There are no simple games: The Flappy Bird chronicles

A bird flaps its little wings through a maze of obstacles, guided by an iPhone user whose sole task is to tap the screen repeatedly to steer the bird clear of metal pipes lining its path. Sounds like a simple mobile app, right? Not exactly – and neither is the story behind it.

The app began with creator Dong Nguyen, a Vietnamese game designer, wanting to make something simple. Since simplicity was his goal, he kept the design simple too.

"I made the game alone so there is no team," Nguyen told Chocolate Lab Apps. "All the programming took around 2-3 days at best with all the tuning to make the gameplay feel right."

Those two or three days paid off in ways Nguyen could never have imagined. The game quickly shot to the top of Apple's free app charts. It was still sitting atop the list when Chocolate Lab Apps interviewed Nguyen. Yet as Nguyen was quick to point out, he'd done nothing to promote the game. There had been no advertising campaign, no popups on other apps. Only the little bird with its wings and no tail. Social media handled the rest.

What players soon discovered was that the game was hard. Really hard. The Atlantic's Ian Bogost called it "a perversely, oppressively difficult game." The problem was that it appeared, on the surface, to be so easy: simply use your thumbs to fly a bird through various barriers. Zero brain activity required. But that was the problem. If it was such an intellectually disengaged game, why was it also seemingly impossible to master? 

A league of (spiteful) players
Flappy Bird is the story of an app whose success relied almost entirely on the unadulterated hatred of the people who played it. "Flappy Bird is the embodiment of our descent into madness," CNET contributor Nick Statt titled his article about the app. For Statt, the game quickly became addictive – and also enraging. He got so immersed in playing that he forgot the stakes of the game. Of course, the stakes were that nothing was at stake at all. The prospect of success, the impetus to play again – all of it was an illusion, a false bastion of comfort in a mobile world without rewards.

The problem was not that people hated the game – it was that they began to hate themselves. And very quickly, the game became the unfortunate centerpiece in a national conversation about the problems with a population that turns to games to avoid facing the possibility of real failure in the world beyond our iPhone screen.

A conflicted developer who couldn't handle the hate
"I love making games because it is natural to me," Nguyen told Chocolate Lab Apps. But clearly he found nothing natural about the mass vitriol his game spawned, and soon the game developer became riddled with anxiety and guilty about the havoc his innocent game had wrought.

"I am sorry 'Flappy Bird' users," he Tweeted on Feb. 8, "22 hours from now, I will take 'Flappy Bird' down. I cannot take it anymore."

Nguyen made true on his promise, and within the day the game was gone. "It is not anything related to legal issues," he Tweeted. "I just cannot keep it anymore."

However, he followed that up with a hopeful note: "I still make games."

If Nguyen won't cash in, others will
$100,000 can buy a lot of things. Take a year off work. Finally get around to buying that Ferrari. Or go on eBay and buy an iPhone with Flappy Bird. That's right – in the wake of Flappy Bird's removal from the App Store, one user took to eBay to sell his phone with the game for roughly the price of your average condo, according to PCMag. The only thing more shocking is that people actually bid on it, with at least 74 registered bids placed when the article was published. Another phone with the game was reported to have fetched $90,200.

Seemingly the only person absent from the Flappy Bird chronicles is Nguyen, who gracefully recused himself with the promise that he will still make things, just not Flappy Bird. Meanwhile, his game has fallen off the map and into the darkest recesses of the cybersphere, a place where things are buried but never really disappear.

Marcelina Hardy

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