(Updated May 25, 2016, see below.)
I asked some people on the intuberwebs about good iOS games for kids, and I was a little surprised to see Angry Birds come up. I’ve played through it; it bothered me quite a bit, and my knee-jerk reaction to the claim that it’s a kids game was scowling incomprehension. “Are you people nuts? Did we even play the same game?”
Maybe I’ve overthought this. And maybe Angry Birds isn’t worth the sort of analysis I’ve put into Portal 2, but I believe in the medium of video game as art. Games merit reflection. And reflection is where we are revealed to ourselves, whether we like what we see or not.
Christian Thorne has written a bit about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds that you should probably read, particularly if you enjoyed that movie. It’s quite well written – read the whole thing, for sure – but to give away the punchline, Thorne makes a compelling case that Tarantino is calling you, the audience member laughing away at his film, a fascist.
So why does Tarantino hate us so much? He hates us for liking his movies the way we do; he hates us because he can so easily bring us round to enjoying the sight of people being gathered into a closed space so that they can be exterminated. He hates you for how easily you can be pushed into the Nazi position, as long as the people getting killed are themselves Nazis. He hates you because you are the fascist and you don’t even know it.
Todd Alcott has written something very similar:
The movie doesn’t merely use violence, it’s about violence, particularly violence in movies, or in popular culture anyway, and the way it can be used to manipulate an audience, or a populace. It repeatedly gets you longing for violence and then, by the time it shows up, it’s not what you wanted or expected it to be. The movie as a whole doesn’t offer up easy answers, rather it asks extremely uncomfortable questions.
Angry Birds starts out by giving you a pretty simple motivation. Eggs missing, pigs responsible. You knock over pig structures and kill pigs, with volleys of particular kinds of bird. Cute noises are made, points are earned. All is well, except that the kind of things you’re knocking over changes a little bit at a time over the course of the game.
I might as well give away the punchline, too: you start Angry Birds knocking down the forts and castles of your enemies, the pigs. Halfway through, you’re destroying infrastructure: railways, power stations, airports and farms. By the end of it, probably without thinking about it all that much, you’re sending your troops to destroy hospitals, apartment buildings, churches and schools.
I’ve been surprised to see that Rovio have completely gotten away with this, too; I’d have thought that a video game you can’t win without killing everyone in a school would have caused some sort of outrage, but a veneer of cute is apparently all the stealth technology you need to stay off the culture-war radar. Even though all the magic video-games-are-evil-think-of-the-children words are right there, ripe for their ritual sanctimonious media abuse, Angry Birds is far and away the most popular portable game franchise in the world, and somehow that’s all overlooked.
If you take a step back from it, and think about what you’ve been participating in, Angry Birds starts to look a lot more like subversive social commentary than cutesy entertainment – to borrow from a line that describes Steven Spielberg’s work in much the same terms, for all its simple gameplay and ostensibly trivial narrative this a complicated, bitter game, with a deliberate sugarcoating that makes it commercially palatable.
It’s not a bad game, not at all. But the fact that it’s addictive and fun and that we keep playing as it gets darker and meaner (both morally and graphically, as day turns to night later in the game) without questioning or apparently even noticing it says something real and maybe important about us.
I don’t think I want that to get said to my kids just yet.
Update: Looking back on this post from 2016, I’d really like to know what the secret backstory of that first version of Angry Birds was. I strongly suspect that it was intended as a sort of Guernica-style antiwar art-protest game before it took off, one that people just didn’t get. But then suddenly it’s the must-have app for every platform and licensing revenue makes everyone involved so much money that all those sequels were inevitable. I wonder if that’s true; that there was a moment where everyone at Rovio realized that history had to be rewritten and nobody could be allowed in on the original joke. That not getting the gag had become the central part of their financial success.