“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, not until I’ve beaten my high score.” — Flappy Bird addict
The latest twist in the story of the globally popular Flappy Bird phone app is that its creator pulled the game off the market after just weeks, calling it “too addictive.” The response to the removal of Flappy Bird from mobile app stores has been international group withdrawal: there were reports of iPhones with the Flappy Bird app selling online for $10,000 to $100,000. Some extreme fans on the game designer’s Twitter account threatened to kill him or themselves.
Before Dong Nguyen pulled Flappy Bird on Feb. 9, the free downloadable smartphone app proved an unparalleled success. Mashable.com posted “28 Days of Fame: The Strange, True Story of Flappy Bird,” analyzing its history. In that time, it consumed people to such a degree that Huffington Post ran a piece headlined “Proof Flappy Bird will be the end of humanity.” It featured nothing but screen shots of gamers on Twitter almost comically bemoaning its tyranny over their lives.
“Ruined My Marriage” tweeted: “I don’t know how long I’ve had this game, an hour, eight hours, it could be days. Time works differently when you play it. My wife took the kids to her mother’s [home] two high scores ago. We argued about something but I don’t know what it was about. I was too busy playing Flappy Bird. I didn’t go into work today, but when my boss called I ignored it and continued to play Flappy Bird. My phone is charging now, but I can still hear the joyful beeps in my head and the flapping of the bird at all times. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, not until I’ve beaten my high score.”
At one point this week, there were an average of four tweets per second on Twitter’s #FlappyBird as news emerged that the iPhones with Flappy Bird installed could not be sold on EBay. Bidding for Flappy Bird phones at the online auction site was closed due to copyright violation issues, gaming bloggers reported. Among the spin-off and spoof games, #FlappyBirdDrake was remaining popular.
Nguyen, a Vietnamese game designer whose Flappy Bird went live last May, spoke only to Forbes about his reason for taking it down. He would do so only on condition that his photograph not be published. He was making $55,000 daily from ads on the game, according to some reports. Pulling the cash cow Flappy Bird was a move so unheard of among game designers that it hatched conspiracy theories: had he stolen art from Nintendo? Infringed on trademarks? Nguyen’s explanation on his own Twitter described its intense popularity as ruining his “simple life.” He told Forbes:
“Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed,” Nguyen said, according to Forbes. “But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”
Addictive Power of Gaming
Whether video games are an addictive disorder remains the subject of some dispute among medical and psychiatric professionals. The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize addictions to new technologies such as the Internet or video games as disorders, because, as their spokesperson put it, “The data is unreliable.” Yet anyone with a computer, smartphone — and kids — knows that the consuming interest is concerning. Regardless of actual distinction, medical professional groups agree that any time an individual focuses on gaming to the point where it interferes with his or her relationships, goals, education or family life, it has become an addiction. A University of Chicago study found participants could more easily resist smoking or drinking than they could resist checking their electronic devices and social media.
“You see a lot of similar, maladaptive behaviors [in video-gamers] that you see in drug and alcohol addiction as well as some behavioral process addictions like in pathological gambling,” said Jack Kuo, director of psychiatric services at Promises Treatment Centers. “Studies do show overactivity in the rewards system in the dopamine pathway very similar to that you’d see in drug and alcohol addiction.”
After Flappy Bird’s demise, Nguyen told the Wall Street Journal that he was now working on three similar games. Mashable.com noted that he tweeted the day of Flappy Bird’s entry to app stores that he’d built it and submitted the game in two days. The game remained dormant until the fall, when Mashable’s piece said it began a slow climb in downloads. Its appearance in a “family game” classification helped it gain users. By Jan. 17, it was the No. 1 free app in the U.S. App Store; it wasn’t even available for Android on Google Play until Jan. 22. By Feb. 1, Flappy Bird was the No. 1 free app in 53 countries in the App Store with millions of downloads a day.
Has there been a more popular game app?
“There have certainly been many popular games that have gone viral … but I’m trying to think of one that comes close to Flappy Bird,” said Yannick LeJacq, whose reporting on gaming has run in the Wall Street Journal and Motherboard, an online magazine and video channel. “Candy Crush and Angry Birds are both certainly popular, but they both had a more gradual rise to the level they’re at now. It really turned into its own phenomenon on the level of multi-million-dollar blockbuster games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, which (I think) made some game journalists chafe at the idea that such a seemingly simplistic, casual game deserved so much critical attention in the first place.”
Gaming scholar Jesper Juul, associate professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts School of Design and author of three books about video gamers, was asked whether the Flappy Bird episode revealed anything about “addictive” vs. “non-habit-forming” games.
“I think it’s more the idea that some kinds of addictiveness are symptoms of good design, but others are results of evil psychological manipulation,” Jull told Motherboard. “But no one can explain what the difference is.”
Some people expressed relief that they’d never been ensnared in Flappy Bird.
“I never downloaded it. I didn’t want to spend six hours a day on my phone,” said Josh Alvaro, 21, as he served customers at a Belmont Shore Italian deli. The American studies major at Cal State Long Beach said he has friends who played Flappy Bird all day.
“I try to stay away from those games,” Alvaro said. “I’m already on my phone enough.”