In case you have been on vacation in Tristan da Cunha for the last few weeks, let me tell you about Flappy Bird. Flappy Bird is a “game” that involves flying a bird between a series of pipes that rise from the ground and hang from the sky like heavily pixelated green stalagmites and stalactites. “Playing” the game consists of tapping the screen to make the bird briefly rise. You tap, the bird rises, then it falls, and you tap again. And again, and again and again and again, until you fail to tap at the right moment and the bird strikes the hanging pipe, the rising pipe, or the ground, at which point it promptly dies a rather dramatic death, perhaps as the result of an acute pipe allergy. That is the entirety of the game.
It’s not only the gameplay that is sparse. Flappy Bird’s graphics are so rudimentary that they can be likened to either a preschooler’s rendering of a bird, or to a juvenile metaphor for oral sex, depending on how you look at them. The pipes themselves so blatantly rip off Mario Brothers that there has been talk of Nintendo suing.
Until this past Saturday, Flappy Bird was the number one free app on both the Apple and Google app stores.
My own experience with the game was brief. It had been available since May, but I hadn’t heard of it until two weeks ago, when my teenage son asked me if he could download it to my phone. I said sure, he did, and I forgot about it until Tuesday of last week. Then I noticed its icon on my phone and decided to give it a go. It took me several tries to get through the first pipe, and after 20 minutes or so, my high score was three. Three pipes. It took me 20 minutes to get through three pipes. It then took all of my restraint to keep myself from throwing my phone at a real bird.
I was so frustrated at that point, in fact, that I began scouring the internet for tips on how to get that damned bird between those damned pipes. I quickly realized that I was not alone. The learning curve for this game is notoriously steep, it turns out, and many people have spent many hours of frustrated tapping just to get to double digits.
The internet was filled with various theories about how best to play: use your thumb! No, use your index finger! Hold your phone/tablet with both hands! No, put it on a hard surface! I became as overwhelmed with other people’s frustration and indecision as I was with the pipes, so I put the game away.
Then I came back to it last Friday. Within a few minutes had a high score in the 50s, and a few minutes after that I had topped 100. My secret? I didn’t pay any attention to the game whatsoever. I played while I was talking on the phone or thinking about work, and I didn’t even realize how high my scores were until I ran into a pipe and killed the bird. After a score of 103, I stopped playing altogether.
You see, what I had learned not from the internet but by not trying to learn anything at all, was that Flappy Bird is only a game in a figurative, and even then inaccurate sense. Games are meant to be played, and with Flappy Bird, you have to not play it to do well. I generally play games to stop doing other things, and to stop thinking about other things — I play to do nothing but play. With Flappy Bird, however, the only way to succeed is to do and think about anything but the game. If you are succeeding, you’re not playing, you’re reacting instinctively while you go about life. Speaking literally, then, it is an un-game, and I have no use for it.
I bring it up now only because the most interesting thing about the game is what happened to it on Saturday, one day after my successful four day Flappy Bird career had come to an end. With only a few ambiguous tweets as warning, the game’s creator, a 29-year old man in Vietnam who says he wrote the code for it in one evening after work, and who reports that he was making $50,000 a day with in-game advertising, took the game off of the app stores, seemingly for good. No one is quite sure why. His own explanations were cryptic: he first talked about unspecified difficulties it had created for him, and then said that people were playing it too much. He hasn’t said a whole lot since.
As soon as people began to realize that the game was no longer available a sort of panic ensued. On Monday, several tablets and smartphones with Flappy Bird installed were listed on eBay and bidders went crazy (and had a little fun, presumably). An iPad with the game bid up to $99,999, at which point eBay took it and all the other Flappy Bird auctions down, citing their requirement that devices be sold with factory settings only.
Since Saturday, knock offs have been popping up by the dozen, and countless articles have been written about the game, its creator, and its sudden demise. People have speculated that the rumored Nintendo lawsuit was to blame, or that its creator lacked the infrastructure to handle all of the attention, money, and requests that come with a wildly popular mobile game. Others just think he’s a weird dude who does weird things like create weird un-games that are can only be un-played. Figuring out what happened seems to be as difficult as getting past the first few pipes while actually trying.
My own theory is quite simple, however: the only appropriate thing for an un-game to do is un-exist, so that’s what it did. What I find confusing is the fact that it allowed itself to exist at all in the first place.