It’s now been a week since Flappy Birds, the infuriating iOS game, was taken down from the app store, and I’m still waiting to find out what it was a stunt for.
For those unfamiliar, the game requires users to navigate a yellow, beaked blob with an insipid expression past a series of Super Mario World-esque green pipes. Keep going until you snuff it, then either stop or have a shot at beating your score. So far, so derivative.
Flappy Birds is different because of its maddening difficulty level. A generation of gamers used to being spoonfed their points, coins or lives have been driven insane by the bird’s insistence on flying to its doom. As a result, the game’s creator, Vietnamese designer Dong Nguyen, took the game off sale, saying he could not handle the impact it was having on users.
And there it should have ended. But it hasn’t. Phones and tablets with the game on were last week drawing offers of over £100,000 on Ebay. A group of developers launched the collaborative project “Flappy Jam”, which invites contributors to make their own variations on the game. On Thursday, one furious fan actually petitioned the US President begging him to intervene and bring the game back.
There are two possibilities here. The first is that this Nguyen had hit on a compelling formula; a true cultural meme. Writing on Techcrunch, the entrepreneur Nir Eyal argues that, like hypersuccessful TV show Breaking Bad, Flappy Birds spoke to our innate need to see problems solved.
Call me cynical, but I’m sure there’s more to it – tiny clues here point to some PR trickery behind the Flappy Birds phenomenon. The game sat around largely unnoticed from May 2013, before seeing a sudden spike in popularity at the end of 2013/beginning of 2014. Online marketer Carter Thomas pointed out that several of Nguyen’s games experienced similar spikes. Thomas concludes that someone used bots to boost the game’s success. Nguyen has not denied this charge.
If we assume there was some techno-trickery going on, we are then left with a problem: how to explain the game’s afterlife in the media and on Ebay? Could it be that someone is continuing to seed the meme? Will Flappy Birds 2 hit stores for twice the price? Or is it the most ingenious consumer product launch of the decade, a viral tool to prepare the market for an energy drink or pungent deodorant? Only time will tell.