The popular, chart-topping, free iOS app Flappy Bird was just pulled from app servers because, according to this exclusive Forbes interview with the Vietnam-based app developer, Dong Nguyen, he feared his app was getting too addictive for his players.
In a media age of mistrust and conspiracy, there have been speculations flying that this is more than an altruistic decision. A publicity stunt? A marketing gimmick? After all, analysts have estimated Nguyen’s daily take from in-app advertising at $50,000 per day. A lot of the cynicism seems to be grounded in how many cannot simply comprehend that a person can value peace and privacy over fame and fortune in our day and age. Rumors that it’s the same trick regularly pulled by Disney when they lock a movie up in their “vaults” so that they can drive up demand and re-release it at a later date at a premium abound. Other rumors purport that because Nguyen’s graphics appear very similar to Super Mario Bros., Nintendo’s lawyers had a hand in the removal (Nguyen has denied this claim), or that politics in the Vietnamese regime taking control of anyone who makes a large sum of money is very real and responsible for this retraction. Still other controversial theories revolve around how this app got so popular in the first place: anything from the use of bots to artificially inflate the ratings, to viral online social media posts about time-lost, insanity, and (hopefully tongue-in-cheek) marriages ended.
Like most addictive activities, the premise of the game is extremely simple: you tap on your iOS screen to keep your bird in flight and navigate it between pipes extending from the top and bottom of the screen. If your bird touches any surface, it’s instant death and the game ends. Each successive level merely increases the difficulty and likelihood that you’ll strike a surface. According to Nguyen, “Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed.” His other games, Super Ball Juggling and Shuriken Block, which are currently #6 and #18 on the iOS store, are still up on the App Store and he considers these “harmless,” though according to the Forbes exclusive interview, he wouldn’t hesitate to take these games down too if he thought players were getting addicted. It’s no surprise that there’s already a whole flight of replacement apps: Flappy Plane, Flappy Whale, Flappy Penguin and Flappy Angry Bird, to name a few. Moreover, hundreds of Flappy Bird equipped phones have appeared on eBay with one listing at “$52,000 Buy it now + $9.50 shipping” at this writing. But Nguyen is clear about his decision to remove the app: he has “thought it through” and his “conscience is relieved”. (Note: the app may have been removed from the app stores, but the game remains playable for those who have already downloaded the app to their mobile devices).
In Truth About Addiction and Recovery, psychologist Stanton Peele describes addictions as “hooks” that give “people feelings and gratifying sensations that they are not able to get in other ways. … Addictions make people less aware of and less able to respond to other people, events, and activities” (p. 43). He asks, “Can you imagine getting so drunk that you would abuse your infant child? It just doesn’t happen that way. If you have better things to do and value other things more than escape into intoxication, then you won’t make intoxication the center of your life. And if you are addicted, you can best overcome it by creating or re-creating those personal strengths and values.” Addiction is not limited to alcohol, drugs, or pornography. When the “hook” is a game app, it too can be an addiction. What (or who) is at the center of our lives? We are not freer when we give in to addictive behavior because addictions limit a person’s ability to make free choices. 1 Corinthians 10:13 reminds us: “God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.”
What exactly is it that makes a game addictive? As you might expect, it’s a combination of factors. For one, the game is designed to be approachable with hardly a learning curve. For another, it is made to be simple, likely with some sort of repetitive task involved. In this case, there’s a rhythm that a player gets into: tap to keep the bird in flight, tap to navigate between obstacles, avoid obstacles. It’s a juggling act that places the player in “the flow” – the zone at which one’s proficiency perfectly matches the difficulty of the challenge. Too difficult or too easy and the player loses interest. It’s easy to pick up, but a challenge to master. Yet, it’s tapped into a primal sense that we’re actually doing something worthwhile, that we’re accomplishing something by our tapping the screen. Are we so much in need for something to do when we “have a few minutes” that we must whip out our phones (I hesitate calling them “smart” phones given how dumbing and numbing addiction can be)? Check out my other article for some additional pointers.
For me, it’s very disconcerting to imagine that a game that couldn’t be any simpler in its mechanics could soar to the top of the charts in popularity. What does this say about our culture, and ultimately about us? Are we no longer willing to exercise patience in learning complex mechanics, or sit together to figure out the instructions for a board game (and this is coming from a self-confessed video game player)? The time we have left in our lives, after taking away time for sleep, chores, eating, travel, work, and other necessities is precious indeed (check outcreatively-made clip). It’s true that we can make a similar argument for some of the other media we consume, but at least pause to ask ourselves: does this media inspire and if so, what does it inspire us to? Does it point us to something meaningful, to challenge our narrow views, or to better ourselves in some form? Yes, games can certainly be played as “distractions,” but it’s perhaps more meaningful to understand them as moments of recuperative change (doesn’t sound as hip, I know) rather than as true distractions or escapes from the reality around us that we’re responsible for.
And there’s the significant difference between brief moments of play versus long hours of addiction. There is no end designed into the gameplay mechanics of games like Flappy Bird – it’s more of the same in every level (pointless, you might add). The only true end is when you get so frustrated with it, you delete it from your iPhone. Maybe that’s one way to think about it: you win when you can choose to forego it – something Nguyen decided to help many out with. At the risk of sounding like I’m holier-than-thou (my wife and kids will readily assure you I’m not), how about taking those “few minutes” to pray? Have only a little time? Try a decade of the Divine Mercy chaplet. Even less time than that? Try an ejaculatory prayer like “Jesus, I place my trust in You!” or “Blessed Mother, please pray for us who have recourse to you.” Takes 2 seconds. Or just be with Our Father (Psalm 46:10), the love of our life! Is it really that difficult have a bit of quiet time?
Dr. Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media, is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.