Flappergasted by Videogames’ Colonialism

Although Flappy Jam is premised on being a motion of moral support either towards the creator of Flappy Bird or to Flappy Bird itself, I wonder if its not further perpetuating the problems it thinks itself opposing. It’s a big jumbled knot we face in trying to find out what it thinks it’s attempting to say, what it’s actually saying, what’s provoked it to say that, and so on, because all the factors playing into its creation are of varying visibility and meaning. Perhaps a good way to untangle that knot would be to grab the nearest loose thread and follow it backwards.

So, it’s a game jam that uses certain rules and contexts to encourage political activism. The parameters Flappy Jam lays down are that submitted games must be near-impossible to play and their assets must be classically inspired. The implicit statement here is that it’s OK to make a game with either of these things, that it’s not shameful or inferior as an example of the medium, in protest to perceived cultural pressure that difficulty and derivation are objectionable. Putting aside the fact that you needn’t look deep into any videogame community to find the error there, such as how difficult games are traditionally labelled ‘hardcore’ and elevated to elite status, and how retro-aesthetic games are still quite fashionable, I suspect few people interpreted these as earnest contentions by opponents of Flappy Bird, nor the true cause of its creator’s ostracisation.

To be short on that point, there’s a neat and accessible rundown of the game’s commercial history by Christina Warren here, together with tidbits showing the creator’s increasing anxiety since it’s sudden boom of popularity late last Winter. Note one central platform for motivating scorn at Flappy Bird was a preposterous Kotaku article initially titled “Flappy Bird Is Making $50,000 A Day Off Ripped Art“, which I hope you’ll agree is safe to assume as having inspired the framing of Flappy Jam’s parameters. It’s a big messy affair resulting from rowing factions of many collaborating feelings, values, and perceptions; the best I can hope to do is suggest a broad social phenomenon as the causing factor, for although certain individuals may have contributed to the storm, I find it more to be a travesty of social weather.

Mattie Brice wrote that capitalism was the driving factor behind the blacklash, as it always is when gamers get in an uproar about something that might challenge the status quo. To this sentiment I would add colonialism as forever pivotal to the interests and behaviours of the videogame community-at-large. If capitalist values are the values that must be protected, colonization is the manner through which it will be done. It means cultural protectivism, insularity, centralization, elitism. It manifests as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on. The hate against Flappy Bird bears remarkable similarities to that against Zoe Quinn or Feminist Frequency or Gone Home or Jennifer Hepler, for it’s much the same mentality spurring it on: a sense of protection over gaming as culturally owned by a certain group with certain values, with anything going against this group or these values thought alien or threatening. The horrible sexism of videogames is not wholly disconnected from the horrible racism of videogames.

Colonization isn’t just a mentality of aggressive ownership and expansion, it’s also a process, insofar as social and political phenomenon can inspire behaviours to abide by a pattern. As a process it’s characterized by treatment of the ‘foreign’ culture according to the rough stages of denial, destruction, belittlement, tokenism and exploitation.* It’s a flow of power that wants to obliterate anything in its way; if it can’t do that, the obstacle must instead be weakened and demeaned, then appropriated, co-opted and profited from. Political history has seen colonization stripping countries of their natural resources and people and wealth, but it’s also taken shape in the spread and control of cultural ideas, such as demolishing an entire people’s native religion and language and self-worth.

You might be looking at that and thinking where the exploitation of feminism comes in within the sphere of videgames, which is a fair thing to wonder. I’d hazard we’re seeing some of that already in the ways some major outlets stage feminism within their marketing strategies–Lana Polansky articulated it very well regarding Polygon in this podcas regarding the kyriarchy of Western cultures from which gaming inherits its social structure; undoubtedly these past few years have seen a shift in how quick most publications are to hone in on controversies of a sexist nature and benefit from their reporting, though very few have internalized feminism structurally.

Feminism is just one example of a threat to the cultural mores of gaming, however, though it’s one with an abundance of evidence to suggest a colonial nature of games press and communities. In the case of Flappy Bird, I see denial, destruction and belittlement, though for what reason other than colonialism I can’t fathom, given that here is an unknown Vietnamese developer making a casual game which attained stunning popularity through no marketing or purchasing of market manipulation. There’s a lot there going against the grain of what’s contrived as acceptable to the perceived common wealth.

