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In Defense of Flappy Bird

Gaming culture's unduly harsh treatment of mega-simple megahit Flappy Bird hints at larger problems within our community.

Over the past week I've heard more than one person here at the USC School if Interactive Media ruthlessly bash Flappy Bird, only to turn around and admit that they've never actually played it. It's stuff like this that makes me hesitant to go into the games industry. Our culture blows, you guys.

It seems unlikely to me that Dong Nguyen pulled Flappy Bird due to legal reasons—if he had just replaced the Mario pipe art assets with literally any other image, he would be under no legal pressure whatsoever. Dong Nguyen quit game design for the same reason that Phil Fish did—because our culture blows, you guys! Make one wrong move in the gaming sphere and the masses will rise up in opposition. They'll hurl hateful, hurtful words at you, threaten your life. Nguyen half-jokingly tweeted that he gets a "few hundred" death threats a day. Kotaku published a particularly vitriolic article about the game before they backpedaled and apologized when they realized they were attacking an actual human being who just wanted to make a fun game about a flappy bird. The list goes on. Gaming culture should be embarrassed.

Flappy Bird is not a work of genius, but any game designer who tells you it isn't fun is lying through their teeth. The game is practically a mini-masterpiece of minimalist game balance. Play any of the countless Flappy knock-offs that get the balance wrong for proof. This one for example. Flappy Bird is only so popular because it is well-designed, its scant few game variables precisely tuned. This is pared-down, no-frills game design at its most direct. Its success may be an accident, but it is no coincidence.

Who the hell cares that Mr. Nguyen borrowed some pipe art assets he likely found on the web? The guy knew he didn't know how to make art. When I first started writing fiction, I borrowed the style and aesthetic of the writers I admired. If the entire internet had filled my inbox with death threats after I wrote my first short story, all my literary dreams would be crushed, along with my soul and faith in humanity. Flappy Bird is not the first game to mimic Mario's art style, and it mimics its gameplay style much less than other Mario-inspired fare like say, Sonic the Hedgehog.

Why do people hate Flappy Bird? Because it's successful, and it's not the kind of game they personally enjoy playing. It is inconceivable to them that different people can have different tastes. That different kinds of game design can have merit. Our culture is one of insecure and immature internet bullies who revel in collectively bashing anything they don't like. What does it matter to you that a game you don't enjoy is popular? How does that affect your life in the slightest? Why does that cause you to go around spreading negativity in the world? If you think Flappy Bird does not exemplify what you think game design can be, why don't you go design your own game that does?

It's not Flappy Bird that has me all riled up. It's booth babes at E3. It's Dick Wolves t-shirts. I'm making some logical leaps here, but it's the crippling lack of compassion, understanding, love and social intelligence in gaming culture that irks me. This coming from a guy who delights in the gleeful anarchy of Grand Theft Auto—I don't think GTA is any more harmful to society than say, Quentin Tarantino, whom I also admire. But doesn't gaming have enough Quentin Tarantinos and Michael Bays? Where's gaming's Ingmar Bergman, its PT Anderson, its Terrence Malick? I'm certainly not suggesting Dong Nguyen is any of these, I'm just trying to figure out what makes gaming culture so virulently negative. Is it something inherent in the gaming medium that encourages this ridiculous behavior? How can we change it? Can we change it?

I don't know. All I do know is that I'm going to keep playing Flappy Bird until my phone updates itself and I lose it.

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