Sunday, February 9, 2014

An alternate history of Flappy Bird: "we must cultivate our garden."

As a pseudo-academic in games, I worry a lot about what will "make it" into "the history" of video games and what will be deemed culturally significant enough to study.

The latest spectacle with the game "Flappy Bird" will either be (a) universally forgotten by next week, or (b) it will be the peculiar subject of some student's thesis paper, or (c) it will live as a game culture touchstone that gets invoked frequently for the next few years. Even though it's least likely, I'm writing this post for case B: it may be a somewhat obscure thing that gamers discuss once a year, or that games academia instructors will mention casually to their students, and maybe the students will dutifully google it and wonder what happened Back Then...

Now, because I can't tolerate the idea of Kotaku's misleading titling or Eurogamer's barely-researched and contentless coverage (among many others) of Flappy Bird, marching unopposed into the chronicle of internet history -- I hope this blog post gets indexed and listed on the 3rd or 4th page of "flappy bird game history" search results or something. If you're writing a game studies paper on this, maybe put this paragraph under a patronizing header like, "Other Perspectives?", or at least give me a footnote and imply you read this. Thanks.

If you're reading this in 2015 and no one remembers what Flappy Bird was, then I want to emphasize one thing:

In February 2014, there was not much controversy for many game developers, especially indie game developers -- the internet was harassing Dong Nguyen for making a game, which is unacceptable. Many people do not support how Nguyen has been treated, and have said so. It is always important to remember resistance to a mob.

This harassment was also completely baseless, because (a) the game is rather well-made, if you like these sorts of insta-death reflex games, (b) Flappy Bird lets you restart quickly, which is usually a huge monetization point -- why would a supposedly-greedy mobile game developer monetize their game so inefficiently?, (c) if you look at the actual pixels, Nguyen clearly did not rip any art, and who cares if he wanted to put green pipes in his game?

And this harassment was clearly affecting Nguyen on a severe emotional level:

Indie developer Mike Bithell wrote a Tumblr post, "On Success," in indirect reference to Nguyen's probable emotional state in the face of all this harassment. Sudden success makes one feel like an imposter who does not deserve that success -- and confronting an internet gamer mob probably amplifies that imposter syndrome to unbearable levels.

Indie developer Sophie Houlden also spoke for many game developers when she tweeted:

(The "Candy" reference refers to the game developer King trying to trademark any use of the words "Candy" and/or "Saga" in any games, which happened a few weeks ago, and it was widely criticized by press and developers. Indie devs even protested with #candyjam, a game jam intended precisely to make more games with those words in their titles.)

Here, Houlden points out the hypocrisy involved in wanting to protect one random game motif over another. The difference is simply a popularity contest. Because Nguyen isn't a popular established developer, he's probably primed to lose that contest. The popular reaction to Flappy Bird (accusing it of being terrible and awful and deceitful and thieving) was not only irrational and mean-spirited, but also hypocritical.

However, it is not inexplicable. Indie developer (and, disclosure -- my work colleague) Bennett Foddy tweeted something that got me thinking:

I won't speak for Bennett, but I think he's implying what I'm going to say here: the internet hate toward Nguyen was, or is, partly racist / first-world biased.

Conceptually, the game resembles an undergraduate game dev student's class project, though the execution is actually very tightly tuned and well-made. I suspect that if Nguyen were a white American, this would've been the story of a scrappy indie who managed to best Zynga with his loving homage to Nintendo's apparent patent on green pixel pipes and the classic "helicopter cave" game genre.

Instead, Dong Nguyen committed the crime of being from Vietnam, where Electronic Arts or Valve or Nintendo do not have a development office. The reasoning is that no one "outside of games" can become so successful, except through deceit. The derivative nature of Flappy Bird's assets and mechanics was taken as confirmation that technologically-backward Southeast Asians were "at it again" -- stealing and cloning hard-won "innovation in games" invented by more-beloved developers.

This confirmation bias completely overpowered any rationality. Kotaku even compared screenshots of the pipe sprites, pixel by pixel, and it is clear that they are NOT ripped from a Mario game -- but even with the lack of evidence, they still concluded that Nguyen must've ripped them anyway, somehow? (They've changed the headline since then, with a fake half-apology that didn't really admit fault... but only after the damage to Nguyen's reputation was already done. Great reporting there, Kotaku.)

What is more likely:

(a) some guy has a secret huge App Store bot empire, and he's faking an emotional breakdown on Twitter as a publicity stunt for deceiving everyone with a less-then-optimally monetized game that ripped an EASILY REDRAWN PIXEL-ART GREEN PIPE SPRITE FROM A MARIO GAME

(b) ... OR the internet is full of terrible people who jump to conclusions and crush dreams?

For many indie game developers, Nguyen reminds us a lot of ourselves. What would happen if we were financially successful? If success is somewhat out of our control, how (or WHY) should we be blamed for it? Why do we have to work so hard to maintain our image and reputation, why can't we just make the games we want to make?

An indie game developer's only solace? Look toward Nguyen's most recent tweet:

By the end of Voltaire's famous 1759 novel Candide, the cast of characters have fruitlessly tried to maintain naive optimism through numerous beatings, hardships, and disasters. How can you keep doing what you do, when the world just so thoroughly fucks you over? The character Pangloss suggests that this living hell is still "the best of all possible worlds" -- and the disillusioned Candide responds -- that sounds great and all, but right now "we must cultivate our garden."

I imagine that's how Nguyen's feeling about now: cultivate your garden, keep working, make games. It's all any of us can do.

Or, you know, maybe I've been totally fooled and everything is a hoax and Nguyen is laughing on his platinum throne made of skulls cast from melted-down bitcoins. I guess that's easier to believe than the possibility that you were complicit in trying to destroy a person?