What Makes Games Like 'Angry Birds' So Addictive?

Angry Birds — a mobile phone game in which players use a slingshot to propel birds at tiny little green pigs — has been a runaway hit since its 2009 release, with more than 700 million downloads, a TV show and a feature film in the works. It isn't alone. NPR's Neal Conan talks with New York Times Magazine critic-at-large Sam Anderson about people's fascination with — and addiction to — what Anderson calls "stupid games."

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Digital slingshots on smartphones launch Angry Birds to knock away structures and expose the birds' real target - tiny, little, innocent, green pigs. After 700 million downloads, it's about as universal as a game gets. But maybe that's not your game. Maybe you prefer "Tetris" or "Plants vs. Zombies" or what Sam Anderson calls the king of stupid games: chess. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, Anderson examined our fascination with what he calls stupid games through the lens of his own addiction. Among other things, he wonders what each of these little timewasters says about its users.

So what does your game say about you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. In a few minutes, we'll be talking with Sam Anderson, critic-at-large for The New York Times Magazine.

But in the meantime, here's an email that we have from Alice in Charlotte, North Carolina: "Words with Friends" is my addiction. I love it because I can play with the people I know. I generally hate competition, especially with friends. But when I win or lose at "Words with Friends," I am removed from directly gloating or pouting.

I have to confess I have a stupid game that I play, too. On the bus going home, I like to play "Solitaire" on my smartphone - not a very challenging game, not a very difficult game, except you can kick yourself when you realize you should have put the black nine on the red 10 three turns ago, and it probably cost you the game. And I'm not sure what it says about me. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Anne's on the line, Anne calling us from Panama City in Florida.

ANNE: Hey.

CONAN: Hey. What's your stupid...

ANNE: Hello.

CONAN: What's your stupid game?

ANNE: Hello. I have a little four-year-old grandson who is absolutely obsessed with "Angry Bird." I don't understand it, but he will just play and play and play it. And I don't know whether it's appropriate for a little kid like that or not. He plays it well.

CONAN: He plays - so he gets from level to level?

ANNE: Yes, yes.

CONAN: And have you tried to play it yourself?

ANNE: Yes.

CONAN: And do you find it at all interesting?

ANNE: Well, I didn't understand it, and he said, oh, nana. Give me the phone back. You don't know what you're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: How old? Four years old?

ANNE: Four years old.

CONAN: Well, he's probably right about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Anne...

ANNE: So I appreciate your program. Go ahead, sir.

CONAN: ...thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ANNE: OK.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can we go next to - this is Nedacraft(ph), is that right? Or Neddy(ph)?

NEDDY: Yes, Neddy.

CONAN: In Nashville. Go ahead, please.

NEDDY: I play a wonderful game on my iPad. I was attracted to it because it had really cool artwork, and it's called "Gesundheit." And it's ridiculous because it's about a little pig that has a cold. And you have to basically flick boogers so these monsters get distracted and eat the boogers. And you have to try and get them to cross this thing so they can eat, and then you go into the next level - totally ridiculous and completely adorable.

CONAN: And just a little bit gross.

NEDDY: Yes. And I don't know why that appeals to me. I'm almost 40, and I think it's hilarious...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEDDY: ...and yep.

CONAN: How much time do you spend playing this game?

NEDDY: Well, my number one game is probably "Plants vs. Zombies," and I think I probably play that about - I mean, I have to put it down sometimes. I probably could waste an hour a day, if I tried. So...

CONAN: And do you ever find yourself picking up the phone to check an email or something like that, and 40 minutes later, you realized you've played 78 games of "Plants vs. Zombies"?

NEDDY: Yeah. It's really amazing, psychologically, how addictive they can be, because I know I should be doing the dishes or grading tests or doing something else. And pretty soon - but, you know, it's a great way for me to bond with my students, because we talk about these games, and they kind of laugh and think it's funny. And we have a good time.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, Neddy. Appreciate your phone call.

NEDDY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's see - we go next to - this is Camilla, Camilla with us from Sevastopol in California.

CAMILLA: Camilla. Yeah. I have a couple of mini-addictions, but the big one that gets me is "Spider Solitaire."

CONAN: "Spider Solitaire." What is that?

CAMILLA: It's like "Solitaire," but all the cards are lined up. I think there are seven or eight stacks, and you can do multiple suits, and you have to line them up from king to ace, and then they get through. But it's just perfect time when you need a vacation from your brain or you need to work through something, I play "Spider Solitaire." And it's almost like I'm turning of the front of my brain and letting the back work. I'm not sure why I'm addicted, but it's a full-blown addiction.

CONAN: As a "Solitaire" player myself, I'm not sure I wanted to know about "Spider Solitaire."

CAMILLA: It's fantastic. I've turned a couple of people on, and they simultaneously love and hate the recommendation so.

CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate.

CAMILLA: Yeah. No problem. Bye.

