Originally published at The Atlantic


Games are grotesque.

I’m not talking about games like Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt, games whose subjects are moral turpitude, games that that ask players to murder, maim, or destroy. I mean games in general, the form we call “games.” Games are gross, revolting heaps of arbitrary anguish. Games are encounters with squalor. You don’t play a game to experience an idea so much as you do so in an attempt to get a broken machine to work again.

In this way, games are different from other media. Sure, a movie or a book or a painting can depict squalor, can attune us to the agony of misfortune. But unlike film and literature, games do not primarily depict human events and tell stories. And unlike sports, games do not primarily showcase physical prowess. We don’t watch or read games like we do cinema and novels and paintings, nor do we perform them like we might dance or football or Frisbee. Rather, we do something in-between with games. Yes, we “play” games like we do sports, and yes, games bear “meaning” as do the fine and plastic arts. But something else is at work in games. Games are devices we operate.

Sometimes that operation simulates piloting a mecha or a pro athlete or a space marine, but more frequently it entails more mundane activities: moving cards between stacks as in Klondike solitaire; swapping adjacent gems as in Bejeweled; directing a circular, discarnate maw as in Pac-Man. Some machinery is fantastic, but most is ordinary, forgettable, broken.

If you look past the familiar shimmer of Super Mario Bros. and Super Bowl Sunday, there in the middle you will find the unsung paragons of gaming: games like Chess and Go and Backgammon; Tic-Tac-Toe and Dots and Boxes and Crosswords; Monopoly and Candy Land and Sorry!. These are games that frustrate more than they titillate, because operating them involves minimal effort yet considerable misery. It’s not the misery of boredom or stupidity, but the misery of repetition. The misery of knowing what you want to accomplish but not being able to, whether thanks to the plodding pace of a child’s board game, or the bottomless strategic depth of a folk classic. Whereas football yields its beauty through the practiced triumph of the human body and will over circumstance, Sorry! delivers only the stupid, gratuitous anguish caused by our decision to play it in the first place.

Every now and then a game comes along that forces us to admit this inconvenient truth of games. Recently, we have been graced with such a one, a free mobile throwaway called Flappy Bird. The game was first released last summer, but as the year wound down it experienced an unexpected surge in popularity. By the start of 2014, the game had nested itself at the top of the Apple App Store free charts.

Flappy Bird is a stupid game. You control a bird so cute as to signal deformity. Tapping the screen causes the bird to flap, making it rise slightly before quickly falling. The game asks only that you pilot the bird through narrow passageways between two green, Super Mario-style pipes that issue from the top and bottom of the screen. A point is awarded for every pipe you pass. But touch anything and the cute bird tumbles beak-first into the ground: game over.

Game over in Flappy Bird

Flappy Bird is a perversely, oppressively difficult game. Scoring even a single point takes most players a considerable number of runs. After an hour, I’d managed a high score of two. Many, many hours of play later, my high score is 32, a feat that has earned me the game’s gold medal (whatever that means).

There is a tradition of such super-difficult games, sometimes called masocore among the videogame-savvy. Masocore games are normally characterized by trial-and-error gameplay, but split up into levels or areas to create a sense of overall progress. Commercial blockbusters like Mega Man inaugurated the category (even if the term “masocore” appeared long after Capcom first released that title in 1987), and more recent independent titles like I Wanna Be The Guy and Super Meat Boy have further explored the idea of intense difficulty as a primary aesthetic. Combined with repetition and progression, the intense difficulty of masocore games often produces a feeling of profound accomplishment, an underdog’s victory in the dorky medium of underdogs themselves, 2d platformer videogames.

Left: Mega Man (Capcom, 1987), Right: Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2008-2010)

Even though Flappy Bird borrows from the same platformer tradition, it’s no masocore game. For one part, masocore is more of an aesthetic community than it is a material aesthetic; like the poetry and painting that emerged from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, masocore games arise from a dedication to a particular kind of play experience, or perhaps even more so a disgust with the rise of facile, “everybody wins” casual games since the turn of the millennium.

But Flappy Bird is not difficult because it wants to oppose any regime in particular; a fact made flesh by its deployment on the mobile platforms that have only accelerated casual play. Flappy Bird is not difficult to challenge you, nor even to teach the institution of videogames a thing or two. Rather, Flappy Bird is difficult because that’s how it is. It is a game that is indifferent, like an iron gate rusted shut, like the ice that shuts down a city. It’s not hard for the sake of your experience; it’s just hard because that’s the way it is. Where masocore games want nothing more than to please their players with pain and humiliation (thus their appropriation of the term “masochism”), Flappy Bird just exists. It wants nothing and expects even less.

