Friday, January 07, 2011

A Brief Psychological Analysis of the Angry Birds

Joe Frisch is a staff scientist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University. Dr. Frisch writes:

I wonder when we will start seeing really addictive games banned? I don't know what makes games addictive though. Civ is easy - you start to feel empathy for the people you are "guiding" and as you play more, you gain more things that can help then.

Angry birds is a mystery to me - there is no ongoing story line, you don't really gain any abilities as the game goes on, so WHY DO I WANT TO SMASH THE PIGGIES????

Isn't there some sort of conditioning to fix this - electric shocks or something?

I'm now on Level 4-19 of 2. Mighty Hoax. It took me days to finish Poached Eggs. Am I losing my mind? I am way too old for this. I'm slinging virtual animated birds while I leave ClinkShrink to cure the criminals of this world and Roy to index our book. What has gotten in to me?

So I want to write a post about the psychology of Angry Birds, but I need to start with a disclaimer. I haven't tried many video games. My experience is limited, and the few games I've tried, I've liked. I was once a very accomplished Tetris Player. But with limited exposure, it's hard for me to say why Angry Birds is more compelling than any other game. Civ? No clue.
But I'll take a stab at it. Please feel free to add your thoughts.

1. There's the challenge of trying to smash all the Piggies. Practice helps: the more you play, the better you get. It takes a little while, especially at first, but there is this enormous sense of accomplishment when those piggies smash-- especially if you don't use all your birds and get an extra 10,000 points/leftover bird.

2. The games are short: you move through one and then can go on to the next. So there is variety to the difficulty and landscape. Each scenario has different birds: the black bomber guys who explode are my favorite. The red do-nothings are my least favorite. The gray guys who divide into three would be better if they were more powerful. There's an option to buy some eagle guy, but I haven't done that. It's challenging, but not impossible. Okay, I did watch some YouTube tutorial videos like the one I embedded here, but only for the first level.

3. Each game can be won with 1 to 3 stars. This allows the game to accommodate the player's personality. You can proceed with just one star. To me, that feels like getting a C and I was never happy with C's. At the same time, if I needed to get 3 stars on every single game, I'd never eat or sleep, so I'm content to get 2 or 3 stars on each game, depending on how impossible it seems. Joe and Igor tell me they both move on with 1 star wins. I wonder what Roy would do with this.

4. It clears my mind and occupies my time in a relatively angst-free way. It's what I imagine that other people get out of TV, but most TV shows feel like work for me. They don't hold my attention and I have to make myself pay attention.

5. It feels important. That's really crazy, isn't it? I had the same sense with Tetris.

6. Somehow, I don't feel the least bit guilty spending hours of my day doing this. Hopefully that will change if I'm still at it in a few weeks. I typically am very efficient with, and protective of, my time, and it seems like it should be fine to devote some time to pure, mindless entertainment. I suppose the question is how many years and at the expense of what? So my kids have had to order pizza every night for the past week---is that a problem? They like pizza...

7. Empathy? I'm supposed to feel empathy during video games? I'm a psychiatrist....I empathize all day long. I don't care about the birds or the little green piggies. They aren't real. And I had no empathy for the falling geometric shapes in Tetris. Maybe you're spending too much time in that accelerator, Joe.

8. Shock treatments for video game addiction? Hmmm... we could do a study here. I don't think we'd get past any research review boards if we proposed ECT as a treatment for video game addictions (ah, it didn't make it past APA as a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, for one thing), but I imagine we could do a before and after survey of people having ECT for depression to see if their coincidental interest in Angry Birds changed with treatment. Get me the funding and I'm there.

9. Let's talk about the anger. Are the birds really angry? The human player flings them at the structures in an attempt to vaporize the green piggies. So who's angry: the birds, the human player, or is anger even part of this equation? Joe tells me the piggies are evil. They steal eggs. I haven't seen them steal eggs. They just sort of sit their in their structures, waiting to see if the birds will vaporize them. I would contend that there really isn't much emotion of any kind involved here on the part of the animated little players. Would the game be as good if the human was flinging colored balls rather than birds? If the object of destruction were a plate or a star or a non-green-piggy object? I think so.

I'll wait for your feedback.


ClinkShrink said...

I like piggies. I had one as a pet once. Please don't smash them.

Anonymous said...

The level of violence in smashing a pretend pig is about the same as knocking over a bowling pin with a heavy ball. Have fun.

moviedoc said...

It's a communist plot.

Anonymous said...

Doctor Blondie said...

I get bored with those games within one hour.
My mind never goes on 'mindless'; it just goes into IQ hyperdrive or something.

Anonymous said...

@Dr Blondie:

Dinah is obviously young at heart, or experiencing a second adolescence.
From my non empirical data, adolescence extends well into the 20s these days. Go Dinah, go.

Anonymous said...