Considering that the cold light of day reveals the supposed criticisms of Flappy Bird’s difficulty and use of assets as impossible tripe, of so little substance they couldn’t possibly carry a mob all the way to the front gate, they are more likely thin excuses to justify a desire to harass and belittle, a mask to hide behind from oneself. A game being bad or tough isn’t generally enough to incite such vile and rage in massive amounts. It’s normally coupled with some other inflammatory character, such as a person having the wrong gender, or looking slightly different, or perhaps they abided by a different understanding of the nature of the medium and its potential. In every single case, there’s an underlying motive that’s so deeply seated as to be presently immovable from the enraged person’s worldview. It’s usually dreadful and much, much bigger than the appearance of familiar art assets.

In this case, what does Flappy Jam achieve in its moral support? It mistakes the symptoms of a broader social ill as characteristic of the problem itself and recreates the ‘offending’ trait over and over, just to be cheeky really, to give the finger. As it was with Candy Jam and as it generally is with game jams of a protest nature: take some political stance that is preposterous and objectionable and antagonize it.

Except where Candy Jam was activism against corporate greed, with a very clear line drawn between something King.com wanted to stamp down on and a clear expression of resistance through celebration of that thing, it’s unclear how Flappy Jam offers moral support by opposing criticism of derivativeness and difficulty. Fundamentally, it’s making the assumption that these criticisms are what bothered the developer, and that copying his game and rebranding it over and over will satisfy him. (Though it’s not mandated in the Jam’s guidelines, many of the games submitted are in fact just rebranded copies of Flappy Bird.) Perhaps the idea is to show how it’s actually acceptable to make a derivative game if it’s made by the right people, to highlight the double-standard of the gaming press and community against ‘outsider’ developers**.

It is still the case, however, that the right people are stepping in to co-opt this game and redefine it to suit their ends, that this is a privilege they are entitled to, and they don’t challenge that privilege by exercising and entertaining it. Similar to how ironic sexism is really just more sexism.

Remember that tokenism and exploitation are further manifestations of colonization. While there certainly can be games successful in honouring Flappy Bird while presenting the above protest narrative, and games definitely have potential to be critical responses to something upsetting, they mustn’t be divorced from the social conditions in which they exist. Flappy Jam is a social structure informing and contextualizing its games; it’s a form of grassroots organisation towards a rhetorical goal, and to that end it has encouraged the twisting and reforming of Flappy Bird for the benefit of its participants. If Flappy Jam never existed and the same games came about naturally as a stand alone complex it might be another matter–it might be wonderful and benevolent and justified–but sadly that’s not the case. As it is, it’s an example of people rebranding someone else’s game and manipulating his personal narrative to fit their present use.

It’s souring that this is a cultural sphere colonizing something in supposed opposition to that same sphere previously colonizing that thing. Top this off with the traditional nature of game jams as opportunities for developers to get creative juices flowing, to self-serve and self-promote, and this particular game jam asks participants to have fun, it’s hard not to see Flappy Jam as irreverent and exploitative in form. Earlier this week, Aevee Bee insightfully said this of reportage on Flappy Bird:

“There’s nothing inherently different between this article and any other, except that it is misleading and ragemongering (as well as angermongering), which should be of no comfort because, by taking someone else’s story into your hands and making something out of it you are always, always going to be selling that person out.”

As well as I know that’s true of Kotaku’s articles and Flappy Jam, I fear it’s now true of me. This morning I had wanted to avoid writing anything, absolutely anything, on Flappy Bird, for despair of contributing to the state of games criticism as irrevocably in love with whatever’s trending. I see it as a symptom of gaming’s perpetual centralization of ideas and “what’s relevant”, because what’s relevant only ever feeds the machine or is wrung and misshapen until it does. It demands that we talk about the latest games, the most exclusive social affairs, the most prestigious expos and conferences, or be drowned out and irrelevant and frustrated. It privileges the wealthy and the well-located at the same time as it stunts the flow of ideas from more unknown games and unknown voices. It’s another colonial tactic.

Although I never wanted to add to the five hundred or so articles about Flappy Bird this week, I’ve found myself this way compelled in the hope that my message is justified despite having transgressed it. I’m contributing to the trend to try to break the trend. So, rather than leaving with my hands in the air, in the spirit of breaking the centralization of ideas and in replacing Flappy Jam with something less alarming, perhaps we could collectively redouble our efforts to share around and celebrate games made by ‘outsider’ developers, not just on one day but in general.

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*I’m taking these points from here because they seem fairly on the ball but I haven’t researched the source past that page.

**Imagined barriers are still barriers.

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