CONAN: And Sam Anderson joins us now. He's critic-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. He's with us by phone from him home in Beacon, New York. I'm sure a couple of minutes late because you're probably playing "Drop7," right, Sam?

SAM ANDERSON: Yeah, that was the problem.

CONAN: I'm sure. What about that game so attracts you?

ANDERSON: Boy, what about "Drop7?" I mean, it's beautiful on so many levels. It's very - like most of these games, it's a very simple little system that you can just kind of drop into and lose yourself in, and it has this kind of mathematical purity to it that's just wonderful to be a part of.

CONAN: And when you find yourself staring at the - or at least seeing the prompt for another new game, I know you wrote about - you know you shouldn't hit it.

ANDERSON: Yeah. Yeah, you do but you hit it. I mean, you almost always say - I'd say three out of four times, you hit and that's the nature of these games. As your previous caller said, they're so wonderful as a little vacation for part of your brain. But what is potentially sinister about them is that they don't stay a little vacation. They're so attractive and it's so easy to start again that they kind of become the main event, and your work life becomes a vacation.

CONAN: And they don't add a lot to your intellectual life.

ANDERSON: Well, yeah. I mean, not in any obvious way. I mean, you play "Tetris" and "Tetris" is another just masterpiece of design. I mean, one designer I talked to called it a mathematical sculpture, and yet all you're doing - at the end of your four hours of "Tetris," all you've done is you swiveled some little digital bricks, and it doesn't really connect with the outside world in any meaningful way.

CONAN: I was interested in your piece in The New York Times Magazine that - I did not know this - that "Tetris" was invented in a Soviet computer lab.

ANDERSON: Yes, it was. Yeah, it was invented kind of by accident, I think, by a Soviet computer technician-mathematician and just instantly was this thing that hooked people and so burbled around and finally kind of exploded across the world in 1989 for the Nintendo Game Boy.

CONAN: You describe it as faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is bureaucracy in pure form. A reflection of the society from which it emerged?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: Yeah. It struck me as that, and that's the thing game scholars talk about a lot is that games reflect the societies they come from, and so it seems like "Tetris" is a reasonable reflection of Soviet Russia in certain ways.

CONAN: Well, if "Tetris" is an expression of Soviet Russia, what does "Angry Birds" say about us?

ANDERSON: Oh. That's a great question. What does it say about us? We're angry and we're not going to take it anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Boy, we can't stand those little walls.

ANDERSON: That's right. We're going to get - yeah. Well, I mean one thing that was interesting to me about "Angry Birds" and the current moment is that it's one of the first massive games I can think of where you're actually - you reach your finger down into this digital world. I mean, you're pulling a slingshot that behaves like a physical slingshot, and that's one of the addicting things. And so it's almost this like cyborg fusion between your actually human finger and this totally virtual slingshot that behaves like a real physical slingshot.

CONAN: You don't think people are expecting that nano-calorie to help them lose weight though.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: Probably not.

CONAN: Probably not. Let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. We're talking with Sam Anderson, New York Times magazines' critic-at-large. He wrote "Just One More Game" in an April edition of the magazine. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Let's go to Ron(ph). Ron's on the line with us from Cleveland.

RON: Yes, Neal, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

RON: I'm calling to talk about the most devious game perhaps ever known to man simply called "The Impossible Game," and that name sums it all up.

CONAN: Why is it impossible?

RON: It's the simplest set of controls. All you have to do is tap the screens to make a little icon jump, and you have to jump over triangles or bounce off of squares. It is accompanied by a techno beat kind of soundtrack that's addictive in and of itself, and it is a maddening game. The name, again, sums it up to the point that the 16-year-old in our household has given up on it herself, much less the parents and everybody else that has ever touched the thing.

CONAN: And how much time do you spend on this?

RON: Initially, way too much until you realize that your efforts are probably futile unless you just hang it up and choose never to return.

CONAN: Choose another game.

RON: Yes. Oh, absolutely.

There are many, many to choose from.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And that's the point, Sam Anderson. You migrate after awhile. The - for whether it's a cosmic stupidity, in the case of something like "Solitaire," or difficulty, in the case of "The Impossible Game," you find something new.

ANDERSON: Yes, you do. As the caller said, there are infinite possibilities out there. That's kind of the nature of these new little games that are made for mobile devices as opposed to the old console games that were meant to sit on the floor and play for five hours at a time. These are meant to play in tiny, little chunks and you drop them when you're bored, and you pick up the next one.

CONAN: That was a fascinating - and, Ron, thanks very much for the call - really interesting part of your story. Those old games were quests, wars. You went from level to level to level. You could play for hours. As you suggest, these are meant to be designed to be played for, at most, minutes at a time.

ANDERSON: Right. There were some games like that for the old consoles, but what has survived for the kind of iPhone era are these little, teeny, tiny system games because that's what people want and that's what makes sense when you're standing in line at the post office.

