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When Dong Nguyen released Flappy Bird on the Apple app store back in May 2013, he didn’t bother to promote it. Flappy Bird was the latest in a series of small, unassuming games released under the radar by Nguyen. He was making games, it seems, for the sake of it. Unlike so many other app developers, Nguyen had little desire to make a fortune out of his work. As he told The Wall Street Journal, “I just wanted to create a game that people could enjoy for a few minutes.”

In January, the game’s popularity snowballed. A seemingly arbitrary and unseen series of factors caused the game to rest solidly at the top of the app store. When I played it, I found it hard to believe that anyone could enjoy the game any way other than ironically. After all, the game’s art was unimaginatively ripped from Mario Brothers, and the game’s core mechanic—tapping to flap the bird’s wings and guide him through a series of pipes—felt like juggling heavy sandbags in a small tunnel: unnatural, constricting, and punishing. But Flappy Bird‘s simplicity and popularity conspired to create a phenomenon. Then came the obsession.

Suddenly, it felt like everyone was trying the game and comparing scores. Few seemed to play for reasons other than beating their previous scores. The focus for many became scarily pragmatic. Rather than enjoying the experience of playing the game, people suffered through the game in order to achieve an arbitrary goal.

From Diversion to Obsession

Video game obsession is not a new phenomenon. People have been talking warily about video game addiction ever since Atari introduced Pong into households. But that obsession has been, until recently, relegated to those who call themselves “gamers.” It was an inherent danger that those of us who love playing video games could actively acknowledge and consciously avoid. With the advent of mobile app stores, now anyone with a few spare moments can cross that line from momentary diversion to obsession before he or she even realizes it.

Nguyen, who lives in Vietnam, may not have been familiar with this developing phenomenon. If anything, he didn’t seek to take advantage of it like other mobile games have. Games like Candy Crush Saga, Farmville, and others aim to encourage and exploit video game obsession, rather than discourage it.

We would do well to remember this inherent danger when deciding what games we spend time playing. Like any other medium, games can appeal to both our sinful tendencies and at the same time our appreciation for goodness, truth, and beauty. It’s up to us to think deeply about the how we spend time. Far too often, we can get caught up in playing a game merely because we feel compelled to do so. Too often, we interpret that compulsion as a sign that a game is “good.” Whether one plays games casually or more seriously the “addictive” nature of a game should be seen as a drawback, not a selling point.

Nguyen showed incredible restraint in this regard even in the design stage, before he realized the true psychological power of his game. The game lacks any ability to pay for extra costumes for the titular flappy bird, or to buy credits for extra lives, or to purchase any extra content of any kind. He merely embedded extremely small ads that display unobtrusively before and after a game to help support his game development hobby.

Of course, that support became a windfall as his game saw mainstream success. At its peak, Flappy Bird earned him $50,000 a day in ad revenue. A smart businessman would have looked for ways to maximize those profits, updating the game with in-app purchases and extra opportunities to show ads. But Nguyen continued to show restraint, not just in the game’s design, but in his relationship with his consumer. Rather than seek ways to exploit this obsession, he withdrew from it.

Telling The Wall Street Journal, “It was just too addictive,” Nguyen took the game down.

Consumers are dying to know what Nguyen was trying to accomplish when he created the game. Did he not desire a financial windfall? Didn’t he want success? Didn’t he want to live off this game for the rest of his life?

But a creator pulling his own wildly successful game from the store raises a whole series of different questions. Why are so many people obsessed with something so small and seemingly inconsequential? And is a game’s greatness measured by the amount of obsession it inspires?

Whether We Eat or Drink or Play

Christians who spend their time playing games, even casually, have a responsibility to do so to the glory of God. This pursuit doesn’t mean that every spare moment spent relaxing or unwinding should be justified or baptized, but it does mean that we should be wary of using games as mere “time wasters.” Games, books, films, and television shows resonate with us for various reasons. They can be deep, transformative, educational, empathy-inspiring, or even simple and joyful diversions. But they can also be fundamentally violent, destructive, isolating, addictive experiences.

The creator and the consumer assume their own respective responsibilities: the creator must choose not to exploit their audience, and the audience should be sober-minded in their approach to media, remaining vigilant against the many ways sin shows itself in our cultural consumption.

Nguyen had low expectations when he made his creation available for the public. He didn’t anticipate the audience he would receive. But his experience serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who creates for a seemingly small but nonetheless public audience. Every game, film, song, article, Facebook post, and tweet has the potential to affect a limitless range and depth of people. Everything we create and put out into the world has an opportunity to go viral. That’s the good news. The bad news? We can’t always control the reasons why.

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