One thing is for certain: Flappy Bird, a free app for iOS and Android devices – and soon to launch on Windows Phone devices – isn't going anywhere anytime soon. As of this writing, it remains the top free app in the iTunes App Store and on Google Play, and it has generated the kind of buzz once reserved for the likes of Angry Birds and Candy Crush.
The game, which was built by the Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen, has a simple premise: Tap the screen, and your avatar, a cute little bird, takes to the air. Your task is to keep him (or her, perhaps) moving through an obstacle course that bears a striking resemblance to a level from the original Mario game (down to the green pipes).
Unfortunately, the whole thing is maddeningly, desperately hard. But also fun! But also really hard! And maybe even a little... reductive. As Nick Statt writes in an opinion piece over at CNET, Flappy Bird is a "beautifully manipulative game that sells advertising against your base-level tendencies to keep trying at something that seems within grasp, but rather is designed to mask its clear and utter propensity to grind you into failure."
If the aim of the game, Mr. Statt continues, was to force us to buy expensive in-game upgrades, that might be one thing. But he finds at the heart of Flappy Bird something even more "sinister" than that: A thing that ceaselessly strings us along, dropping breadcrumbs "to give us a bit of faith in our quest toward nonexistent relief from our compulsion."
The counter-argument, of course, is that all video games do something like this, in one way or another. For instance, although Assassin's Creed IV – our newest gaming obsession – is considerably more beautiful and more varied than Flappy Bird, its core is not dissimilar from the one developed by Mr. Nguyen: You wander forward, ever in search of larger rewards, and once you find them, you put down the controller, and find a new title to play.
In the meantime, you get to escape from work, from the subway, from the grind.
Getting too philosophical for you? Go try Flappy Bird yourself. It won't cost you anything but a whole lot of your time.