The mobile phone game sensation Angry Birds needs little introduction. Released in 2009, the game has sold (including free versions funded by advertising) clear of 1.7 billion copies across mobiles, video game consoles, laptops and PCs. To put that in context, the first and most popular Mario game sold only 40 million. There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, so one quarter have played Angry Birds. You can buy Angry Birds toys, t-shirts, lunchboxes, pencil cases, and nearly everything else. What is behind this sensation of mobile phone games, of which Angry Birds is most certainly the epitome? And what is it specifically that makes Angry Birds more popular than the others? What is really behind our enjoyment of this game?
The first of these questions can be answered by a version of Baudrillard’s concept of ‘hyperreality.’ Baudrillard’s criticism of post-modern culture, which he sees as epitomized by Disneyland, is not simply that it is ‘fake,’ but rather that in presenting itself as the world of imagination and fiction, it implies the existence of a more ‘real’ ‘authentic’ experience outside of this world of signs and symbols: a pure and genuine ‘reality.’
When we play these games (on trains, buses, at work, in waiting rooms), viewed by almost everyone as a tempting distraction from real stuff, we partly enjoy doing so on the level that the associated guilt actually re-enforces our sense of being very important people with ‘much more important things to do.’ The distraction supplements that from which we secretly want to be distracted, allowing us to feel that what we ‘should’ be doing is truly ‘worthwhile.’ Indeed, David Cameron, a man who must have anxieties about the worthiness of his work, has completed the game…
Though Angry Birds exemplifies this, such points might be made about all sorts of games. Moving to the second question, that of what explains the specific success of Angry Birds, we have to see that this coherent idea of ‘real life’ which in this model the distraction is supposed to affirm, itself becomes blurred and incoherent.
This is something picked up on by Walter Benjamin, also speaking of modern life, when he coins the phrase ‘culture of distraction.’ But for Benjamin distraction is not simply a matter of a deficit of attention which distracts from an otherwise stable reality, but instead implies a scattering or dispersion, which he sees as constitutive of modern mass culture. Anticipating Baudrillard, Benjamin explains how the individual is bombarded with signs so that no coherent reality can be found, the individual self and its reality become fragmented and scattered because there is so much distraction that there is no normality to be distracted from. So how does one survive in these conditions? One plays Angry Birds, which we now see is a text which needs detailed close-reading.
In the game, your characters are a set of angry birds, who launch themselves at the ‘bad guys,’ a set of green pigs. The pigs are in a structure made up of wood and bricks, which needs to be knocked down to get to and destroy the enemy pigs within. Some of these are small, a single house, where others seem to resemble a metropolis. In short, the pigs are inside, the birds are out. So the birds (which we imagine we are, which children pretend to be in the playground) represent the dream of standing outside the structure, or the city, and bombarding it. The point is that we as modern subjects, as Benjamin explains, feel like the pigs; we are inside the structure, being bombarded with signs that threaten all coherence of meaning and who we are. We cannot make any sense of these signs, lost between illusion and reality, and so we construct a fantasy in which there IS something ‘behind’ those bombardments, some agency, something controlling the signs/birds. In the game this is us, behind our iPhones; in the game, we are the outside controlling force that is absent in the world. Angry Birds is the epitome of a culture of distraction, but it also responds to it. The pigs have less to worry about than us, because at least there is something ‘out there’ controlling the signs hitting their city.