Essays on Technology and Culture

One Size Fits Some

Though Flappy Bird has passed from App Stores and into legend, debate still rages over what it means gaming as a while. In one corner is MG Siegler, speaking for legions of older gamers who see Flappy Bird as a siren call to return games to the simplicity they had in their heyday.

You didn’t need to read an instruction manual to play [games], you just needed to pick up the controller. Once you did this, a few taps and you were off.

-MG Siegler

On the other side, is Matt Birchler, who thinks Flappy Bird is just part of the mix of simple and complex games being sold today. I’m taking Birch’s side on this one, but that we’re even having a debate about this is proof that gaming is maturing as an art form. Slowly.

Does a game need to be insanely complicated, or insanely simple? That’s more a question of the type of experience you want to have. If you’re looking for something to occupy your time while waiting in line for your latte, Flappy Bird would fit the bill. If you’re looking to occupy an evening, you want something with a little more meat and complexity. This could mean anything from Super Mario Bros. to Grand Theft Auto, to Civilization V. I’m the sort of gamer who prefers whiling his hours away on SimCity and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri over run-and-gun shooters and their ilk, but my tastes shouldn’t be everyone else’s.

MG has romantic notions of the dawn of the home video game era. Back then, home systems in order to be cheap and mass-produced imposed limits on the simplicity of games. Computer games, with access to more computing power, even if over a time sharing system, could be far more complex. Consider the 1971 Star Trek computer game. There’s nothing simple there. Even some early console games were complex enough that you couldn’t just dive in without reading a manual: Adventure, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and others were home console games that practically demanded you familiarize yourself with the controls if you wanted to get anywhere, but they rewarded you with deep gameplay (for the time). Now the divide is much more distinct, but it’s been there since the days of Space War and Pong.

There are more gamers, more games, and more things to play them on than we’ve had at any time in the history of interactive home entertainment. Gaming is experiencing a shift that TV experienced around the time cable got into people’s homes. It used to be that you were lucky to have three channels of programming to watch. In order to attract the most eyeballs, and therefore the most advertiser dollars, it was to these networks advantage to produce shows that appealed to as many people as possible. UHF stations added some competition for eyes, but the growth of cable TV had broadcast networks found themselves increasingly competing for eyeballs. On the one end, this gave us miserable reality shows. On the other, it’s given us Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire. Even with more people watching, no one network—broadcast or cable—pulls as many pairs of eyes as the broadcast networks ever did in their prime, but we now have more interesting programming to show for it.

Video games aren’t at that inflection point yet, but they will be soon. There’s enough people who are getting their first fixes of games outside the “traditional” gaming demographic of 18 to 29 year old males to make it happen. There are audiences discovering gaming that are underserved, and they’re going to want more options. Addictive as Candy Crush Saga may be, eventually some people are going to want to do more than slide around brightly colored icons, but they might not want to shoot cops and steal cars. It’s the indie developers on new platforms like iOS who are going to serve them, much like it ended up being the cable networks who produced much of the great television shows of the last decade-plus. They won’t sell in Super Mario numbers, but they won’t have to. The kinds of games they’ll make are uncertain, but what is certain is that among the best of these new games are going to be ones where you’ll need to learn how to play. For the right person, their experience will be that much richer.