The maddening pull of ‘Flappy Bird’

Flappy Bird is simple and maddening. (Image Credit: DotGears via CNN.com)

Flappy Bird is simple and maddening. (Image Credit: DotGears via CNN.com)

(CNN) – A tiny bird is frustrating game players in record numbers, again.

This time it’s “Flappy Bird,” a no-frills smartphone game that has become the most downloaded free iPhone and Android app in the past week. The game’s fluttering rise to the top has been a viral mystery. Its addictiveness and absurd level of difficulty have driven many to the brink of madness and spawned a number of online rants and hysterical reviews.

The game’s concept is simple. You are steering a bird, a wide-eyed, 8-bit yellow bird with no tail and some serious navigational issues.

There is only one goal. Tap the screen to make Flappy fly and navigate it safely through an obstacle course of metal pipes. Cruise through a narrow gap between pipes to get a single point. Touch a pipe, however, and the little bird dies, seemingly by electrocution (there’s a loud zap), nose-diving from the pale blue sky to the ground.

“Flappy Bird” seems so easy, so completely inane that you are instantly angered by how difficult it is to keep the creature alive. Obviously you must keep playing until you get at least one point. Then, intoxicated by your hard-earned victory, you continue playing.

It’s all tappity tap tap, death, anger and repeat until you notice an hour has passed, and you’ve only managed to get a high score of 3 points. You are a smart, successful human with a college degree and a job, and you can’t stop steering a bird through a little virtual maze in the hopes of a double-digit score.

Side effects of playing too much “Flappy Bird” include soreness of the tapping finger, anxiety, guilt, waves of anger and even existential crises.

“There is little else as substantive and convincing as ‘Flappy Bird’ that the smartphone era has driven us to the cliff of insanity when it comes to compulsive behavior, contracting attention spans, and a desire to succeed at something arbitrary and meaningless,” says CNET’s Nick Statt in an article titled “Flappy Bird is the embodiment of our descent into madness.”

Over at Forbes, Paul Tassi wonders, “What does that say about society as a whole? Have we reached a level of boredom bordering on dangerous if we’re spending our time en masse on something so pointless?”

“Flappy Bird is a condition of the universe,” says writer and game designer Ian Bogost in a 2,800-word article for The Atlantic. “A condition in the sense of a circumstance, but also in the sense of a blight, a sickness, a stain we cannot scrub out but may in time be willing to accept. A stain like our own miserable, tiny existences as players, which we nevertheless believe are more fundamental than the existence of bird flapping games or machine screws or the cold fog rising against the melting snow in the morning,”

Wow. So much angst from one little app.

“Flappy Bird” was created by Dong Nguyen, a Vietnamese developer with a studio called DotGears. He did not reply to a request for an interview and has stayed mostly quiet in the wake of the game’s recent and sudden success.

Nguyen did give an interview in January to Chocolate Lap Apps, saying that Western mobile games are unnecessarily complicated and that he wanted to make something simple.

Even though smartphones have elevated mobile gaming with rich graphics and intricately designed apps, the platform has a history of simple, addictive games becoming incredibly popular. Witness “Bejeweled,” “Candy Crush” and even the early iPhone hit “Paper Toss.” “Flappy Bird” is just the latest in a string of smartphone games starring avians, though it makes “Angry Birds” look like “World of Warcraft.”

One of the great mysteries of “Flappy Bird” is why it suddenly shot to the top of the most downloaded charts. It was originally released for the iPhone in May but didn’t become the top free iPhone app until mid-January, following a surge in popularity that seems to have kicked off in early December.

Nguyen told Chocolate Lab Apps he created the game in two to three days and says he did not promote the app in any way after its release.

There are some unproven theories floating around about the game’s sudden success, including the use of bots to get it on Top 10 lists artificially, organic enthusiasm on social media and a surge in amusing user reviews in the Apple App and Google Play stores. “Flappy Bird” currently has an average four-star rating from more than 543,000 reviews in the Apple App Store and 228,000 on Android.

Many of the reviews are lengthy, tongue-in-cheek tales of time lost, marriages ended and lives ruined by playing the game. Android users report wanting to destroy their phones in frustration by throwing them off bridges, tossing them into the blades of a helicopter or running over them with 18-wheel Mack trucks.

Reviewers curse the game and warn others not to follow them down the dark hole of “Flappy Bird.”

“My family called an exorcist to try and remove this devil game but flappy bird had already firmly gripped my soul,” said iOS user Ahhccwat.

“My boss fired me. My kids stopped talking to me. When my husband would text me, it would ruin my game. I blocked his number and rented out a hotel room. I am still in this hotel room today,” reads part of a tragic App Store tale from Bella102349.

Meanwhile, the unlikely success of “Flappy Bird” has inspired serious analysis from developers interested in replicating its inexplicable hold over casual gamers. Is it the bird? The high difficulty level? The temporary respite from all but the most basic brain activity?

“It consumes your every thought process and desire. You know you can do better so you keep playing and keep playing,” says Lyvia Haley in an Android review. She gave “Flappy Bird” five stars and is presumably still playing it right now.

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