In #7, I think the word you want is sympathy, not empathy. As in: you might be sympathetic that someone is drinking a bad glass of wine, but you can't really empathize unless you have the experience and capacity to taste it yourself. picky, picky. I know.

Dinah said...

I meant empathize.

It doesn't have to be the precise event and not much of it is about bad wine.

ClinkShrink-- a pig owner? Did you also have a spider who wrote messages in her web?

Anonymous said...

Civ is short for "Civilization" a series of games (now up to 5) where you act as the leader of a civilization from the stone age through the modern world (or later). I've always considered this the classic addictive game because it has a number of "hooks":

It is a single very long game (10s of hours or more). As you play, you become more powerful - your civilization gains new technologies, social inventions, religion, etc.

There is a strong sense of empathy for your "people". If you don't do well, they "suffer", are invaded by outsiders, starve, etc. You can "save" them by helping them defeat their enemies, guide them to better developments. When they are happy they build you statues and monuments, through celebrations on your behalf.

The (computer run) opponents are given faces and personalities. When the French King violates a treaty and sneakily captures one of your cities, it generates real anger - you want to get revenge. You spend a long time trying to develop weapons to crush your enemies, and when you finally have warships or whatever, it seems important to avenge your suffering people.

There is no clear break in the game - there is always one more thing to do. Each action is quick, but there is a nearly unlimited set of things to do.

Last time I played a CIV game was on a flight to south America - total of >20 hours travel time. I played nearly non-stop (multiple batteries and a multi-hour layover to re-charge), and I was disappointed when the plane finally landed because I had just built my first battleship and wanted to use it.....

What confuses me about Angry Birds is that it has none of this.

I do think that Angry Birds would be less compelling if you were just throwing balls at "star" targets but it would be an interesting test. Certainly the complex collapse of the structures is part of the appeal, but I wonder if it would be as much fun if you weren't also destroying "pigs".

I'm actually starting to lose my addiction to Angry Birds, so it doesn't have as strong a hold on me as other games. (or maybe it's just that I now have a computer that can run Myth_III, guess I've solved my drinking problem by taking heroin.....

Seriously though, how much work has been done to study addiction to games? There have been lots of media articles mentioning specific cases of people who have had serious addition to particular games, but is it actually a widespread problem? Have people studied what makes some games addictive (very valuable to the manufacturers, but I wasn't completely joking about banning some games).

Getting more philosophical, do people like games so much because society doesn't provide a lot of interesting, important-seeming challenges. We have no new lands to explore, no real enemies to fight. Modern society makes very little call for "heroic" action (what is the last time you needed to do something that took real "courage", where your life was really as risk?). Maybe games are popular because real life has gotten so easy (or more accurately so safe).

Finally, when you play Angry Birds, is it fun, or is it more of a compulsion?

---- Joe

Dr Shock said...

ELectroshock for internet addiction is already done in China, but it's not the electroshock as we know it.
Enjoy angry birds
Dr Shock

Dinah said...

Thank you for the links, Dr. Shock and Anon.

One adolescence was plenty, but thank you anyway, Dr. Blondie.


APA considered making video game addiction a disorder, but didn't, back in 2007.

Today (June 25, 2007) the APA released the following statement on “video game addiction”:

The APA defines mental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Since the current edition, DSM-IV-TR, does not list “video game addiction,” the APA does not consider “video game addiction” to be a mental disorder at this time. If the science warrants it, this proposed disorder will be considered for inclusion in DSM-V, which is due to be published in 2012. Revising DSM requires a years-long, rigorous process – one that is transparent and open to suggestions from our colleagues in the medical and mental health communities and the public. All changes to DSM will be based on the latest and best science. To date, the APA has named the chair and co-chair of the DSM-V Task Force – David Kupfer, M.D., and Darrel Regier, M.D., M.P.H., respectively – and is in the process of establishing the full task force, which will have overall responsibility for DSM-V’s development.

A couple of years ago, Roy, ClinkShrink and I were part of a symposium presentation about On-Line Communities. Another part of the presentation discussed On-Line gaming and the huge amount of time people spend on this -- 2nd Life--I think the average among those who do it is something like 8 hours a day. I didn't even know this existed....and that people will pay real money to purchase virtual land, etc. Shortly after that, I had a patient mention video games and it turned out he was doing this virtual life thing (and not working, living with parents, etc). Generally, though, I can't say this is stuff I hear much about.

You may have exhausted my expertise on this.

I don't think I'm compelled about Angry Birds. Life is quiet at the moment, if something more exciting came along, I'd probably move on to that.

I'm on the 6th level.

Anonymous said...


The pigs represent men of a certain ilk.

Anonymous said...


There is evidence here that you are skimming, not reading. Tired, or is the game having an effect on your attention to detail/ ability to concentrate on things outside the game?

regina said...

idk why but i cant put the game down. I am determined to beat a level that i have a hard time with even if it takes me an hour & then get excited when i do & need to play the next one because its new to me. i am a 34 year old nurse & have an angry bird problem.