Posted by drmarkgriffiths
The following blog is an expanded version of an article that first appeared in Nottingham Trent University’s Expert Opinion column
A few weeks ago I was introduced to the game Flappy Bird by my kids while celebrating the 80th birthday of their grandma. Within an hour, everyone – from the toddlers to the octogenarians – was playing it. Flappy Bird is another one of those free games that is very hard to put down once you start playing it. The game’s premise is so simple, almost banal – just keeping a bird flying by tapping one finger on the touch screen of a phone or tablet and guiding the bird between a series of pipes with gaps. For each gap in a pipe that the bird flies through, the player gets one point. Hitting or touching a pipe – or touching the ground – and it’s game over. Embarrassingly, I have yet to get into double figures. As one media commentator noted, it’s a game you love to hate – but end up just loving it!
Do a quick Google search on Flappy Bird and the one phrase that keeps coming up is that the game is “infuriatingly addictive” – and I couldn’t agree more. As soon as the game is over, the only way I can dissipate the feeling of frustration, annoyance, and anger of not doing very well is to play again immediately. For those that do well, they immediately want to play again to beat their high score. As one reviewer of the game noted:
“I was perusing the App Store, as one often does, when I noticed a new title sitting at the top of the free app chart. I decided to download it and take it for a spin as, if it is the most popular free app at the moment, it must at least be worth a look. From that point forward, that title – Flappy Bird – irritated the hell out of me and I couldn’t stop playing it…So, why can’t I stop playing? I’m actually not entirely sure myself. Maybe it’s that the game is incredibly easy to pick up and play. The one-finger gameplay is easy to grasp immediately but Flappy Bird is ridiculously difficult from the get go. Making it through a few sets of pipes feels like a humongous achievement as crashing is so much easier – it’s almost as if the game starts off at the highest difficulty level and just remains that way rather than gradually becoming more challenging. After a few hours playing Flappy Bird a double-digit score would probably be all you could expect. Then there is the ease in which you can start the next game immediately after failing your last effort. As soon as one game ends you can be into the next one in seconds making for an incredibly addictive experience. Each attempt is frustrating and you think you can do better next time, or at least prove that you’re not an idiot incapable of simply guiding a bird past some pipes… Despite all of its obvious and irritating flaws, Flappy Bird remains incredibly addictive and is certainly worth taking a few minutes to check out (although that few minutes may well turn into a few hours). I found that playing it was fun as well as frustrating and, if I’m being totally honest, the game fulfils its own mission entirely. It’s a simple arcade game but unique in its incredible difficulty, just as the developer’s clearly intended.
Earlier this month, the game’s creator, Dong Nguyen, withdrew Flappy Bird from online app stores – even though he was earning over 50,000 a day via in-app advertising revenue. He was quoted as saying:
“Flappy Bird was designed to play in a few minutes when you are relaxed. But it happened to become an addictive product. I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”
As someone that has spent over 25 years researching into video game play, Flappy Bird is the latest in a long line of fun and deceptively simple games that someone can end up playing for hours on end. The game is gender-neutral and has a ‘moreish’ quality (a bit like chocolate in that it’s really hard just to eat one piece) and can fit in flexibly around what individuals do in their day-to-day life. Most simple games like Flappy Bird take up all the player’s cognitive ability because anyone playing on it has to totally concentrate on it. By being totally absorbed players can forget about everything else for a few minutes. This can be particularly appealing for players that want to use games as a way of temporarily forgetting about everything else that’s going on in their lives. One video game review I came across said:
“Flappy Bird is the latest weirdly addicting game to captivate mobile users. The reason is simple, if not straightforward. In the guise of a cartoonish time-waster, Flappy Bird offers some of the most punishing, hardcore gameplay you can imagine. And it’s sucking in players by the millions”.
Psychologically, casual games like Flappy Bird rely on both positive and negative reinforcement over speedy gameplay. I have noted that many games played via social networking sites that ‘freemium’ games are psychological ‘foot-in-the-door‘ techniques that lead a small minority of people to pay for games and/or game accessories that they may never have originally planned to buy before playing the game (akin to ‘impulse buying’ in other commercial environments). I’ve also argued that many casual games share similarities with gambling. On first look, games like Flappy Bird may not seem to have much connection to gambling, but the psychology is very similar. Even when games do not involve money, they introduce players to the principles and excitement of gambling. Small unpredictable rewards lead to highly engaged, repetitive behaviour. In a minority, this may lead to addiction. Basically, people keep responding in the absence of reinforcement hoping that another reward is just around the corner (a psychological principle rooted in operant conditioning and called the partial reinforcement extinction effect – something that is used to great effect in both slot machines and most video games).
Physiologically, these games are likely to increase dopamine levels when people are doing well whereas and failure will most likely cause an increase in noradrenaline. The interaction of two competing neurotransmitter systems is likely to keep players engaged in the game for periods longer than they originally intended. In short, the games are ingeniously simple, highly enjoyable, and (as some players describe them) “emotionally intoxicating”. I’ve only ever come across a few people that I would define as genuinely addicted to these games but all the ingredients are there to make it theoretically possible for almost anyone to be psychologically seduced by such games.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online gambling, social responsibility and ‘foot-in-the-door techniques. i-Gaming Business, 62, 100-101.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.
Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The psychology of social gaming. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 26-27.
Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social gambling via Facebook: Further observations and concerns. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 104-106.
Hall, C. (2013). Just how addictive are mobile games? Yahoo! News, October 18. Located at: http://uk.news.yahoo.com/how-addictive-are-mobile-games–143654713.html#P1M3U7a
Lagorio-Chaflkin, C. (2013). Candy Crush Saga’s intoxicating secret source. Inc.com, July 25. Located at: http://www.inc.com/christine-lagorio/candy-crush-secret-sauce.html
Rose, M. (2013). Chasing the Whales: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games. Gamasutra, July 9. Located at: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/195806/chasing_the_whale_examining_the_.php?page=7
Posted in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Computer games, Cyberpsychology, Gambling, Games, Internet addiction, Obsession, Online addictions, Online gambling, Online gaming, Popular Culture, Psychology, Social Networking, Technological addiction, Video game addiction, Video games
Tags: Behavioural addiction, Flappy Bird, Foot-In-The-Door Techniques, Gambling-like experiences, Gaming addiction, Gaming psychology, Problematic social gaming, Social gaming, Social networking games, Video game playing