CONAN: Here's an email from - I'm not sure - Lulu(ph) in North Carolina: I am totally addicted to "Scrabble" online to the point where it's causing relationship problems. We had our first couple's counseling session yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: The strain in relationships, you describe at least some jokes that strained yours a little bit.

ANDERSON: Oh, right. Yeah. My wife kind of hooked on "Words with Friends." She still plays that and, yeah, I didn't have an iPhone, and I felt very superior I guess and used to kind of sit and stare her, and I'd lose her in the middle of a conversation. And said I was going to invent something called the iPaddle that I could slide over the screen of her phone when I wanted her attention. We have messages on it, like I love you or be here now or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Sam Anderson with us from The New York Times Magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Here's an email that we have from Thomas: The green pigs in angry birds are not innocent. They laugh at you when you miss.

I had not known that and I've never played "Angry Birds." Let's see if we can go next to - this is Zan(ph), Zan with us from Bowling Green in Kentucky.

ZAN: Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me on. I just wanted to say the games of old, what I grow up with, the Atari and things like that, they weren't as proactive as these games that are now. For instance, the "Words with Friends" and those types of games, they allow the younger generation to think a lot more proactively, faster. They allow them to be able to think quicker, and I think it helps them expand their minds quite a bit, and I think that's really amazing. I think it's a wonderful thing that we have things like this now. And especially for the younger generation, I think it'll help them be smarter.

CONAN: How does "Tetris" help you think?

ZAN: Well, it's a mind thing. When you're playing "Tetris," you have to think ahead of time what you're going to do. So it's a problem-solving situation.

CONAN: Would you agree with that, Sam Anderson?

ANDERSON: Well, that's certainly been a debate since the early days of video games, what skills carry over back into the real world? And there are people who argue that they do, and there are people who argue, you know, there's this rising movement called Gamification where people say that being inside of a game is actually kind of an ideal - the ideal human state of mind. And that if we can actually find a way not to play fewer games, but to impose game structures on top of everyday things, that we're all going to be happier. Our brains are going to work better.

CONAN: So, play "Solitaire," you reach satori?

ANDERSON: What's that?

CONAN: Play enough "Solitaire," you reach satori?

ANDERSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right. Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I'm not quite sure that's exactly what I've been working on, exactly what I've been working on. Zan, thanks very much for the call. Though one of the makers that you described in - you interviewed in the story you wrote for The Times magazine described a lot of these as knitting games. They're effectively mindless.

ANDERSON: Yeah, but, well, mindless in a sense that they do - I like that term because it taps into how they kind of - there's a social function to them, this kind of soothing thing. You can sit on the couch with somebody else and be playing this game with one quarter of your mind but still having a conversation and enjoying a fire and, you know, it doesn't completely remove you from the world.

CONAN: Let's go next to Will(ph), and Will with us from Sparks in Maryland.

WILL: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

WILL: I'm a game designer myself. I work for AXIS Games, which is right outside of Baltimore. And my favorite game of all time, which I play a lot on my phone, is the game of "Go," which is the national game of Japan. It's very, very simple. If you like chess, you could probably play this game. You could teach a 5-year-old to play, but it would take a lifetime to master.

CONAN: And I've heard if chess is, as you describe it, Sam Anderson, the king of stupid games, "Go" is on the next level.

WILL: I would say so, yes.

CONAN: Sam, are you a "Go" player, Sam?

ANDERSON: I have never tried it. I stick with chess. That's about as highbrow as I get in my game.

CONAN: You also described it as the PBS of digital games, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: You're right.

CONAN: ...we'll take that for what it's worth. Will, thanks very much for the call.

WILL: Thank you.

CONAN: This email from Charlotte(ph), from - she writes: I'm a 63-year-old woman who badgered my child and his friends in their adolescence when video games came into the world in the '80s. I now find myself playing "Brick Breaker" on my BlackBerry and get really p.o.'d when the darn thing stars running slow and I have to take out the battery and reboot. It only seems to happen when I approach a million points.

So this does not seemed to be a respecter of age. It's not as those console games were, strictly for those who have the thumb speed of a pre-adolescent.

ANDERSON: Exactly. That's the kind of revolution of the iPhone or the smartphone in general is that, suddenly, you don't need to go out and buy a $200 console and hook it up to your $500 television. You have a phone in your pocket and that is incidentally a very powerful game console in itself. The grandmothers and aunts and uncles and little kids are all playing these things.

CONAN: Sam Anderson's piece for The New York Times Magazine "Just One More Game," The New York Times Magazine critic-at-large joined us by phone from his home in Beacon, New York. We'll let you get back to your smartphone, Sam.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Sam - tomorrow, Matt Bai, speaking of The New York Times Magazine, fills in for Political Junkie Ken Rudin. We'll talk about the Democratic base. Join us then. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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