Media Analysis

Virtual vices

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Come on, just one round won’t hurt. You deserve a break for working so hard. Besides, you need to beat your high score. Just get that stupid bird to fly as far as you can without hitting the pipes.

Obeying this inner monologue has led many people to lose countless hours of sleep and productivity over the simple yet frustratingly difficult Flappy Bird. The Android and Apple iOS game skyrocketed to popularity months after its release in May 2013; its developer, Dong Nguyen, was estimated to be earning $50,000 a day in ad revenue. Despite this, however, he took the app down earlier this month.

In a Forbes interview, Nguyen reveals that he had intended for the game to be played in a relaxed manner. However, he felt so guilty over it morphing into “an addictive product” that he couldn’t sleep well anymore.

Similarly, while we never intend for it to happen, there often comes a time where we are unable to detach ourselves from our phones and tablets. These games may require incredibly little thought yet they exert more influence on us than we think. From Space Invaders to Flappy Bird, there is more to the addictive game than meets the eye.

Plugged in

Many of today’s simple yet addictive games owe their success to the classic arcade game Space Invaders. “[It] was one of the first games that people loved to play over and over again,” recalls computer science lecturer Walfrido Diy.

Released by Japanese video game publisher Taito in 1978, its premise was simple: Players had to defeat increasingly agile waves of aliens using a laser cannon to earn the highest score possible. According to a 2005 article by Giles Richards in The Guardian, it became so popular that the Japanese mint was forced to press more ¥100 coins to keep up with the players’ demand.

For Sam Anderson of The New York Times, Nintendo paved the way for the popularity of handheld gaming devices with the release of the Game Boy in 1989. It was a total game changer, liberating gamers from the arcades by allowing them to play whenever and wherever they wanted.

Each Game Boy unit was initially sold with a cartridge of Tetris, which Anderson describes as “a repetitive, story-less puzzle that could be picked up, with no loss of potency, at any moment, in any situation.”

Surprisingly, this description still applies to games like Bejeweled and Fruit Ninja, all of which were invented more than 30 years later. If anything, our obsession with these kinds of games has intensified; in 2010, Angry Birds creator Peter Vesterbacka revealed that players worldwide spend 1.2 billion hours a year on Angry Birds.

Game design 101

Over the years, game developers have perfected the art of motivating us to keep playing by experimenting with different variables.

“Simplicity is still king,” Diy says on the subject of game mechanics, a crucial factor in the decision to stick to a game. However, game designers also increase the complexity of the game incrementally to keep us engaged.

Take the example of the endless running game Temple Run: While the swiping and tilting controls remain the same all throughout, the turns become sharper as the game progresses, making it more difficult to stay alive.

For Diy, “a well-designed rewards system can keep people playing a game for a very long time.” Games like Candy Crush Saga and Plants vs. Zombies keep us hooked with a seemingly infinite loop of new levels, goals and power-ups. While these intangible prizes are worthless in the real world, we still feel a sense of accomplishment in unlocking them because of the time and effort we put in.

Meanwhile, games like Neopets, Snoopy’s Street Fair and FarmVille become a part of our routines by requiring us to maintain the well being of our pets, property and crops. The concept of avoidance is also involved here, as we continue to play to prevent losing things we’ve worked hard to gain or win.

According to psychology lecturer Pochi Velasquez, the competitive aspect of these games reinforces these habits. “It’s both an achievement and a challenge when one posts, or even if you just ask a friend what level or what his or her top score is. It’s like saying, ‘Come at me, beat my score,’” he explains. “And people rise up to the challenge.”

The bigger picture

Interestingly, games echo the cultures they are created in. In his 2012 article on the history of hyper addictive games, Anderson cites Twister as an expression of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Tetris was also noteworthy in how it encapsulated the way people felt about communism—its villain was a “faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you.”

Similarly, the games we have today reflect the ubiquitous nature of touch screen technology in today’s society. In fact, this innovation has made gaming more accessible for both casual gamers and amateur game developers.

Although this growth may seem good for the industry, Diy believes that the ease of creation and distribution of games will lead to rampant cloning among less ethical companies. The 15 seconds of fame that games like Flappy Bird bask in can also foster a lack of originality among game developers as they sacrifice quality to sell as many games as possible.

These games have not only triggered changes in the video game industry but also in our everyday interactions. Velasquez shares that although their simplicity makes them easy to play even while talking or eating, we cannot sustain this level of multitasking.

“The brain’s working memory can only handle so much, and so we end up not processing all the information,” he says. “You get half-baked interactions with people, or see people not talking anymore, or at least, talking after finishing a level.”

While these games can improve brain function and hand-eye coordination, these benefits come at a much larger social cost. Velasquez believes that our preference for games that require a very short attention span is telling of a society that places a premium on speed and efficiency. “Even our leisure activities, such as games, share the same characteristics.”

Eyes on the prize

The demise of Flappy Bird has by no means ended the public’s obsession over it. On eBay, hundreds of devices installed with the app are being sold for up to £150,000. Meanwhile, a man in the United States is reportedly renting out his iPhone to Flappy Bird addicts for $1 per minute.

There are also dozens of Flappy Bird knock-offs attempting to replicate the success of the original. Some versions are funnier than others, such as Flying Cyrus, which features a tongue-wagging Miley Cyrus evading sledgehammers and wrecking balls.

While this phenomenon is good for a laugh or two, it also foreshadows the future of the video game industry. For better or worse, the addictive nature of these games ensures that people will always have a reason to keep on playing; their appearance will change over the years but their underlying mechanics will remain the same.

Its influence on our behavior cannot be discounted as well. “We play them incidentally, ambivalently, compulsively, almost accidentally,” writes Anderson. “They’re less an activity in our day than a blank space in our day; less a pursuit than a distraction from other pursuits.”

Our fast-paced world has trained us to think and act at the speed of light, even in our spare time. If we aren’t mindful, we may find ourselves becoming increasingly disconnected from reality.

Games of ages

By Kian L. Paras

Donkey Kong, 1981

This arcade game involves guiding a character across several platforms while getting through obstacles, making it one of the early examples of the platform genre of video games. The character’s name was later on renamed Mario, the eponymous character from the Mario game franchise.

Tetris, 1984

The name “Tetris” was born from creator Alexey Pajitnov’s love for tennis and the Greek numerical prefix “tetra,” as each piece has four segments. The game has been present in various mediums, the most recent being in the form of the game “Tetris Battle” on Facebook.

Pokémon, 1996

The Japanese video game developer Game Freak started off the game franchise with the Red and Blue versions. Today, Pokémon is the second most lucrative video game franchise, trailing only behind the Mario series.

Guitar Hero, 2005

This game initially involved emulating cover-versions of songs using a guitar-shaped game controller. The later games featured master recordings of the songs. The success that the video game developing company Harmonix had with Guitar Hero led to another popular franchise, Rock Band.

Flappy Bird, 2013

The highly popular Flappy Bird was created by Nguyen Ha Dong and published by Gears Studios. Its creator took down the game on February 2014 because of the guilt he felt over the game’s addictive nature. Before the game was brought down, though, it was raking in $50,000 a day from advertising.

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