The Magic of Making People Mad: Why you Can't Stop Playing Flappy Bird

There's a very good psychological reason why these sorts of games are so successful.

Let's get straight to the facts: I actually hate/love Flappy Bird so much, that I am writing an article on the psychology behind why it's so addictive as a follow up to my review.

The Love / Hate is Strong with this One... But Why?

We all know how video games can be addictive - both literally, and figuratively. While the verdict is still out on whether true video game addiction is as common as people think, many of us have whiled away hours and hours only to suddenly realize that it's been 5 hours of straight playing.

But Flappy Bird is no large, expansive world to get lost in--in fact, it's not even really a world at all. It's a side-scrolling flying game that takes a bit of a physics lesson from the original Helicopter game (which is equally if not more maddening than the Flappy Bird game itself).

The Magic of Making People Mad 

One of the primary reasons that Flappy Bird has become so successful is that it is able to make you angry

Being mad isn't always such a bad thing.

When channeled properly, being angry can spur you on to achieve great things. It can incite passion and the desire to overcome obstacles within your life. One of the primary reasons that Flappy Bird has become so successful is that it is able to make you angry to the point where your sense of perseverance kicks in. Your sense of perseverance is actually an inherent human survival trait, believe it or not. 

Throughout history, animals have needed to "persevere" in order to evolve and become stronger. In the human brain, dopamine is produced when you feel the drive to "stick with" something. 

Dopamine is also a pleasure chemical. That means that when you finally hit that score of 20 in Flappy Bird, your brain is going to let out a surge of dopamine because "Hey! Look at me go... I finally did it!" But that's not all dopamine is capable of doing. Check out this quote from Psychology Today:

A study released on December 22, 2011 found that key receptors for dopamine function like 'gateways' that are essential to enable habit formation. "Dopamine neurons regulate circuits all over the brain, but they need to be regulated too," said Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, Co-Director of the Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute at Georgia Health Sciences University. Dr. Tsien says that this discovery opens the door to speeding up the process of forming good habits and, possibly, selectively removing bad ones such as drug addiction or smoking since the same circuits are seemingly involved in both.

That's right - Dr. Tsien is stating that dopamine response can sometimes also tie into addiction. And while he mentions drug addiction and smoking, behaviors can become addictive, too, without the addition of a substance. Anything that can become a habit can also become an addiction, in theory. This includes that damned Flappy Bird game. 

This image provides an excellent explanation of behavioral addiction and habit alike, and how dopamine levels change with it. In fact, the image itself is taken from this article. The article, titled "Rewards, pacing, and dopamine," clarifies how the rise and fall of dopamine works when playing the game Bowling Bash, but the concepts are true for Flappy Bird as well.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better!

There is a second psychological process in play today, especially with the invention of social media. Games like Flappy Bird also create a serious drive to "show off." If you achieve that lusted after 50 score in Flappy Bird, of course you are going to want to tell people about it, right? Once you do share your high score, others will want to try it; it then becomes a constant battle of I-can-beat-your-score-ism for some people. As strange as it might seem, the following video is actually quite an excellent theme song for the whole competition for a better score:

Humans always want to be better, faster, stronger, and more in control. That's totally natural whether we are playing video games or running a race. And while being better at a video game might not have meant much in the late 1980s, casual gaming has become a big part of how many people interact with one another on a daily basis. It's in everyone's faces, whether they go to Facebook, GameSkinny, or even Google Play. The game is repeatedly mentioned, planting a subtle curiosity that makes you want to at least try the game once. It is free, after all. What's the worst that could happen?

Pair this with the fact that being good with technology of any kind is now lauded and celebrated rather than looked down on, and you will start to see just how logical it is that Flappy Bird is addictive. 

But Why Did Such a Simple Game Become Popular?

According to Jessie Snell' Book, The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses, there are four main categories in which a game must excel in to become popular or viral. These four categories include:

Meaningful Choice

Flappy Bird is obviously challenging, but it may be difficult to see how the other three categories apply. Although it may seem as if there is little meaningful choice within the game, consider that making the wrong choice to tap can result in dire consequences. One wrong tap can result in instant death--this makes Flappy Bird one, big meaningful choice, overall. The competition aspect is worked in through social media, as mentioned above. And although the game appears simple, it becomes complex the moment the pipes are included, making it an ideal balance of the two.

Flappy Bird was the perfect storm of all four categories, leading to its immense popularity.

Published Feb. 6th 2014
  • DawnPHenry
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    Really well researched and presented. Very interesting!

    I have a psychology degree (though I'm not really using it) and I understand the affects certain games can have. However, I've thankfully never understood the "so hard it's addictive" theory. I mean, I absolutely believe it exists; it just never gets me.

    For me, gaming is purely about fun. Constantly failing is not fun. Hence, when it comes to something like Flappy Bird, I just roll my eyes and put it down. ;)
  • MandieM
    Featured Correspondent
    Hey fathoms, thanks. Two of my great loves are psychology and gaming...and to be honest, I destress with gaming, so it's an interesting topic for me. And yes--you are right. Flappy Bird is not what I would consider "fun" lol. But hey, I'm still playing the damned game days later so I must be a sucker for punishment ;)
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    I'd be interested to know if you're still going back to it months from now. :)
  • MandieM
    Featured Correspondent
    I will keep you apprised. I find it interesting that the developer has actually stated that he didn't intend for it to become famous...I think it almost remains to be seen whether or not it will be around long-term, with all the Nintendo-esque feel it has.
  • MandieM
    Featured Correspondent
    Update: I am totally still playing it occasionally. This and "Dumb Ways to Die" are my "bored-lets-play-tablet-games"

New Cache - article_comments_article_12209
More Flappy Bird Content

Get Flappy Bird news the moment it happens!

You have been successfully subscribed to this newsletter.