When “Flappy Bird” creator Dong Nguyen pulled his maddening smartphone game from the iOS app store in February, he vowed that the game would never return — for the safety of its fans. “Flappy Bird” had become “too addictive,” he said, to the point that he was kept up at night by the guilt of having created it.
Fortunately, it seems, even sleepless guilt fades. Nguyen told CNBC’s Eli Langer yesterday that the game will be back in August with multiplayer capabilities — and mysterious moderations to make it less addictive. But as fellow gamers have pointed out, video game addiction is a complex beast. How, exactly, asked Next Games adviser Tero Kuittinen, do you “deaddictify” a game?
The short answer: Not by adding a multiplayer mode.
Now, a quick caveat here: We obviously have not seen or played the forthcoming “Flappy Bird” redux, so we don’t know how these vague “multiplayer capabilities” will work. But in the long list of factors that influence pathological video game addiction — an actual condition, suspected in 3 percent to 8 percent of gamers — multiplayer mode actually comes out toward the top.
That’s why multiplayer games like “World of Warcraft” and “EverQuest” are so frequently name-dropped in stories and PSAs about pathological gaming. Having to play with other people introduces a risk factor called “social motivation”: the fundamental pleasure of socializing with other people, sure, but also the obligation to keep playing when other people do. It’s not the games that are addictive, an “EverQuest” producer told NBC way back in 2008. It’s “the social networking … that pushes people to sit in the game for long periods of time.”
All this begs the natural question: Why was single-player “Flappy Bird” so addictive already? Many have pointed to the game’s extraordinary difficulty, which — among players who appreciate a challenge — tantalizingly promises a win that few other people can reach. As Michelle Castillo explained at The Week, gamers also frequently interpret even near-misses as wins, and all-out losses as a sign that wins are coming.
And so they play … and play … and play. Even when play begins to interfere with other things.
Maybe Nguyen’s new multiplayer version will be easier, and thus less appealing to addiction-prone players. Maybe he’s making some other, more clever design tweaks that will revolutionize the psychology of gameplay. Or maybe Nguyen’s in for some more sleepless nights — right alongside his red-eyed, slack-jawed, utterly obsessed players.