The Death of Creativity in Games: The Flappy Bird debacle

Although I never got the chance to play Flappy Bird before it was pulled from app stores by developer Nguyen Ha Dong, it’s been a bit difficult to avoid the furore that erupted in the aftermath its removal. For those of you not in the know, Flappy Bird is a hit app that was downloaded over 50 million times and was well known as being both very simple and extremely challenging. It also had a rather interesting resemblance to a certain Nintendo game featuring pipe-diving plumbers. According to the Nguyen legal difficulties were not the reason for Flappy Bird’s removal, but that he pulled it because of the addictive nature of the game.  Regardless of the reason, the result was an outpouring of abuse and vitriol, including horrific death threats to Nguyen.

This is not even close to the first time that a business or creative decision by a developer has led to death threats to his family and person. While it’s usually a minority of gamers that engage in this kind of behaviour, it’s also a very vocal minority that undoubtedly makes the rest of us slightly more well balanced gamers look bad. And beyond that, it’s simply unacceptable that people spew this kind of hatred and abuse at anyone. If you threatened someone like that in real life, you’d be arrested. Of course, the people who say stuff like this on the internet are usually the same kinds of people who wouldn’t have the cojones to confront someone in real life. They’re sad people who take playing games way too seriously, possibly because they’re very young, mentally unstable or don’t have much else going on in their lives. It’s easy to say that it’s not our problem, because we’re not the ones making death threats or harassing people online. The truth is that it affects all of us, not just in terms of our collective image as gamers, because it’s killing the creativity of the very people who make the games we love.

It’s undeniably a very serious problem. There’s certainly no shortage of evidence on this point. Flappy Birds was only the most recent case. Other well known cases of gamers turning on developers include the time A Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 developer received an avalanche of abuse after they made a few slight changes to certain weapons, including reduced damage on the AN-94. Many gamers reacted by telling him to kill himself by fire, or cancer or whatever other sick things people could come up with. The same thing happened to Phil Fish, which led to him cancelling FEZ II and leaving the industry altogether. Admittedly he may not have handled the situation as well as he could have done, but there’s truly no excuse. And these high profile cases of people leaving the industry because of abuse or going public with the threats they received are just the tip of the iceberg. That’s just what we know of. It’s a well known, but not oft talked about fact of the industry that there are many people who have left because the abuse and pressure became too much, which to be honest I think is totally fair. I mean is a developer pulling his own app from stores really proportionate to people threatening to kill him and sending him pictures of a woman with a gun in her mouth?

More insidiously, the abuse that follows any perceived minor infraction on the part of the developer can have no other consequence than to make people less willing to take risk and to be as creative as they want to be, because of the pressure of pleasing an audience that will never be satisfied. It’s funny because the fact that devs are taking less risks and putting out sequel after sequel is often treated as if it’s just their problem, but it’s not. It’s our problem too, because the kind of pressure we put on devs is incredibly intense and it often seems like people are never content matter what they do. Of course all art is subjective and there will always be naysayers, but normally when people read a book they don’t like the natural response is not to flood the author’s inbox with claims that they’re going to kill him/her and his/her whole family.

It may feel like we’re powerless, but I don’t think we are. Like I said, I think the people who are often most abusive are actually in the minority. A lot of us just want to play games, but it’s not that simple because we’re being cheated of quality games because of that minority. I don’t have some cure-all formula or way of dealing with trolls. I’m not a psychologist and I’ve been guilty of letting this slide for too long as well. It’s easy to ignore someone being homophobic or abusive, because you’ve literally heard it a thousand times, but I think it’s important to indicate that you’re not going to accept it, even that just means muting them and not engaging with them any further. Will this just lead to feeding the trolls? Possibly. I certainly don’t advocate getting involved in arguing with trolls on the internet – you’ll never win. But sitting back and just letting stuff slide isn’t changing anything either.

More importantly and what I think will make more of a difference than dealing with idiots directly is to create an atmosphere of positivity. I’d suggest letting devs know when you like their game, not just when there’s something you don’t like. It really does mean a lot to them. In fact from what I’ve heard personally, it’s often what makes the whole thing worth it. With social media, it’s easy these days for things to get blown out of proportion very quickly and it’s easy to get dragged along. There’s nothing wrong with not liking a game or even for thinking it’s a pile of shit, but it’s not reasonable to go on a 10 page rant about how it sucks balls and personally attacking the people who made it. The gaming community can sometimes feel really toxic, even though it can also be wonderful. I think it’s important not add to the negativity, even if it feels like you’re just one person and what you say won’t have an effect.

