Why Flappy Bird is so Addicting: The Flow Behind the Game

I have to begin this article with a disclaimer: I somewhat missed the Flappy Bird movement. I resisted the prodding of my friends to download it and only somewhat paid attention when they shoved their phones in my face to show me their new high score. In fact, I did not come around to it until it was removed from the app store. As a result, I have been borrowing an array of different Apple products from friends–really anyone I know the name of–to enable my new obsession. I have to keep a mental tab of my high scores and I may have ignored a couple texts and calls my friends received while I was in the midst of playing, but I am sure they understand.

Consequently, the simple, repetitive, pixilated game has taken off as it seems that everyone instantaneously came across the Holy Grail of mobile gaming. The game will join the ranks of Fruit Ninja, Temple Run and Angry Birds among other mobile games that have taken hold of popular culture overnight and provided everyone with instant challenge, accomplishment and satisfaction in the palm of their hands. But why are these games so riveting? Why are Facebook and Twitter plastered with reports of our latest high scores? And above all, why are they so addictive?

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Photo courtesy of Leslie Upp / Pinterest

The main answer to all of these questions is the psychological concept of Flow, attributed to the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970’s. Csikszentmihalyi initially studied this concept with artists who claimed to be caught up in and swept away by their work. They explained a kind of fluidity of motion, almost like being carried along by a current of water, and also noted the intense amount of focus they achieved. Through the 1990’s Csikszentmihalyi began to discover Flow in athletes and academics as well. “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost," Csikszentmihalyi explained in Wired magazine in 1996.

Csikszentmihalyi outlined the necessary conditions to achieve Flow: There must be a straightforward task with instant results; there must be a lack of distractions which either disrupt concentration or make you over-aware of your actions; and essential to any game or puzzle, there must be a clear balance between the difficulty and the skill involved.

“If you look at Flow, game designers want to get players into Flow, they want them to get into that state where they lose track of time,” said Curtiss Murphy, founder of GiGi games and author of Why Games Work and the Science of Learning. This is exactly what Flappy Bird is able to accomplish. It provides a balance between theoretical simplicity and executional difficulty. The task is simple enough to focus on in a matter of seconds, but carrying it out is surprisingly difficult.

Photo Courtesy of Carmel Small / Pinterest

Photo courtesy of Carmel Small / Pinterest

“If you look at a game like Flappy Bird, it's really interesting,” Murphy said in Nick Statt's article "Be one with Flappy Bird: The science of 'flow' in game design" “The task is clear, the feedback is immediate and clear; you mess up and die in three seconds. The rest is balance. In the end it created this conflict where you say, 'This should be very easy. I should be able to do this.' It's hard because it's so precise.”

Flappy Bird consists of tangible and straightforward goals for the player. The moment you fail you can almost instantly restart another game and keep going. You aim for the triumph and the satisfaction that accompany a new high score, but once you get there you instantly need to do better. When the game is able to capture your focus so much that you become unaware of your surroundings and lose a sense of time, you are experiencing the concept of Flow. Some have even reported having out-of-body experiences and feeling as if they are watching themselves play. While this may be a bit overly extreme, it is the mental escape from reality and difficulty tempered with instant gratification that makes the game so addicting.

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Unfortunately, this is the exact reason why the game is no longer available. In an interview with Forbes, Dong Nguyen, the creator of Flappy Bird explained, “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.”

However, if you are like me and got hooked on the game after it was no longer available, do not despair. Many Flappy Bird alternatives have begun to surface. Flappy Penguin, Flappy Plane and even Flappy Whale now ensure that I will no longer need to constantly borrow my friends’ phones. They also give me hope that I will soon successfully achieve an out-of-body experience in the midst of my flapping.

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