This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
There was a big flap last week over the game “Flappy Bird,” an iPhone and Android app that was pulled out of app stores by its Hanoi-based creator, Dong Nguyen.
It all started when Nguyen tweeted that, “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.” A couple of days. later, the 29 year-old followed up by removing it from the Apple and Android app stores
Flappy Bird was an incredibly popular game, reportedly having been downloaded more than 50 million times. The free game was supported by advertising and, before he announced he was pulling it, Nguyen told The Verge website that it was generating about $50,000 a day in advertising revenue.
The game, which is quite hard to play, involves trying to get the bird to fly between pipes. Every time I played it, the bird and pipes collided.
During the day or so between his announcement and pulling the game, there was lots of speculation about why Nguyen made this decision to jettison a popular and highly profitable product. Some called it a publicity stunt: others worried that maybe he was suffering from some mental illness. But last Monday, Nguyen told Forbes.com that he had removed the game because “it has become a problem.” He said that “it happened to become an addictive product.”
The Forbes interview left me with more questions than answers. It’s hard to believe that someone would pull such a popular and profitable product from the market just because some people may be using it in a compulsive manner. Could it be that Nguyen had ulterior motives?
He’s in Vietnam and I don’t have a way to contact him, so I can’t ask him directly. But we do know that Nguyen’s gotten an enormous amount of free publicity, not just about this game, but about his career as a game developer. This isn’t the only successful smartphone game he’s written. He also created “Super Ball Juggling” and “Shuriken Block,” which were the eighth and 17th most popular iOS free games when I checked a few days ago. What’s more, even though you can no longer download Flappy Bird, those who already have it can continue to play and keep generating advertising revenue for Nguyen. Nguyen has said that he plans to develop other games, and I’m betting that whatever he creates will be widely covered by the tech media and downloaded by millions of people.
In his Forbes interview, Nguyen also expressed some personal reasons for grounding Flappy Bird. He told Forbes Asian reporter Lan Anh Nguyen that “my life has not been as comfortable as it was before” and that “he couldn’t sleep.”
But if Nguyen’s motive was mainly to prevent more people from becoming “addicted” to Flappy Bird, pulling the game from the marketplace isn’t likely to accomplish anything. Sure, it will prevent others from spending an enormous amount of time using that particular game, but curing so-called gaming addiction by deleting one game would be like trying to cure alcoholism by taking a particular brand of whiskey off the market. Even outlawing all liquor, as we tried during Prohibition, didn’t keep people from using or abusing alcohol if they really wanted to get a hold of it.
The bigger question here is the extent to which game addiction is a problem, and how we treat it. Technically it’s not yet a recognized mental disorder in the United States. The 2013 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a “condition warranting more clinical research and experience.” Still, a lot of mental health professionals do worry about compulsive gaming behavior, which has been also associated with physical ailments and even death in extreme cases, especially when gamers are so obsessed with their games that they ignore nutrition and sleep while living on copious quantities of caffeine-laden drinks and junk food.
But despite the well-publicized cases of obsessive or harmful use of video games, social networking sites, apps and other technologies, millions of people engage in these activities with no noticeable problems. Just as most adults can drink an occasional alcoholic beverage without becoming addicted, the vast majority of adults and kids can play games or use other technologies without any major ill-effect.
If someone is addicted to Flappy Bird or any other product, it’s a problem that needs attention. So rather than ban or pull games off the market, we need to redouble our mental health efforts to give compulsive gamers the skills they need to lead more balanced lives.
Mr. Nguyen has the right to do whatever he wants with Flappy Bird, but if he asked me for advice, I’d tell him to put it back in the app stores and donate that $50,000 a day to mental health programs that help problem gamers control their impulses.