We all have a personal responsibility and that extends to how we treat others. Even if you don’t personally harass people, how well you deal with people who do can make a difference too and potentially add to the negativity. No matter how innocent your intention, you could just end up fuelling the fire by getting involved in unnecessary arguments with trolls. Yelling at people for having opinions isn’t helpful if they’re not trying to be assholes and if they are, it definitely won’t help. Being disrespectful to trolls is almost as bad as what they’re doing. You don’t need to sink to their level.

Basically, be positive! I’ve met an amazing group of bloggers and been involved in some truly amazing supportive communities and I wish more people could experience that. In fact, I think if you’ve ever wanted to start your own blog or network, do it! You never know who will read your words and be affected by them. All I’m advocating is more awareness, about what you say and how you react to what others say. We might not be able to turn the tide without drastic intervention, but it’s worth trying for an industry we love this much right?

It’s also something that game companies themselves need to work on. I understand the need for free speech and it doesn’t look good when you censor people too much, but at the same time it’s necessary for the good of the community. It’s one of the reasons I never really got into games like League of Legends. It’s not that I wouldn’t be able to take it, but my time is precious and I don’t like spending time in overly toxic environments. I think the less you give people like that a platform and the more you send the message that abusive hateful behaviour will not be tolerated, the more attitudes will change over time. In fact I think they’re changing already. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed a trend in the last couple of years towards greater inclusiveness and tolerance in the dreaded Youtube comments section. It’s still flooded with jackasses of course, but it gives me hope each time I see a stupid comment being flooded with responses about how ridiculous or offensive their comment was. True, many of them aren’t that nice, but at least people seem to care. And I’ve noticed that once one person says something, others will often follow. There is strength in numbers. It might not make a difference, but it’s out there for people to see at least.

I don’t have some magic solution to solve this problem, which seems pretty deep-seated. I just think that trying to promote positivity, rather than simply complaining about the negativity is a more useful tack, as well as increased involvement from devs and publishers. And cheer up! The industry’s still young. Who knows how things will develop in the future?

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2 responses to “The Death of Creativity in Games: The Flappy Bird debacle

  1. Well said. 🙂 Have you seen Patrick Klepek’s TEDxTalk about responding to internet trolls? I found it very moving and I feel like it’s in line with a lot of what you’ve said here. (As are many of his Giant Bomb articles) I can link it if you’d like.

    Also, as someone who played League of Legends for close to two years–it has one of the most toxic communities I’ve ever had the misfortune of discovering. Great game, but you missed absolutely nothing in regards to their players. I also feel like there’s a lot of “Monkey see, monkey do” when it comes to toxic online behavior. If you play a game and all your friends yell and say horrible things but it’s all one big joke, you attempt to bond with that group of friends by doing the same thing. I know I picked up a ton of nasty verbal habits by playing games like League. (Such as using the phrase “bitch” every five seconds, for almost very situation) Same thing happens on Twitter. You get used to saying something and getting a laugh (or a sympathetic reaction) from your peers, and whatever it is you just said suddenly becomes your ticket into a group you want to be part of. It can be incredibly difficult to change that.

  2. Fantastic post, very well said and thank you (see I’m getting the message here about being nice and positive feedback 😛 ). It’s all too easy when someone has done something that’s seen as wrong for the backlash to run way out of control and proportion. And it’s not just the gaming community by any means, for example the tabloid press here in the UK are notorious for being massive bullies. Even though the responsibility should lie with the individuals who go too far, there also needs to be attention paid to the culture of their environment, without necessarily blaming an entire community or group of people for one person or a minority’s actions.

    “Internet justice” for instance is an idea I think that helps push individuals to the limits of acceptability and beyond in an effort for recognition, to fit in etc. There’s a strong group mentality and feelings of entitlement that override social boundaries – like you said, would those individuals threatening the maker of Flappy Birds feel able to do that to his face? I’m sure they wouldn’t, because their “friends” aren’t there to give that person their sense of justice.

    Anyway apologies for the rant. There is a need to be positive… but I guess I am a bit of a pessimist.

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