Why is Angry Birds Addictive?

Angry Birds is often described as an addictive game, which helps explain why the full version's launch for Android phones is big news. Starting today, the game can be downloaded for free through GetJar, a third-party app store, and it's coming to the Android Market over the weekend.

If you're one of the folks who's hooked on Angry Birds -- and please don't take this the wrong way -- I don't understand why. Angry Birds is a clever game, for sure. It has cute characters, elegant design and simple goals. But addictive? I just don't see it.

Video game addiction is often associated with massive multiplayer online games, like World of Warcraft. The social nature of these games, some experts say, fills a void of friendship and acceptance that the real world doesn't provide. I'm sure that the dangling carrot system of rewards in MMOs also plays a big role. These kinds of addictive games get a negative connotation, perhaps because you become a social outsider by playing with other people in solitude.

The other prominent class of addictive games are repetitive puzzlers, like Tetris and Bejeweled. A 1994 Wired article examined how Tetris stimulates the brain, and got a wonderful explanation from Vladimir Pokhilko, a former clinical psychologist and friend of Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov. He said Tetris is addictive because of instant visual feedback, the creation of unfinished business that pushes the player to continue, and -- the real important part, I think -- automation, where your motivation to repeat the same actions becomes habitual.

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Somewhere in between these two classes lies the recent wave of social games like Farmville. It has a social layer and a rewards system, like an MMO, and repetitive, automatic actions, like Tetris. Maybe that's why Zynga is raking in the dough.

Thing is, Angry Birds doesn't fit into these descriptions of addictive games. It's the opposite of automatic, requiring careful, calculated precision; it offers no rewards other than new levels and abilities; and there's nothing social about it.

So here's my theory: Angry Birds is not an addictive game. It's just a solid game, the kind that makes you want to play for a while. On consoles and computers, this is no big deal. I'd play Super Mario Bros. 3 for hours on end when I was seven years old. But on iPhone or iPad and Android platforms, where the games are supposed to be inconsequential, who would've thought?

Let me know if I'm way off base.

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