to a desired position. But in Swing Copters, each direction change must be made precisely to avoid the screen edges, the platforms, and the mallets.

Swing Copters (left), Flappy Bird (right)

For another part, the copter’s movement creates momentum, unlike the bird’s flap. A tap to reverse the swinger’s direction doesn’t take effect immediately, but only after a delay—while the virtual rotors simulate overcoming their lateral force. And worse, that momentum increases the longer the swinger travels in one direction. This means that the large-scale adjustments common to Flappy Bird are very risky in Swing Copters. Being in the wrong part of the screen even for a moment longer than necessary makes the process of recovering and readjusting the swinger’s position even more difficult as a result. Swing Copters magnifies the smallest errors, demanding very careful, almost painful attention from the player.

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.

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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.