By Chek Tien Tan, University of Technology, Sydney
The deceptively simple mobile game app Flappy Bird enjoyed immense popularity when it was launched last year, before being taken down in February by its Vietnam-based creator Dong Nguyen, who said it was “too addictive”.
While I do not disregard the many non-game factors that influenced the game’s initial success, such as the App Store’s ranking system, I’d argue there might be particular factors relating to Flappy Bird’s game design that resulted in its acclaim.
Getting your flow on
In case you haven’t had the chance to play it yet, Flappy Bird is a touch-based game that has extremely simple game mechanics and aesthetics. Its gameplay revolves around a single mechanic of tapping on the screen to flap a bird avatar to keep it in the air and fly through openings structured with pipes without hitting them. Passing each pair of pipes gets you one point.
In game design, and especially in academia, the concept of flow is a popular theory, established by Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, used to describe optimal gameplay experiences.
Flow represents a mental state in which a person becomes so engrossed in a certain activity that enjoyment comes intrinsically from the process of doing that activity.
Video games are often built with the goal of providing a positive experience so that playing them becomes intrinsically rewarding, which is basically synonymous with the flow experience. Csikszentmihalyi explains the flow experience consists of the following eight dimensions:
- Clear goals: an objective is distinctly defined with immediate feedback – you know instantly how well you’re doing.
- The opportunities for acting decisively are relatively high and matched by your perceived ability to act.
- Action and awareness merge; one-pointedness of mind.
- Concentration on the task at hand; irrelevant stimuli disappear from consciousness; worries and concerns are temporarily suspended.
- A sense of potential control.
- Loss of self-consciousness, transcendence of ego boundaries, a sense of growth and being part of some greater entity.
- Altered sense of time, which usually seems to pass faster.
- Experience becomes “autotelic”: if several of the previous conditions are present, what you do becomes autotelic, or worth doing for its own sake.
Based on an autoethnography (see below) describing my personal experience of playing Flappy Bird, the game provides me with an experience that ticks the eight checkboxes above. This table summarises my experiences connected to the eight flow dimensions:
Csikszentmihalyi’s research tells us the central precondition to achieve flow is a perceived fit between challenge and skill (dimension 2). The other seven dimensions will basically follow if challenge and skill is perfectly balanced.
In other words, you can get into the flow state when both the challenge posed and the skill required is higher than average (see graph diagram below).
Flappy Bird facilitates this precondition in a non-obvious manner, where only those who can get over the initial learning phase will be able to experience it.
This is considered “good” game design practice as it allows players to slowly train in the skills required to play the game while becomingly increasingly more challenged, by which time they’ll hopefully reach the flow state.
Flappy Bird is different.
From the outset, the player faces a very high level of challenge, the hope being that the player will self-train their skills to match the challenge.
Based on the graph diagram above, this means the player will start off feeling anxious or frustrated, then aroused as they perceive their skill almost matches the challenge, and finally experience flow when they eventually match.
So perhaps Flappy Bird’s success is not as surprising or outrageous as some have made it out to be. Whether intentional or not, that deceptively simple flap mechanic might actually facilitate a well-established psychological theory.
Chek Tien Tan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.