Why We Can’t Stop Playing

05Nov11

I would not call myself a “gamer.”  But then I realized that I have a somewhat unhealthy addiction with a particular app on my iPhone – Angry Birds.

I was reminded while reading Media Work that games are played in a variety of ways, primarily “on consoles that account for more than half of game sales” (Deuze 204). Today, games are also played online as well as on other handheld devices and mobile phones.  “Handheld games usually have much shorter development cycles and smaller teams than either console or PC games, thus offering publishers a relatively high return on investment” (Deuze 204).  With the boom of the iPhone and other smartphone technologies in recent years, the development of apps has soared.  Angry Birds has become one of the highest grossing and most popular apps of all time; over “50 million copies had flown into circulation by its one-year anniversary in Dec. 2010” (CNN).

A year ago, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the psychological aspects associated with Angry Birds, and why we can’t stop playing. The article asked the question, “Why do smart people love seemingly mindless games?” As a graduate student who would have daily competitions with my friends before class, I wondered the same thing.  Angry Birds gained mass appeal as one of the “casual games” ready to download onto mobile devices that combined “addictive game play, memorable design and deft marketing” (WSJ).  The game is designed to be played in short bursts, and it is now culturally acceptable to be on a smartphone during all hours of the day – on the bus in the morning, before class, waiting in line for coffee, before going to bed, and so on.  The article notes “a scientific study from 2008 found that casual games provide a ‘cognitive distraction’ that could significantly improve players’ moods and stress levels.”  A perfect solution to the stresses of graduate school if you ask me!

So why can’t we stop playing? Like most “casual games,” Angry Birds is easy to pick up. The chief executive of Rovio, Angry Bird’s developer, says the game’s success is “’really the sum of all of its parts,’ including the edgy-but-cute characters, amusing sound effects and simple rules” (WSJ).  Along with these catchy game traits, Angry Birds “uses positive reinforcement to make players feel good when they succeed” (WSJ).  Players are encouraged with cheers and the ability to move on to the next level.  I’ve been known to silently celebrate Angry Birds achievements while sitting next to strangers on Bloomington Transit. But I digress.

One thing game developers should be aware of when creating casual games is the potential for them to be short-lived.  “Players’ infatuation with games like Angry Birds can end as quickly as it starts, often when the novelty of game’s features wears off” (WSJ). However, with such a high return on investment, developers can create more and more games with fewer teams of people.  So the reality that casual games may only be a fad among players may not be such a detrimental factor for the industry.

What has been your experience with Angry Birds or similar games for smartphones?  How do you think the growing number of smartphone users who download these apps will affect the game development industry?

Finally, just for fun – Five things ‘Angry Birds’ will teach you about life.

– Sarah D.

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