Few games are more well known today than “Flappy Bird”. It is famous for being incredibly difficult, using familiar graphics, being addicting, and for being removed from the app store in the peak of its success. These factors, among its interaction with the media has made “Flappy Bird” into a Popular Culture icon. Many game designers and critics, however, were baffled by “Flappy Bird’s” success as a video game as they saw a primitive mobile application lacking innovation and general polish. While these claims may be true, “Flappy Bird” still managed to become a major success because it functions the same way Popular Culture as a singular entity functions; “Flappy Bird” acts as a metaphor for Popular Culture, which is the reason for its massive success in that culture.
Popular culture, often referred to as just “Pop” Culture, is the mainstream culture of the digital world. Pop culture icons include musical artists like Katy Perry or One Direction, movie stars like Brad Pit, movie references like “Vote For Pedro” from “Napoleon Dynamite”, and games like “Angry Birds” and “Flappy Bird”. What all of these icons have in common is that they we do not need to experience their “art” in order to understand them; the vast majority of americans know who Katy Perry is, but a far fewer number of people have actually heard her music, at least on purpose. This is the same with the movie “Napoleon Dynamite”: I had heard and understood countless references from the film before I ever saw it. It had become a Pop Culture icon. This exemplifies one of the key characteristics of Pop Culture: it allows for people to “identify collectively” in recognition or opposition of an icon (Delaney, 2014). Flappy bird had this same effect on people through its sheer difficulty. Many people know the game without ever having played it, and everyone is united with being equally awful at the game, a game where having a high score of eleven pipes crossed is something to be proud of. This created a sort of “push and pull [in the game’s rise to fame]; the more we we hear about something, the more we tell others, and the chain continues” (Irwin, 2014).
Games are defined by what the player does in them. In the case of “Flappy Bird” the player simply taps the screen trying to make a bird with clearly inadequate wings fly through a series of Marioesque pipes. In summation, the player taps the screen repeatedly. Pop Culture is distinctive in that it “both reflects and influences people’s everyday li[ves]” (Delaney, 2014). It seems like as a society all we do now is tap screens, as reflected in Pop Culture by using a touch screen interface to sell any product on a commercial. In turn we are influenced by Pop Culture in that our taps now are leading to a simplification in everything thanks to technology. Everything is streamlined: our bills are payed with the tap of a screen or a single click and we no longer have to even type out phone numbers, but tap a single link. “Flappy Bird” acts as a metaphor for Pop Culture because its gameplay reflects both of these key pieces of Pop Culture. This is a game about tapping a screen, because as a society that is what we have become accustomed to do. It is also the single largest game mechanic, making the game quite simple, if only in theory. This use of minimal mechanics acts as a reflection of our everyday lives and how we interact with media; our lives have been simplified and streamlined almost to an excessive point and we like our media to work in the same fashion.
When we play “Flappy Bird” we never think about where that bird is going, but rather we are more concerned with just making it past the next pipe. This creates more of a feeling of constant change than movement in any one focused direction. As Brandon Keogh writes, “The Flappy Bird flaps frantically, never getting anywhere”, but the bird is always moving (Keogh, 2014). The same occurs with Pop Culture—it does not have any clear direction of where it is going, but it is always moving and changing all the same. One of the most prominent places we can see how quickly culture changes is in the mods and clones of our society’s games. In the case of “Flappy Bird” several clones were published to the app store when the game became a hit. The clones tended to be nearly identical to the game, only changing an image here or there or adjusting the physics of the game. Other clones made larger changes to the game, “FlapMMO” being one of the most famous (flapmmo.com). In “FlapMMO” we get to experience the joy that is “Flappy Bird”, but as a community where it becomes apparent just how hard this game is. Such spinoffs and clones are what are responsible for Pop Culture changing—they make a series of small changes with every iteration that pushes culture to evolve. Today we have “Flappy Bird”, but in a years time we might just have the next addictive hit thanks to the slow progress made by clones and spinoffs.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of Pop Culture is that it is “informed by the mass media” (Delaney, 2014). Media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and BuzzFeed shape how we interact and view the world. We look to these sources as a window into different types of media and what media we should be focusing our time on. We decided to focus our time on “Flappy Bird”. Jon Irwin from Killscreen, a popular video game magazine, wrote that “Flappy Bird” was the “Lowest Common Denominator and an incredibly specific experience: an exclusive club for everybody. And we all wanted to belong” (Irwin, 2014). Everyone did want to belong, and we wanted the world to know that they were part of that “exclusive club”, so they went to Twitter and Facebook to describe their experiences (Irwin, 2014). Joseph Bernstein, staff writer for BuzzFeed wrote to Irwin in an email that “people using Facebook and Twitter started talking about [the game] constantly, which caused the media itself to write about [it], which drives even more social media exposure, and so on. It's a powerful feedback loop” (as cited in Irwin, 2014). The players of “Flappy Bird” became famous for sending Twitter threats to the game’s creator, Dong Nguyen, and generally expressing their frustration with him for creating a game so infuriating. Of course, this only made “Flappy Bird” more popular. Once Nguyen decided to remove his game from the App Store he “received hatred and vile remarks for his decision” and many people who would have never downloaded the game in the first place picked up a copy before it was gone forever (Priestman, 2014). This is what happens in Pop Culture. We take something and elevate it, then just as quickly we tear it back down with criticism and harsh words.
