So today’s internet explosion of quasi-idiotic behavior has sent me running back to my feminist soapbox, lance firmly in hand and plumed helmet fastened. Today’s rant is brought to you by Flappy Bird and unmitigated internet rage.
I remember seeing the first tweet that Kotaku sent out about their article on how Flappy Bird is imitating Mario art. The original headline said “ripped-off” art, specifically, and has since been updated to say ”Mario-like art” instead, along with a couple of updates on Dong Nguyen’s (the creator) tweeted response and their own later apology to him. In short, someone at Kotaku noticed the striking similarities between Nguyen’s pipes and bird and the pipes and creatures from Mario in terms of appearance, as well as the nearly-identical sounds in both games. Their point was not only that Nguyen had “ripped off” these sprites and sounds from Mario, but that there was something inherently unfair that he was able to make $50,000 a day from ad revenue on the game.
The internet subsequently exploded, cataloged on a page entitled “Flappy Birders not Happy.” This has prompted a few other things to happen. First, speculation that the subsequent removal of Flappy Bird from the App Store is the product of legal action (it isn’t), embarrassment over being called-out for “ripping off” Nintendo, and/or the result of harassment from internet trolls, as on Eurogamer and the Escapist. Second, this has set off a series of pro- and anti-Flappy Bird blog posts, including one from Robert Yang, called “An Alternate History of Flappy Bird.”
There are several things about this whole fiasco that bother me. First and foremost, it’s never acceptable to threaten a game developer with death, dismemberment, or other bodily harm whether or not their work is derivative. Not cool, should not have happened.
Second, it irritates me to no end that there is so much coverage of Nguyen’s harassment and comparatively little about that leveled at female designers. Bryce Mainville makes this point on twitter:
Yes, the comments leveled at Nguyen are inappropriate and should not have happened, but he is not the only developer (not even the only male developer) to be so targeted by rabid fans and anti-fans. But it’s frustrating to see the kind of attention that this case receives when comments aimed at women online (developers or not) are just as bad or worse.
Second, I’m unconvinced by Yang’s argument that this has exploded primarily because Nguyen is Vietnamese:
Dong Nguyen committed the crime of being from Vietnam, where Electronic Arts or Valve or Nintendo do not have a development office. The reasoning is that no one “outside of games” can become so successful, except through deceit. The derivative nature of Flappy Bird’s assets and mechanics was taken as confirmation that technologically-backward Southeast Asians were “at it again” — stealing and cloning hard-won “innovation in games” invented by more-beloved developers.
None of the articles I read and most of the hate-filled tweets mentioned Nguyen’s ethnicity as a point of contention. Nor do I think that, as Yang suggests, “if Nguyen were a white American, this would’ve been the story of a scrappy indie who managed to best Zynga with his loving homage to Nintendo’s apparent patent on green pixel pipes and the classic ‘helicopter cave’ game genre.” I think that perhaps some of the comments he received would not have borne a racial tenor, but I do think that they would have been just as vitriolic.
Because my final point is that his game’s graphics and sounds are far too close to Mario‘s to be anything but intentionally derivative. If the same percentage of similarity were present in a student’s paper in comparison to Spark Notes as Nguyen’s graphics are to Nintendo’s, I’d haul them in front of the Honor Council for plagiarism. Do I think that Nguyen’s act merits his harassment? No, of course not. But neither do I see any merit in defending his “artistic choices” when those choices reflect artistic laziness rather than originality. Flappy Bird‘s green pipes and style are about as original as Ms. Pacman.
Nguyen made an app that used the background style of Mario. He didn’t copy it directly, but used the earlier images as the basis for his own. It’s lazy, but it isn’t worthy of death threats. However, responses like Yang’s suggests that there is a certain level of martyrdom that accompanies being the target of trolling. Yang seems to go out of his way to find a socially acceptable reason for Nguyen to become a poster-child for internet harassment victims (because he’s not white) in order to legitimize the reaction against said harassment and the removal of Flappy Bird from the App Store.
Here’s the thing, though. Even if the harassment aimed at Nguyen has no racial valence whatsoever, it’s inappropriate and unacceptable. Even if Nguyen did directly copy the pipes – he didn’t directly copy them, a point he makes on his own twitter
- he wouldn’t deserve the anger directed at him, first for imitating Mario and second for taking down his game. There doesn’t have to be an ulterior racial element to the harassment to “justify” reacting against it. It’s unconscionable no matter what.
Ultimately, though, I think that what bothers me the most about this is that Nguyen is being valorized as a heroic champion of indie developers, and I find that highly problematic (not as problematic as the harassment he’s faced, but I’ve said plenty about that before). My concern is not that he’s male and therefore in the “dominant” majority of developers, but that he’s being held up as a paragon of “scrappiness” for what is, ultimately, “ripped-off” in the sense of “derived from” or “based on” (not copied directly). The art in Flappy Bird is unoriginal and relies entirely upon Mario-esque nostalgia for its attractiveness. It isn’t just that the game has pipes - Pipe Dream has pipes, too, but they don’t look almost identical to those in Mario. The pipes in Flappy Bird do, so much so that when I saw a student playing it before class on her phone, I thought it was Mario.
The gameplay may be addictive and the overall concept unique enough to say that Flappy Bird is an original game – and it probably is (I haven’t played it). But the artistic concept just isn’t. It’s derivative and lazy from an artistic perspective. Does that mean it shouldn’t exist? Of course that’s not what it means. But it does mean that journalists, critics, and gaming sites should fully be able to criticize it because of that. I’d hate to think that the reaction of ill-behaved trolls might result in the fear of critical voices to speak out about games that are derivative or ill-made in some way because they don’t want to be included in the bridge-dwelling label. I’m afraid that now, because Nguyen is being lifted up (by some) as a “scrappy” hero, other developers will feel justified in similar artistic laziness. I’m also afraid that genuine criticism will be lumped in with trollish rage and dismissed.
Ultimately, though, I’m concerned about our inability as members of the gaming community to keep our discussions civil. I’m concerned that instead of saying “Hey, guys, this is derivative and that doesn’t seem fair,” we have to over-hyperbolize our headlines and incite one another to death threats. I’m concerned that anyone considers death threats to be an appropriate response to pretty much anything. And I’m concerned that we’ll allow ourselves to degrade a burgeoning art form in the name of making quick money.
I don’t have a solution. I wish I did.