The Perils of Flappy Bird

by NORA ZACHARSKI '15

It’s been two hours. You can no longer feel your thumbs, you have a massive headache from squinting at the tiny screen for so long, and you haven’t eaten in what seems like forever. But it will all be worth it. Staying up late doing the homework you have been procrastinating will all be vindicated when you get that new high score and send a picture to your friends. But then, one point away from what promises to be eternal glory, your over excited thumb taps the screen one time too many, and the dream of breaking your high score vanishes.

Although it was actually released in May 2013, players have only really been struggling over the game Flappy Bird since late December 2013, when the game went viral. As most iPhone owners are now painfully aware, the objective of the game is to navigate a small, wingless bird through a series of green tubes all through the single motion of tapping the screen below the bird to keep it in the air. The game seems fairly simple and easy, entertaining but not overly addictive. The question is, then, why do we keep coming back? What motivates us to submit ourselves to hours on end of agony and frustration over the failure to keep a miniscule bird in the air?

The answer lies in human nature itself, and in our need to feel a sense of accomplishment. Every time that little bird successfully goes through a green tube and a soft “ping” can be heard, I myself always felt my confidence go up just a little bit more and start to think, “Hey, maybe I can win this.” That feeling of confidence and even happiness is the result of the reward center of the brain being flooded with a chemical called dopamine. The body likes this feeling of happiness and takes every chance that it can get to experience it. And because the feeling is now inexplicably linked to playing the game, players cannot help but want to play again. This need for dopamine can be caused by several different factors, but the main factor is sheer pleasure, and that it gives the person a temporary feeling of happiness. Additionally, the dopamine rush can be obtained in a variety of ways with video games. The most basic is the competition that is created by the games. People want to impress their friends and family, and show off, and when they win it makes them happy. But players can also become emotionally invested in the game; sometimes feeling like if they win or lose determines their self value, which can skyrocket if they score high, but plummet if they do not. This can also extend to other games, such as Minecraft, where users build their own worlds, and they experience happiness when something good happens in their own personal world. But the addiction to dopamine goes far beyond video games. Dopamine is also the chemical that is released when people use drugs, and it is this addiction, sometimes even more than the addiction to the actual drugs, that is the most dangerous. Although people are not usually this addicted to video games, the craze around Flappy Bird did get rather sever, with the creator even receiving death threats on occasion, so it is important to understand how and why this simple addiction could turn into a much more severe one, and to make sure that the habits are stopped before they really start.

When designing Flappy Bird, the powerful force of addiction was most certainly taken into account. However, this biological occurrence isn’t the only reason that users cannot stop tapping their screens. By strategically designing the game so that the user feels like she can win, players keep thinking that they will win if they play just one more time. And so they do. In fact, the effect is very similar to gambling on a slot machine, where a lever is constantly pulled in the hopes to get three of the same images in a row, but, again, players are continuously disappointed, mostly, but keep playing in spite of this.

In addition to being so maddeningly addictive and creating a false sense of confidence, Flappy Bird is so simple that the player feels like she should be able to win. At first glance, it seems simple enough. The minimalistic layout makes the game feel extremely simple, and combined with the almost childish graphics, the game takes on a tone that makes players feel as if they are inadequate, and that this is a simple children’s game that they cannot defeat, and so to redeem themselves they must keep playing.

But even after analyzing the strange addiction to Flappy Bird, one deep underlying question remains: why did it go viral in the first place? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question yet. There are, however, some very plausible theories. According to a CNN article titled “The Maddening Pull of Flappy Bird,” some people believe that “bots” were used in the process of making the game so popular. Bots are “fake accounts run by computers to artificially create downloads/ ranks and reviews.” Basically, people write positive reviews of the app, and generate publicity about the game, without really having played it. Often, many people do this at the same time, so pretty soon everyone is talking about it. Another theory is that people simply wanted something new, perhaps instead of another addictive game, like Candy Crush, and that this simple, seemingly easy game met the needs of those wants, so much so that it soon became a chart-topping game.

Physiological needs aside, there is no denying that Flappy Bird, with over 50 million downloads total, and which grossed over 50,000 dollars a day from ads, is one of the most addictive games that has been created of late, maybe even ever. And even though we know why people are so addicted, it is still puzzling as to why people let themselves go to such extremes for this game. Said one reviewer on the App Store: "My boss fired me. My kids stopped talking to me. When my husband would text me, it would ruin my game. I blocked his number and rented out a hotel room. I am still in this hotel room today.”

So while it is perfectly fine to play the game when you’re waiting in line, or you have a bit of down time, please, after the hour mark, put the phone down. Even though you are constantly losing at this game, it is important that you don’t lose the most important thing: your sanity.