One of the most significant issues people had with “Flappy Bird” is that it was not innovative enough. In online gaming culture it seems like “the most important thing a new game should do is ‘innovate,’ that it should do something completely new”, which is simply not the case with “Flappy Bird” (Keough, 2014). Every aspect of the game is essentially derivative. The art looks like it was pulled from a classic Mario title from the iconic green pixelated pipes to the scrolling background. The use of a bird at all in a mobile game feels like a nod to “Angry Birds”, while the issues of flying and negligible wing size suggest influences from “Tiny Wings”, another major bird related mobile title. The core object of the game is to fly for as long as possible without hitting the pipes or the ground. We control the bird only by making the wings flap so as to compensate for gravity. This is nearly identical to one of the classic helicopter games nearly everyone has played at one point or another. We get to fly a helicopter through a cave dodging floating blocks while only having control on upward thrust. All “Flappy Bird” has done is take the key elements of the most successful games and mash them into one. A more critical perspective is that “it is a pastiche of everything that is wrong and toxic about mobile games” (Keogh, 2014). Brenden Keogh, however, argues that “innovation is only important if a game is trying to be innovative” (Keogh, 2014). A game should be focused and accomplish what it sets out to do in terms of its mechanics and aesthetics. “Flappy Bird” does exactly what it set out to do by “so earnestly and transparently not trying to be innovative”—it intended to be derivative (Keogh, 2014). With so many games trying only to be innovative, few are focused enough in their mechanics to make an impact. Jesper Juul, a distinguished Ludologist, claims that “players know a breath of fresh air when they see it”, which is exactly what they found when playing “Flappy Bird” (Juul, 2014).
Much like “Flappy Bird”, Pop Culture in its essence is not an innovative thing; it features many examples of the exact same thing with subtle variations. Take the example of popular music. The vast majority of popular music or music featured on the radio is characterized as being electronic with predictable drops, repetitive nature, and a music video that is a little too desperate for attention. From this perspective, “Flappy Bird” is to games as “What Does The Fox Say?” is to popular music. Both became hits without doing anything truly innovative. In the case of the song, it is very repetitive in terms of lyrics and structure, and its music video is insane enough to fit in with the videos of other artists that have made it just as big. Pop Culture does not have to be innovative because its core icons in themselves are not innovative.
“Flappy Bird” became an instant success because in Pop Culture because of its similarity to that same culture. This allows for “Flappy Bird” to act as a metaphor for Pop Culture from its derivative artwork and gameplay, unifying difficulty, clone culture, constantly evolving nature, and influence with mass media. Roger Caillois wrote that “the destinies of cultures can be read in their games” (Caillois, 2006). As one of the most prominent games in our culture, “Flappy Bird” acts as a metaphor for the destiny of Pop Culture—a destiny not concerned with anything truly new or innovative, but rather media that is relatable and focused enough to do something well, even if it has been done one hundred times before. After all, “Flappy Bird” is not the greatest game ever, but it is a good game and our culture has prepared us for that.
Caillois, R. (2006). The definition of play and the classification of games. In The Game Design Reader (pp. 122-155). Cambridge, Boston: The MIT Press.
Delaney, T. (2014, November/December). Pop Culture: An Overview. Retrieved from https://philosophynow.org/issues/64/Pop_Culture_An_Overview
FlapMMO -- flapmmo.com [Computer software]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://flapmmo.com/
Irwin, J. (2014, April 24). Flappy Bird and the rise of the accidental social game. Retrieved from http://killscreendaily.com/articles/flappy-bird-and-rise-accidental-social-game/
Juul, J. (2014, February 10). The Ludologist. Retrieved from http://www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist/there-once-was-a-game-called-flappy-bird
Keogh, B. (2014, February 11). On Flappy Bird, games culture and the problem with ‘Innovation’. Retrieved from http://www.unwinnable.com/2014/02/11/flappy-bird/#.VIKiGKTF_bx
Priestman, C. (2014, October 2). Flappy Bird as mid-life crisis. Retrieved from http://killscreendaily.com/articles/flappy-bird-mid-life-crisis/