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Plugged In

Everyone is playing Flappy Bird and no one knows why

Plugged In

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And then you die. (Credit: .Gears)

You tap. You flap. You make it past two pipes. You die.

Your score: 2. You do it again. Why? Because 3 is out there.

This is Flappy Bird, the free, so-terrible-it-must-be-genius app that has awkwardly flown to the top of both the iOS and Android charts in pretty much a week. Like any good viral phenomenon, it came out of nowhere and has been embraced for its almost callous disregard for quality, strategy, depth, and fun. It’s the "Friday" of smartphone gaming.

Okay, technically, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Flappy Bird is the work of Dong Nguyen, the one-man army behind Vietnamese indie game company, .Gears. The company has released some web games and a few other smartphone games, including Shuriken Block, in which you tap to block throwing stars, and Super Ball Juggling, in which you tap to juggle a soccer ball. If you sense a theme here, it’s because there is a theme here.

But none of the company’s past efforts can touch Flappy Bird, in which you tap to make a bird fly. Though it was first released back in May of 2013, it didn’t really take off until last week, when it inexplicably shot from number 13 to number 1 on the App Store. Over 500,000 people have contributed to its respectable four-star rating, a number so insanely high, it’s led to charges that Nguyen has possibly used bots and other shady methods to fake user reviews and boost its popularity. Nguyen has ignored those charges, and frankly, it doesn’t really matter.

Because 3 is out there, and you’ve just got to see what happens when you reach 5.

Spoiler Alert: Nothing really happens when you reach 5. This is the genius of Flappy Bird. Its maddening simplicity -- you just repeatedly tap the bird to make it fly and try to avoid the probably-infringing-on-some-sort-of-intellectual-property-law Super Mario green warp pipes -- is matched only by its lack of reward. You don’t get new wings at 5. You don’t get a new bird at 10. You don’t get coins to spend once you hit 50 (note: I have not yet hit 50, so that’s just a guess). You get a little medal when you die, and that medal does change colors. But mainly you get a ‘Game Over’ and the gut-wrenching choice to try again or do anything else with your fleeting time on this planet.

And again, you will try. Flappy Bird isn’t just simple, it’s also absurdly hard. The bird (Flappy? Is that his name? Her name? So many questions!) is as dense as a brick, plummeting to the ground a split-second after each tap. No hovering here. No gliding. The result is less "flying" than "bobbing," and there’s zero room for error when squeezing the chubby little guy between the pipes. It’s designed to kill you, this game. And kill you it will. And again, you will try.

But why? Why are we playing this thing? It’s dull, repetitive, and features zero innovation. We know it’s not very good. It’s ugly and a little glitchy and hang on, I just got to 18.

I suppose we’re playing it because it’s the thing to play right now. Virality has no rhyme or reason or discernible formula (well, other than “Cat + Roomba + Shark Outfit = HIT" ), and Flappy Bird is proving that marvelously.

Perhaps we’re all playing it because Nguyen named it ‘Flappy Bird’ to cash-in on ‘Angry Birds’ and we’re all too dumb to tell the difference. Perhaps we’re all playing it because we have no time anymore and something this mindless and straightforward and difficult is all we really want when we’re waiting in line at the bank. Perhaps it's just a high score leaderboard thing, as you can share your (pathetically low) number with your friends to show off. Perhaps we all just want to know what happens at 75 (nothing, by the way.)

It's certainly not designed to bilk us out of our money like so many other free games. There are no in-app purchases, no extra levels to buy, really nothing at all to spend your money on. It's got one relatively annoying ad slapped at the top of the screen, but that's pretty much it in terms of driving cash into Nguyen's pockets. Considering how many people are playing, that might be more than enough.

Or maybe it’s better than we think. Maybe there’s something truly genius in this awful game’s design, something we can’t quite put our finger on, and not because we’re too busy tapping with that finger. Whatever the reason, I’ve yet to delete Flappy Bird from my phone. I’ve moved it from the main screen to my Games folder, where I suspect it will slowly fade into unplayed obscurity. But that’s yet to happen, because 100 is out there. Or so I hear.

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