The Flappy Bird saga, or: why some people shouldn’t make games

I was originally going to let all the flap about Flappy Bird sail right over my head and into wherever this stuff goes in cyberspace when it’s done being popular. I am, after all, someone who is very un-picky about exactly which games I play, leaning towards GPL software instead of the latest shrink-wrapped XBox One, PS4, or Wii titles. I thought this didn’t really concern me, but then I read Dwight Silverman’s post to TechBlog about Flappy Bird.

For some reason when I was about to read this, I had thoughts of recent articles about “rape culture” in my head. I had just finished watching a video about a human trafficking problem in Europe.

And then it all made sense.

I’m saying this as someone who never played Flappy Bird (and probably will never get a chance to thanks to Mr. Nguyen’s selfish actions).

This is why I’m leery about depending on mobile phone apps:

[Flappy Bird creator Dong] Nguyen said the main reasons for pulling the game were guilt due to its addictive quality, and the fact that the attention has made his life more complicated[…]

Games are supposed to make people happy. To Mr. Nguyen, making Flappy Bird wasn’t about making people happy. No, Flappy Bird, in the end, wasn’t really the game itself, but a piece on Mr. Nguyen’s game board. A piece due to the design of today’s mobile devices, he could choose to take off the board at his own whim. It’s about control, about the opportunity to impose his own morals on those who partook of the game for whatever reason.

Indeed, I think Mr. Nguyen is exactly the kind of person Richard Stallman is warning us about when he refers to the emotional argument in his essay “Why Software Should Be Free”:

The emotional argument goes like this: “I put my sweat, my heart, my soul into this program. It comes from me, it’s mine!”

This argument does not require serious refutation. The feeling of attachment is one that programmers can cultivate when it suits them; it is not inevitable. Consider, for example, how willingly the same programmers usually sign over all rights to a large corporation for a salary; the emotional attachment mysteriously vanishes. By contrast, consider the great artists and artisans of medieval times, who didn’t even sign their names to their work. To them, the name of the artist was not important. What mattered was that the work was done—and the purpose it would serve. This view prevailed for hundreds of years.

(Richard goes on in his essay to mention the economic argument, which I don’t think applies here, as Mr. Nguyen deleted Flappy Bird in spite of it making him a relatively obscene amount of money.)

What if Mr. Nguyen were an arcade game programmer in the late 1970s or early 1980s? It would be as if, say, Taito could have decided those who haven’t yet played one game of Space Invaders at a given point in time could never do so for their entire lives in light of a shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan. (Set aside for the moment the shortage didn’t actually happen, because it easily could have if Space Invaders was as popular in 1978 and 1979 as Flappy Bird, or even something like Angry Birds, is today.) Or if Atari decided something similar for Pong or Asteroids during those crazes. You get the idea.

And the probable result? There would be an outrage. The video game scene succeeded and became what it was, and rebounded as quickly as it did from the 1983 crash, because the companies knew their role. Once an arcade game was sold, it was sold and there was little the companies could really do regarding how many people got to play them.

So, based on what I have read, and as an electronic game player and historian with over 30 years of experience, it is my expert opinion that Mr. Nguyen has no business making games and for him to do so is a detriment to the entire gaming community. It isn’t proper in the least for any game designer to impose their own morals or value judgments over the players of their games. Nobody else has tried to get away with this, and for good reason. Mr. Nguyen clearly doesn’t give a shit about the gaming community. It is most unfortunate indeed that Apple and Google (and, I would assume should he make Windows Phone games, Microsoft as well) will keep letting him sell games in their respective online stores in spite of this, but again, they don’t have to give a shit either, they get their cut of the revenue.

The personality of Mr. Nguyen and the personality of the average rapist are one and the same. Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about control. Control over a rape victim, control over a Flappy Birds player… one and the same. If you really love a game you’ve made, set it free (GPL).