Sunday, February 09, 2014

Flappy Bird, or, In Which The Internet Reacts To Something By Assuming It Proves What It Already Believes

Ever read the comments on a major newspaper site? You how there's always That Guy, or often dozens of Those Guys (and they're usually men), who makes whatever the article happens to be about whatever they believe in most strongly? There's a school board meeting, BENGHAZI! An article about hockey coaches turns into a discussion of the temperature at which the steel in the World Trade Center would have melted. Perhaps the best/worst example I've seen was someone putting out the hypothesis that the earthquake that caused the 2005 tsunami could have been triggered by the bombs in Iraq shaking the earth's tectonic system. Even when I agree with them--yes, the Iraq War was a disaster--that doesn't mean it's the cause of everything bad.

Anyway, I don't think anyone intelligent wants to argue that way. We'd like to believe that we see evidence, put it together, and the conclusions we make are totally supported etc etc. You know, rationality, truth, arguing, that kind of thing. We are better than That Guy From The Comments...right?

And so, Flappy Bird.

If you don't know, Flappy Bird is a mobile game that was released in March 2013, but in the last week or so, suddenly exploded in popularity--number one on the App Store, inspiring clones, media attention, criticism, accusations of theft, and so on. We're talking "next Angry Birds?" levels of popularity. Then the creator, Dong Nguyen announces on Twitter than he's pulling the game from distribution,

That's when the game journalist population becomes That Guy. Whatever they believe about "video game culture," that's what caused the end of Flappy Bird. Chief among those beliefs, in my circles at least, is that harassment campaigns by gamers caused Flappy Bird to die.

Harassment in the video game world is a huge problem. Mostly aimed at women, particularly outspoken ones, cybermobs have targeted several people and groups and attempted to ruin their lives. The attacks on Feminist Frequency are the most famous and loudest, but they're hardly the only ones. This is an unfortunate fact of "game culture" online right now, and deserves to fought against.

The problem is that it may not apply to Flappy Bird's/Dong Nguyen's situation, and it's being applied anyway. (For example, Robert Yang's recent post on the subject, "An alternate history of Flappy Bird", which, despite its title, seems to be the dominant history that I can see.)

The issue is that the "this" that Dong Nguyen can't take anymore is almost totally ambiguous. He's issued a single clarification:

So we know he wasn't sued into taking the game down. He wanted to.

It's probably true that Nguyen was harrassed. It's definitely true that he was accused, undeservingly, of stealing the art for the game in an ill-considered article on Kotaku. But this doesn't mean he was harassed into removing Flappy Bird.

Take a look at a few of his other tweets:

The story that comes across in these tweets is not that of a man driven away from his hit game by internet hate mobs. It's that of a man who doesn't want too much attention. What does that attention entail? Press requests? Demands to update? Dealing with ad revenue? Internet hate? Having to spend all free time managing the Flappy Bird franchise instead of creating new games? Not believing that Flappy Bird deserves the attention? All of those things?

I don't know why Dong Nguyen pulled Flappy Bird. Neither does anyone else. I can put together all kind of plausible scenarios based the incomplete evidence provided. For example, I'm terrified of the idea that a thing I was done with and released a year ago could suddenly become super popular, and I'd have to change it and explain it and defend it for the rest of my life. I'm equally hopeful and terrified that that will happen with my Mass Effect book. Like if I release that, I may never want to talk about Mass Effect ever again, and then could get a reputation as The Guy To Talk To About Mass Effect. So it seems entirely plausible to me that Dong Nguyen didn't want to spend the rest of his life as The Flappy Bird Guy.

But I don't know for sure. So this blog post isn't about that. It's about the fact that we don't know, and that we shouldn't assume it's a thing that happens to align with our already-existing beliefs on the subject. Because being wrong doesn't help a cause, no matter how noble that cause is.

Update: I'm not trying to tell people to shut up about harassment, even if I had that kind of power. This exchange might help explain: