As I was already mentally planning a tirade about the seemingly paradox of purposefully manipulated glitch art (how can we revel in the randomness when we can predict many of the changes?), I was sidetracked by the coverage of Flappy Bird. Yes, Flappy Bird. The public outcry of this app sensation caught my interest. For those of you out of the loop, Flappy Bird is a smart phone app by a Vietnamese developer that had a meteoric rise of popularity and profitability. But the game is impossible and frustratingly difficult, boasting its addictive qualities and the sense of deep satisfaction at performing well.
My interest here today, and how I see this occurrence as applicable to our topics and conversations, are the hyperbolic complaints. Buzzfeed lists a comprehensive and telling list of user reviews for the game from the iTunes store which demonstrates a widespread complaint that the game will ruin your life. How? Its apparent ease (you’re just flying a bird between Mario-esque pipes) mixed with its accessibility on our ubiquitous hand held devices compounds with its open-ended game play into the perfect storm of frustration. There is no end in sight, no way of qualifying your achievements. So you play on. As one user bemoans: “I used to be like you. I, a young man, once played online with friends. I once attended a school, I once talked to my friends. I never wanted to go down this road.” Another warns “it brings you down in despair…The horror of feeling confident and then it being crushed has no bounds in this game.” One urges us to “send a group of children to an island with no electricity to continue humanity before it’s too late.” While it is reasonable to believe these are exaggerations for comic effect, the anxieties expressed are all too real. A game, something so innocuous that enters out world through digital screens commands intense power over all other aspects of our lives. Many of the joke reviews speak of destroying the phone or tablet in a fit of fury as though the machine itself is the cause to be blamed for our destruction.
Today the developer has removed the app from Google Play stores and the iTunes App Store, Tweeting yesterday that “‘Flappy Bird’ is a success of mine. But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.” How should we define success? How should we monitor our personal investment in such entertainment and in the devices that carry them? How has society and humanity changed when so much of our self-worth can be reduced to a high score on a simplistic phone app? For the record, my high score: 52.