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The Real Reason We Couldn't Stop Playing Flappy Bird (And Why Its Sequel Is Just As Addictive)

It's an internet simulator.

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The internet happens to most humans on two axes, one up to down and one left to right. Along the former rise and fall our browsers, our news and social feeds, the names in our chat lists and the chains of our emails. Along the latter glide our video progress bars, our volume sliders, our photo galleries, and our yes/no Tinder swipes. Up and down, left and right—A D-pad, if you like (for the gaming crowd).

And what about the quality of that motion? We tend to figure the movements of the internet as a never-ending stream, an endless vertical and horizontal cascade of things with the limiting factor of us. That is, things keep coming—news stories, cat videos, Tinder matches—until we're fatigued. But that's not really the way it is at all. Your eyes follow the feed until they spot something really smart or really stupid and then they stop. Or until the video buffers. Or until your train goes into the tunnel or your friend taps you on the shoulder. And they do it again and again, staccato. In that rhythm, move STOP—move STOP—move STOP, our internet use mirrors the actual way our eyes work when we read or scan any surface, in fast fixed jumps called saccades. That is, I think, the dominant quality of living online today: an apparent smoothness that is actually built from countless herky-jerky movements so fast that we barely perceive them.

When you do things over and over—driving, walking the same route, scrolling through Twitter—they become what cognitive scientists call "automatic" processes. They are things that your brain can do without devoting your conscious awareness. Have you ever walked or driven somewhere and when you get there, not remembered the actual act of locomotion? That's an automatic process—a groove cut in your cognitions, software running in the background.

It feels obvious to me that our movement through the four directions of the internet is a kind of automatic process, or several related ones. The motions we perform again and again, the movement of the things we see, those become background. We can fully focus on the content of what we see precisely because our management of the way the content is delivered has become automated. And sometimes—often!—the content doesn't even matter at all. Sometimes I find myself scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, or swiping left and right on Tinder, and actually clicking on things, without really processing anything at all! Then I'll snap to on an article or a video and think how the hell did I get here?. It's like my brain is running the background software but my screen saver is on. My guess is you've had this experience as well. It's uncanny, and a little frightening when your brain turns back on.

Early this year, an anonymous Vietnamese game developer named Dong Nguyen briefly became the most famous person in gaming and one of the most sought-after interviews in the world when his anonymously-released game, Flappy Bird, turned into an object of obsession. Nguyen, who had some trouble dealing with the sudden crush of attention, "went away" in the only sense an internet person can go away: For a very brief period of time. Today he released his followup, Swing Copters.

The new game is simply Flappy Bird flipped 90 degrees, with the added complexity of moving gates for your little dude, who in this iteration is not a bird but a googly-eyed brown tuchus wearing a rotor on his head. Anyways, it works basically the same way—as a series of rapid vacillations along two axes, followed by a sudden and inevitable stop, and I see no reason why, if people download Swing Copter in similar numbers, that the new game won't gain the same reputation.

When Flappy Bird reached its apex (sorry) people speculated extensively about the real reason for its popularity, proposing variously its notorious difficulty, its comfortingly retro aesthetic, and its perfectly-tuned mechanic. These all have truth to them. To my mind, the first game was so brilliant—and likewise the second—because it mimicked so closely the way the internet moves and the way we move the internet: Up and down, side to side, jumping and stopping. Flappy Bird and Swing Copters feel to me like digital navigation shorn of all content and gamified. They share that same never-ending quality, putting you back into the mix as soon as you stop. (In fact, if the new game has an issue, it's that it takes too long to get restarted after you fail.) And in Swing Copters the effect is even more pronounced because it moves up and down like a feed.

If I had to bet, I'd say the reason these games feel so good is that they drag the automatic processes of moving through our digital lives back into the foreground of our awareness. They are exercise for skills that we are very good at and that we take for granted as skills qua skills: Jumping up and down and back and forth on screens. Paradoxically, that may also be why the games are so damn hard, precisely because we've been taken off autopilot. I find that my best scores come in both games when my mind is just slightly elsewhere—listening to music, or a little hungover. Everyone knows doing a simple task can be made much, much harder when there's special attention or pressure placed on the doer.

Ultimately, though, these games appeal to so many people because anyone with a phone or a computer already has the requisite training—more than that, the requisite wiring—to play them. And now, in Swing Copter, we have an avatar who fits the bill as a hero of digital navigation: a lonely little ass whose success is perpetually fragile, whose failure is perpetually assured, whose task is never complete.

Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.

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