Flappy Bird’s swift nosedive serves to illustrate the dangers of participatory online culture

Flappy Bird

All of Leigh Alexander’s columns can be found here. Illustration by Marsh Davies.

There has to have been a time when I didn’t feel like I lived in public, but I just can’t remember it. I don’t mean only about my work (anyone who thinks writing about games isn’t subject to much scrutiny has probably forgotten how many comments on game articles they themselves have left), I mean just as a person who uses the Internet and social media, where the din of a collective conversation is constantly roaring.

In January, I published an eBook called Breathing Machine, a memoir of my first days online and how it always felt like I was one of a small clutch of people stumbling through the mysterious digital cracks of the visible world, there to find weirdness and adventure. Now the Internet is the visible world’s primary frontier. We’re all Googleable, and all of these things with our real names attached are there forever. You think you can evade the many-eyed gaze of the Twitter collective, but someone will find you. Someone will tell everyone who and where you are.

I often feel like game culture has a special dependency on online conversation, even relative to this ‘new normal’. At least, that’s the only theory I have about why colleagues and I often have more Twitter followers than some cult celebrities and TV journalists I idolised growing up. Mostly, this is a good thing – our medium is about interaction, action, reaction, and participatory culture is a boon to the world of play, to its very nature.

I think people who play videogames are more intelligent and more sensitive than people who don’t. I mean, I might be biased, so let’s round out the generalisations: I also think people who play videogames are more childlike, demanding and consumptive than people who don’t. To me, that means the natural downsides of broad online interaction are emphasised, just as a pebble tossed in a lake makes big waves. That a small event – a thoughtless comment, a tiny game release, say – can provoke such a tidal wave of reply, of urgent, emotional (or hateful) reply, seems destructive to us as players. ‘Everyone gets to be heard’ is a lovely idea, but becomes destructive when we forget we’re one of tens, sometimes thousands of people who suddenly want to talk to the same person.

Flappy Bird’s brief spell as the internet’s most talked-about videogame tells us plenty about the perils of online discourse.

Flappy Bird was a small, free mobile game with simple, masochistic game mechanics and a borrowed (to put it very generously) retro aesthetic. In other words, it ticked every box on the entry form for indie game success. And it was a success, earning some $50,000 a day in ad revenue and endless viral publicity. Twitter users wanted to chat about the game’s brutality, its sheer absurdity, its supposed awfulness, and more and more players wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

But the story of Flappy Bird became a sad one: its creator, Dong Nguyen, decided to take it down from the App Store after a short life on the market. “I cannot take this any more,” he wrote on Twitter. He also tweeted: “I can call Flappy Bird is [sic] a success of mine. But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it.”

Even positive attention can be very overwhelming for people who aren’t prepared to imagine that a small action – releasing a simple game, one of the uncountable App Store hordes – just might consign them to scrutiny en masse. But Nguyen paid a particularly high price for becoming an overnight sensation: the press billed him as a ripoff artist. Even more unfortunately, resentful developers were quick to try to ostracise the Vietnamese developer as an outsider. They seemed to ‘other’ him as one of the evil clone engineers who threatened their supposedly automatically legitimate western development community.

For a few days, Flappy Bird was a prime-time debating point. Everyone wanted their chance to be heard. Some saw it as a moral issue on which they had to take a side. Some thought it was an investigative opportunity to dig into Nguyen’s life, there to find out whether to support or discredit him. Others saw it as a great big raucous laugh.

Most Twitter debates are disposable forgotten quickly, but not if you’re the one being talked about.

But probably most people wrote a tweet or two about Flappy Bird and forgot about it. The impact of a tidal wave might be determined by its extremes, but its volume is quantified by all of the noise in between. It was too much for Nguyen.

I think it’s a terrible thing that happened to him. You might not agree. The fact that game developers are closer to their audiences than ever now has created innumerable opportunities for market disruption – they can develop and iterate in public with the contributions of the very players they want to address. They can fund nontraditional projects. They can access tools and forums and create and self-publish any game they like.

But in the Flappy Bird episode, I see an unfortunate example of how, thanks to the noise of social media, participatory culture online may not always be good for games – not unquestionably, not without caveats. The game industry can benefit from its relationship with crowds, but we can no longer presume naïvely to rely always on crowd ‘wisdom’. Nguyen might, like any game maker, have wished for success. But he didn’t ask for this.