What’s the Flap over the Flappy Bird App?

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What can a deceptively simple mobile phone game tell us about individual liberty and social responsibility?

If the Internet has a rags-to-riches story, it goes something like this: a lone genius whips up something in his garage that goes on to sell millions of units and make millions of dollars. Lately that “something” has been mobile phone games. While the mobile phone landscape is littered with apps that people either hate or ignore outright, a few rise to Internet stardom and are beset with sequels and imitators all vying for attention. You probably know their names: Candy Crush, Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and Words with Friends, just to name a few.

Enter independent game developer Dong Nguyen. By his own account, he never aimed for global stardom, but built a simple game that asked players to guide the eponymous, cartoony Flappy Bird though a series of gates. Players earn exactly one point per gate cleared — nothing more. Calling the graphics minimalistic may be overstating the case. Simple or rough may be closer to the mark. The game borrows heavily from Nintendo’s Mario Brothers look-and-feel. There are no bonuses or power ups or (thank goodness) pay-to-win features included in Flappy Bird. On first examination, there seems little reason to expect Flappy Bird to take off.

But take off is exactly what Flappy Bird did. Released as a free application in January of 2013, it rose into the mobile app stratosphere with over 50 million downloads. At one point, Nguyen was raking in $50,000 daily on a program he snapped together in a scant few days. Flappy Bird players started sounding off on how they were affected, and sometimes afflicted, by the game. The millions of dedicated Flappy Bird players spoke of their obsession to best their previous high score and the lengths they would go to achieve it.

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Flappy Bird had achieved what other mobile gaming titans crave: a game that sucks players in and keeps them playing round after round, day after day. Top mobile games are addictive. Maybe that word isn’t being used in its true clinical sense. Perhaps people aren’t addicted to mobile games in exactly the same way they’re addicted to alcohol or cocaine, but if not, it’s painfully close. Mobile gaming is most like gambling addiction. While both lack a physical incursion into users’ brains, both gambling and mobile games have the potential to engage a healthy brain’s reward system again and again until behavior becomes irrational and ultimately harmful.

Here’s where the usual mobile apps rags-to-riches story takes a strange twist. With Flappy Bird going gangbusters, Dong Nguyen announced by tweet that he would pull Flappy Bird from the App Store. “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.”

What, exactly, couldn’t Nguyen take? Clearly having a killer app garners a lot of attention, not all of it positive. Nguyen was also accused of plagiarizing and using fake accounts to make his game look more popular that it actually was. But here’s Nguyen’s own explanation as given to Forbes: “Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed, [b]ut it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”

Was Nguyen right in pulling Flappy Bird? Making a game that’s so fun to play it’s addictive is the holy grail of the mobile game marketplace. So why is he stopping? I think the question hinges on who is responsible for addictive behavior. In the West, and most profoundly in the United States, responsibility for nearly all behavior, including addiction, is personal. The argument goes that freedom includes the liberty to make bad and even self-destructive choices. Eminent American author Robert Frost himself is quoted as saying “I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way.”

The principle of personal freedom and personal responsibility is built on the assumption that individuals, by and large, know what is good for them. Across all contexts, this premise is largely true, otherwise human beings would have gone extinct long ago. However, there are dark corners of experience where many people become demonstrably irrational, addiction being a cardinal example.

If people are mostly rational, except for some special circumstances, what do we say to the people who make money in these pockets of irrationality? “Caveat Emptor”: let the buyer beware? If it’s known something is addictive, and people choose to use it anyway, who’s at fault for the resulting addictions? For a long time, the answer has been “the individual.” But that’s not the answer that Nguyen came to. Nguyen believed that he was in part responsible for the furor over Flappy Birds, and he decided, against his personal benefit, to stop it. Given that a flock of Flappy Bird clones have already emerged, it’s unlikely that his unorthodox choice will make much of a difference, but Nguyen’s stand could represent the best possible compromise between unfettered liberty to self-destruct and moralistic busybodies forcing us to act against our wishes for their vision of “our own good.” If we recognize when we exert influence on others, even without intending to do so, then we have the choice to steer people away from irrational and self-destructive behaviors, just as Nguyen did.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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