The game seems to have come from out of nowhere. It was created by a lone, 29 year-old Vietnamese developer named Dong Nguyen, who has mostly denied requests for press interviews after the explosive success of his game. Nguyen operates under the shingle .GEARS, which has released several other games with a similar avant-pixel aesthetic and simple gameplay. While tech press outlets accustomed to megalomaniac entrepreneurs motivated only by fame and wealth have reframed the creator’s timidity as “mystery,” Nguyen’s own words likely explain the situation more accurately: “The popularity could be my luck.”

Nguyen’s status as outsider artist may be the key to the game’s deftly indifferent design, even if it can’t explain its success. .GEARS’ earlier games are much rougher and less refined than Flappy Bird. In Shuriken Block, the player taps on the screen to deflect throwing stars that would otherwise lodge in the heads of a row of cute pixel samurai. A correct tap issued more quickly yields more points than one at the last minute. But an observant player can simply turn the game into a joke, tapping constantly at the top of the screen to achieve as high a score as patience affords. In Super Ball Juggling, the player taps the right and left sides of the screen to individually control two soccer players juggling balls that rise to different heights with each bounce. After a few singular practice juggles, balls appear simultaneously on both sides, and the player must struggle against the absence of a continuous rhythm to perform well at the game.

.GEARS games before Flappy Bird include Shuriken Block (left) and Super Ball Juggling (right)

But rather than improving upon these and other game design techniques, Flappy Bird actually regresses, offering fewer rather than more crutches for either novice or expert play. It even withdraws from the gentler onboarding of Super Ball Juggling. Contemporary design practice surely would recommend an “easy” first pipe sequence to get the player started, perhaps a few pipes positioned at the bird’s initial position, or with wider openings for easier passage. More difficult maneuvers, such as quick shifts from high to low pipe openings, would be reserved for later in the game, with difficulty ramping up as the player demonstrates increased expertise.

But Flappy Bird offers no such scaffolding. Instead, every pipe and every point is completely identical: randomly positioned but uniform in every other way. A game of Flappy Bird is a series of identical maneuvers, one after the other. All you have to do is keep responding to them, a task made possible by the game’s predictable and utterly reasonable interactions. Just keep flapping.

This indifference to player capacity and expectation makes Flappy Bird a particularly earnest device to operate. Many players have expressed astonishment and distress at their simultaneous hatred for and commitment to the game—“I Hate Flappy Bird, But I Can’t Stop Playing It”—essentially concluding that the game is just another “addictive” trifle, a curiosity that cannot be understood despite spilling ink in the effort. Meanwhile, the tech press continues its tendency to present business as aesthetics, limiting its coverage of Flappy Bird to the game’s viral success (it’s enjoying millions of daily downloads). It also explains the gold-rush insurgence of copycat games like Ironpants, which mistake Flappy Bird’s surprise success for a predictable design pattern rather than a confluence of accidents.

The Flappy Bird-alike, Ironpants, by Eduardas Klenauskis

In game design circles, we sometimes wax poetic about the elegance and simplicity of a design, the way complex emergent behaviors can arise from simple rules and structures. This is why game designers tend to love games like Go and Tetris—tiny flowers that betray their simplicity by divulging endless fractal blossoms.

But in fetishizing simplicity, we also mistake the elegance of design for beauty. For Go and Tetris are likewise ghastly, erupting stones and tetrominoes endlessly, failing to relent in their desire to overtake us. The games we find ourselves ever more devoted to are often also the ones that care very little for our experience of them. This is the devotion of material indifference. To understand Flappy Bird, we must accept the premise that games are squalid, rusty machinery we operate in spite of themselves. What we appreciate about Flappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

Let me explain what I mean. Yesterday I spent two hours attempting to fix a bathroom cabinet drawer pull that comes unattached on one side, hanging despondently at the bottom of the vanity. I detached the hardware and confirmed that the handle happily accepted the machine screw into its threads, but somehow the two weren’t meshing when set in the drawer front. I drilled to widen the hole through which the screw passed, noting that the screw seemed to require a precise orthogonal orientation in order to thread properly. I swapped both orientations and screws, thinking that I’d achieve a more accurate alignment. I deployed penlights and vice grips. My family began receding ever further into the house, aware of the dark shadow that grew from the bathroom, where an oiled bronze drawer pull siphoned out vitality from our residence and, perhaps, from the universe itself.

