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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Angry Birds -- Why are We Addicted?

Posted By on Wed, Dec 29, 2010 at 12:05 AM

click to enlarge Once you pop, you can't stop...
  • Once you pop, you can't stop...

One projects a cartoonish bird into a rickety castle in order to destroy villainous green pigs. Somehow, that synopsis survived a pitch meeting -- and any subsequent analysis -- to become Angry Birds. And if you haven't heard of Angry Birds -- well, don't admit that to your adolescent children. Or your Ph.D-possessing wife. Or anyone glued to their damn cell phone, firing away bird after bird at those damn pigs, investing serious amounts of time -- and, perhaps, a little money, too. Angry Birds is just about the most successful videogame there is.

But why?

It's a good question. We asked a psychology professor and videogame designer in hopes of finding out.

The first thing you notice about Angry Birds is that the game is adorable. There are catapult games that involve crumbling castles crushing hapless serfs and loads of rocks, explosives, or even caustic acid landing upon the besieged. That does not make for universal appeal, however -- and Angry Birds charms even those who detest videogames.

"The things that are happening are all very innocuous and happy and friendly," notes Seppo Helava, the co-founder of Self Aware Games. "For a game called Angry Birds, the birds aren't all that angry."

click to enlarge Gangwaaaaay!
  • Gangwaaaaay!
Unlike, say, Farmville, Angry Birds, created by the Finnish firm Rovio, is not at all a bad game. Helava is impressed by the physics of the collapsing castles induced by the projected birds -- and notes that it's very easy to redo an errant shot. "You do something, you see what happens, and with no delay, you can try again. That keeps people playing. That lends to its addictiveness."

Probing deeper, however, the videogame designer notes that the repetitive motion of shooting the birds followed by the collapse of the piggies' castles is akin to pulling on the handle of a slot machine -- another notoriously addictive activity. "Whereas with the slot machines there's no pattern, in Angry Birds there is -- but it's very hard to figure out," says Helava. In order to solve that pattern, we are compelled to "pull the trigger over and over again." And, as he noted before, Angry Birds makes it exceedingly easy to do just that.

The addictiveness of Angry Birds' repetitions made sense to Mel Joseph Ciena. The University of San Francisco psychology professor is a developmental specialist. And he stresses that "repetitive actions are very important in anything we do.

"It's what makes a song a No. 1 hit. We always gravitate to the the familiar. And repetitive actions are something we start out with earlier in life. Anything that's repetitive is attractive to us almost from the time we're born. Certainly by six months."

Ciena does not count himself as an Angry Birds devotee, however. In fact, he claims to have never played a videogame -- and he's not much enamored with those who spend vast amounts of time doing so.

"It gives you the false impression you're competitive and achieving something, but, really, you're achieving at things that are relatively safe and anonymous," he says. "It becomes addictive because you get the false impression you are improving as a person. But you are improving at the wrong thing -- you're just becoming an expert at a frickin' game."

The professor notes that "people can convince each other something is fun and then they're part of the in-group when they play it." It's not likely the videogame-shunning prof and the videogame designer see totally eye-to-eye on this matter, but Helava does believe one of the big reasons Angry Birds is a big deal ... is because it's a big deal.

"A lot of its momentum is due to the fact it has momentum. It became self-sustaining," he says. "Once you know everyone is playing it, what's the investment for me to play it? Ninety-nine cents? Or you can play the free version and get quite a feel for it."

In any event, it certainly beats slot machines. Or Farmville.

Full disclosure: Seppo Helava is a longtime friend of the author. 

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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