The mega-popular video game Angry Birds is nothing if not hypocritical. A story of political and moral resistance is packaged to fill corporate coffers.
by Brad Avery
As of January 2014, Angry Birds has been downloaded over 2 billion times across all available platforms. The mass appeal shouldn’t be surprising given that the game’s mechanics are so simple: the player catapults cartoon birds into flimsy buildings in an attempt to destroy enemy pigs and score points. Its uncomplicated controls, addictive nature, and colorful characters have made Angry Birds one of the most successful video games in the history of the medium, becoming a globe-spanning phenomenon in the process.
Gaming is currently in a peculiar transitional period as it begins to be taken seriously as an art form. Complex and story-based games such as Gone Home and Bioshock are being analyzed and praised by critics and fans alike. But mobile phone games are being given a free pass, generally dismissed as a novelty. Like a Hollywood comedy or a Top 40 pop single, Angry Birds isn’t designed to challenge the purchaser, to make him or her think. In fact, it could be argued that game has been shaped to sedate its players, serving merely as escapist entertainment. But that doesn’t mean Angry Birds shouldn’t be attacked for the cultural damage it is doing. And that is the danger when a game is deemed to be below critical consideration — at least given the pernicious messages that Angry Birds sends.
No one would argue that Angry Birds is art in any way. At times frustrating to play, the game is kitsch that has grown more and more obviously corporate as its popularity has increased. Rovio Entertainment, the game’s developer, has even admitted that less than half of their staff is currently working on game design; the majority of its workers are focused on marketing and developing tie-in products. The reason Angry Birds has taken off as a game is that it is brilliantly designed – in terms of both gameplay and aesthetics – to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible. It is playable by even the most technologically-impaired among us.
Angry Birds proffers a bare bones story. When the player begins the first level there is a short cutscene explaining that the birds, who presumably live in peace, have had their eggs stolen by evil green pigs, who intend to cook and eat them. We also see, via the presence of a crown, that there is a king of the pigs, suggesting that the birds are fighting against an oppressive monarchy.
As trivial as the plot is, we sympathize with the birds, who are immediately established as victims at the hands of a much larger power. Their efforts to kill the pigs and demolish their kingdom are acceptable because the pigs are ruthless fiends who want to eat their children. Without this slant, the birds would merely be invaders, murdering the pigs for no reason. The player would become a villain. The story comes with a moral alibi — the assault on the pig kingdom appears to be justified.
Angry Birds pits the oppressed versus the corrupt. It appeals to our innate desire to see evil vanquished and the underdog succeed. The pigs are twice, at times even three times, the size of the birds. The sprawling ‘pig’ city can be glimpsed in the background of the cutscenes, a metropolis that dwarfs the humble straw nests of the birds. We even learn a few bits and pieces about the pig society. One level features a swimming pool, complete with inflatable tubes and rubber duckies. Other levels present lavish palaces for the king, adorned with indestructible Roman columns and large treasure chests. Pigs are rich and they flaunt it.
The player is also able to enter the story directly. We are fighting this war, sacrificing troops, and making the necessary tactical decisions. The game sets the moral framework, but the plot is determined by the player’s actions. The gamer has the power to project personality traits, thoughts, feelings on to the birds and pigs. Or they may, if they wish, not feel much of anything for the voiceless characters, seeing them merely as pixels. Given this flexibility, Angry Birds becomes a unique experience for each individual, which has probably contributed to its success.
But the populist, underdog narrative is only lipstick on the grisly, hoggish reality of Angry Birds. The story elements that make the game appealing to the masses are essentially marketing bait. Within the game itself, plush toys are advertised. New levels can be unlocked via ‘Liking’ the game on Facebook. In the corner of the screen the gamer is prompted to purchase expansion packs with new levels. The free version even features third-party advertisements. Throughout the game, Rovio generates free advertisement for itself or others, turning the consumer into a billboard, doing online what American Eagle, Nike, and other clothing companies have done in the ‘real’ world.
The colorful characters become toys that children beg their parents to buy. They become tee-shirts that people wear in public, inspiring others to play the game. They become TV cartoons that reap millions of advertising dollars. And those advertisements are designed to charm children into watching the show and playing the game. Angry Birds characterizes its villains as being greedy and wealthy — it is not difficult to see who the pigs represent. The story of the underdog birds is a feel-good mask for the strong-arm machinations of a multi-million dollar corporation who is only interested in feathering its own nest.
Today, Angry Birds comes pre-installed on most smart phones. Sometimes it can’t even be uninstalled. The game is pretty well forced on consumers. The irony is obvious — Angry Birds‘s tale of freedom from tyranny, its story of political and moral resistance, is really about the bondage of marketing. Whether Angry Birds has true staying power — of the mega-franchise kind – is an open question. The animated movie version, slated to come out in 2016, may either feed the fad or kill it for good. But whether the game stays or goes, Angry Birds has already done its porcine cultural damage — George Orwell’s Animal Farm, revamped.
Brad Avery is a graduate of Westfield State University. His criticism is focused on film and video games and his work has appeared on Wicked Local and on SmugFilm.com. You can follow him on twitter @BradHAvery.