Flappy Bird harnesses the limits of human application

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Over the weekend, the Vietnamese creator of Flappy Birds removed the app from the iTunes store to the dismay of the general public, epitomized in the modern day, by the general smart phone user with a particular affinity for mindless, aimless, time-wasting entertainment.

The app, which rose to worldwide fame and adoration during the last months of last year, peaked at an almost unprecedented level of popularity in mid-January, and was estimated to be making around $50,000 in ad revenue a day. Announcing its removal the creator used a range of superfluous hyperboles like “I cannot take this anymore” or “it has ruined my simple life.”

What continues to amuse and bemuse, however, is the sheer scope of the game’s popularity. Since its removal from the iTunes and Android store users have begun to sell handsets with the app installed on eBay. These currently number almost 10,000 sale-listings in some way related to Flappy Bird. Their price reaches the $10,000 to $50,000 bracket. Both Google Play and App Store have seen a surge in apps using the word Flappy seeking to steal some of the glory before it dwindles and burns out somewhere in the giga-distance with the remaining bytes of Angry Birds and Temple Run.

The app’s popularity may not be that difficult to decipher. In fact, it appears to be a symptom of a much wider syndrome of technological development and its immersion in modern society. Back when post-modernism was still in the grip of its own self-confidence, Baudrillard, in his ‘The Ecstasy of Communication’, declared the death of the intimate universe of the imaginary and the productive, with the birth of the television. He saw the 1980s as an era which killed the whole psychological dimension of interacting with the objects around us and projecting our fantasies of possession or loss, or jealousy on those objects. With the television, he morbidly concluded, we become passive sponges.

What Baudrillard could not have imagined, however, is the true extent of consumption which would be achieved by the smart phone app. In its transportable size, slick design and (now-assured) fashion value, the smart phone has distorted not only our private, but also our public interactions. The over-saturation of pressure, anxiety and a deadline-driven approach to both work and education makes time spent in transit or any form of waiting, time which is wasted.

Where, in Baudrillard’s romanticised view of it, staring into the distance and projecting our psychological passions onto the objects with which we interact would have done in the 80s, we now immediately turn to our phones. To escape from more work, anxiety and overtly optimistic ‘to-do-lists’ we turn to the world of apps.

It is here, however, that we must part ways with Baudrillard’s fatalism. It is true the escapism of smart phone entertainment demands simplicity. It is usually short term, no commitment, with little effort demanded. But Flappy Bird, Temple Run and Angry Birds epitomise something other than human desire to receive information, in some sponge-like manner. They demonstrate our inherent need to project in equal measure. The success of Flappy Bird therefore lies in the fact it is demanding of several of our senses. In this way it justifies sole consumption; not doing something else alongside. But it is also a very particular level of demand that must be perfected, before turning people away.

It must be a demand on our attention span or concentration, which allows for a lapse of focus. A universe where failure is regular and immanent, but also meaningless, makes the world of smart phone games a place where it is okay to slack, and not succeed. This is a refreshing change to student life or work, where lapses of focus are not allowed, where failure does not follow endless reincarnation and where the stakes are not the collection of some imaginary coin, or destruction of some bizarre looking construction via a catapulting bird-head.

The success of Flappy Bird therefore should not necessarily be condemned. Games of its kind work in a as therapeutic outlets of a social order which demands constant productivity and engagement. Flappy bird is selling wasting time under some façade of a goal or end of success. Rather than complain we should commend Flappy Bird and its kind for keeping us sane where idleness alone would not do.

PHOTO/Desiree Catani

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