Why Flappy Bird Had to Die

The art of play.
Feb. 10 2014 1:12 PM

The Rise and Fall of Flappy Bird

How an amateur-ish iPhone game soared to such heights, and why it had to die.

140210_GAME_FlappyBirdGameOver
Screenshot of Flappy Bird

.GEARS Studio

The world’s most downloaded game can be downloaded no more. This past weekend, 29-year-old Vietnamese game designer Dong Nguyen removed Flappy Bird from app stores, tweeting, “I cannot take this anymore.” The 50 million people who had already downloaded the improbable smash hit can still play it on their phones. The rest of the world’s billions will never know the exquisite frustration of fatally bonking the titular avian’s pixelated yellow head on a pixelated green pipe.

The game’s spectacular ascent and abrupt demise have left questions floating like feathers in their wake. Who is Dong Nguyen? What, exactly, was it that he could no longer take? And, most puzzlingly of all, what made his distinctly amateurish game so wildly popular in the first place?

Obscure when it launched last May, the game soared to ubiquity over the winter for reasons that remain opaque. By the first week of February, it had achieved heights previously touched only by major franchises like Candy Crush and Angry Birds. Not only was Flappy Bird by far the No. 1 free app on both the iPhone and Android app stores, but blatant rip-offs like Flappy Plane, Fly Birdie, and Ironpants bestrewed the top 50. Nguyen, the game’s creator, says he coded it over the course of a few nights after coming home from work. By last week, he told The Verge he was raking in $50,000 a day.

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Those who downloaded the app after hearing the hype might have suspected at first that they’d become the victim of a prank—the mobile-app equivalent of getting Rickrolled. The entire game consists of tapping the screen repeatedly in order to pilot said bird through the gaps between a series of pipes that look like they were ripped straight from the original Super Mario Bros. Touch one, and the bird drops dead and does a beak-plant. Game over.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

That’s it. There are no bad guys, no power-ups, no levels, no changes of scenery. The bird’s sole opponent is gravity. Its sole power is the ability to propel itself awkwardly aloft by a certain amount each time you tap.

It sounds easy, right up until you try it. Unless you’re marvelously gifted, you’re likely to smack into the first pipe at least a dozen times before you achieve even the modest score of 1. And then you’re likely to do it a dozen more times before you get 2. Things do not get easier from there. You can waste days without reaching double digits. You can waste weeks without topping 25. To devote oneself to Flappy Bird is to know the abject futility of Sisyphus.

The game is so maddening that it spawned a genre of Internet ephemera centered on the phenomenon of “Flappy Bird rage.” Hysterical App Store reviewers recounted how the game robbed them of their productivity, their sanity, and ultimately their soul. A Twitter account devoted to “Flappy Bird Problems” gained 140,000 followers. There was the obligatory BuzzFeed listicle: “The 21 Stages of Having Your Life Completely Ruined by Flappy Bird.”

All of which had millions of people asking the same question: Why, if the game was so awful, were so many people torturing themselves with it?

Sundry answers have been proposed. Some insist that it was in fact one massive, societywide in-joke. The gaming site Kotaku wrote it off as a senseless fad, like Beanie Babies. The Independent wondered if it was actually art. For others, the game’s popularity could only be a sign that humanity had lost its grip on technology at last. Flappy Bird, wrote Cnet’s Nick Statt, was “the embodiment of our descent into madness.”

The most virtuosic attempt to reconcile the game’s apparent terribleness with its rampant popularity came from video-game theorist and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost. Writing in the Atlantic, Bogost situated Flappy Bird in the context of the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. Flappy Bird, he postulated, is “a condition of the universe”:

condition in the sense of a circumstance, but also in the sense of a blight, a sickness, a stain we cannot scrub out but may in time be willing to accept. A stain like our own miserable, tiny existences as players, which we nevertheless believe are more fundamental than the existence of bird flapping games or machine screws or the cold fog rising against the melting snow in the morning. Because the game cares so little for your experience of it, you find yourself ever more devoted to it. 

Bogost’s meditation on the game’s existential absurdity contains nuggets of insight, as do the more prosaic explanations above. The game’s popularity was jokey, it was a fad, it can be viewed as art, and part of its appeal did stem from its meaninglessness. But none of these explanations can fully satisfy, because they all begin from the same mistaken premise: that Flappy Bird is a bad game.

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