The author’s now-repaired bathroom cabinet drawer pull

A commitment to Flappy Bird is akin to the sensation after two hours splayed on the floor of your bathroom, when you still haven’t managed to reattach the cabinet pull that somehow won’t stay attached to the drawer, even though the hardware happily accepts the machine screw when you hold both pieces in your hand. Emergence is also chaos, and its charm is the beauty of a universe that could have been nothing, but turned out to be something instead. That something is both revolting and divine, and we cheat ourselves when we take the one alone without the other.

Compared to other games, Flappy Bird offers a more ardent take on unconcern. Instead of relying on the exploding permutational space of a few, easily memorizable gestures, it relies on the cold fury of sheer repetition instead. Like Candy Land, that scourge of preschools and pediatrician offices, Flappy Bird demands only that you do the same thing again and again, until something else interrupts you—and then it removes the only guarantee of interruption Candy Land affords, that of a certain victory and an excuse to put the game away.

And not for lack of other options, either. Flappy Bird is hardly a new design—it follows in the footsteps of a genre now known as the “endless runner,” named after the 2009 mobile hit Canabalt, in which players help a man outrun an unseen threat that destroys the city whose rooftops he traverses to escape. Canabalt begat similar titles, including the massive hit Temple Run, whose sequel was installed over 50 million times in two weeks.

Canabalt (Adam Saltsman / Semi-Secret Software, 2009)

The endless runner itself has a lineage, which Flappy Bird likewise spurns. Writing in The New Yorker last year, Simon Parkin traced the origins of the genre first to a frequently-recreated DOS game with a helicopter in an endless tunnel, and before that to a 1983 Commodore 64 game, B.C.’s Quest For Tires, based on the classic caveman comic strip by Johnny Hart. But even three decades ago, B.C.’s Quest For Tires offers more sophistication than Flappy Bird. The caveman on his stone unicycle must avoid multiple obstacles—jumping rocks, ducking under trees, avoiding rolling stones, and so forth—while enduring regular increases in the speed of progress.

Set in relief against its precursors, Flappy Bird seems positively minimalist. The zen garden school of design would encourage us to interpret this choice as more rather than less sophisticated: by removing all unnecessary elements, the purity of the endless runner is revealed. This sounds good on paper, but the experience of Flappy Bird betrays it. “Surely something else will happen?” asks the Flappy Bird player, over and over. But nothing ever does. This isn’t a surplus of design thanks to unadornment, but a brazen opposition to modernist elegance by means of the austere design that tradition holds so dear. This discomfort echoes all throughout the Flappy Bird experience. Is it just a bad minimalist runner, or is it purposely disparaging the genre it adopts?

The answer is neither: Flappy Bird is not amateurish nor sociopathic. Instead, it is something more unusual. It is earnest. It is exactly what it is, and it is unapologetic. Not even unapologetic—stoic, aloof. Impervious. Like a meteorite that crashed through a desert motel lobby, hot and small and unaware.

Playing Flappy Bird is like fixing an unfixable drawer pull, one that will never reattach correctly, one that you know will never do, but persisting in the face of such torpor nevertheless. Flappy Bird is a condition of the universe, even if it is one that didn’t exist until it was hand-crafted by a Vietnamese man who doesn’t want to talk about it. A 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.

We like to think of games as an entertainment medium on the move. As a contender to replace (or at least to match) the influence and appeal of literature, film, painting, dance, sculpture. As a way of presenting ideas and experiences through our most contemporary of vessels, the computer. We may often play games because they affect us, because they allow us to be someone fantastic and unassailable. But games are also ancient, and ancient things teach us humility. Just as often, we play games because they are there to be played. Because we want to feel what it’s like to play them. Because we are not clever or strong or fast, but because we can move stones on wooden boards or shift cards between virtual spaces on cardboard or tap a capacitive display to flap a tiny bird.

We play games because games are stupid, like drawer pulls are stupid. Flappy Bird is a game that accepts that it is stupid to be a game. It offers us an example of what it might feel like to conclude that this is enough. That it’s enough for games just to be crap in the universe, detritus that we encounter from time to time and that we might encounter as detritus rather than as meaning. That we might stop to manipulate them without motive or reason, like we might turn a smooth rock in our palms before tossing it back into the big ocean, which devours it. For no matter how stupid it is to be a game, it is no less stupid to be a man who plays one.

published February 15, 2014