It's Time to Stop Ignoring Angry Birds

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the birds.


How big is Angry Birds?

You may have played (or laughed at someone playing) the iOS app. You may have heard there's an Angry Birds movie in the works (a real one, not an amazing web video from last year). You may have seen the Chrome commercial running right now on primetime TV. You may have ignored the people on the bus or at work or at school talking about it. You may, in other words, be aware that there is a game called Angry Birds that has become a thing of a certain size. But do you really know how big it is? I do.

This year, every carny hawking games of chance was doing so behind a wall of stuffed Angry Birds characters.
I've just come home from the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, where citizens of North Carolina and the surrounding environs gather every year to eat things that have been deep-fried. They step aboard stupid carnival rides and play almost-impossible-to-win games of chance for the opportunity to take home a stuffed version of some recognizable television, book, comic book, movie, or video game character. This year, every carny hawking games of chance was doing so behind a wall of stuffed Angry Birds characters. There were still the usual assortment of popular cartoon characters and random stuffed animals and fruits, but this year, those were shunted to the back of the booth. In front of the stuffed Winnie the Poohs, Scooby Doos, Banana Men, and Pikachus--right out in front where every passing man, woman, and (especially) child could see them--were those angry little birds and their porcine nemeses. At Every. Single. Booth.

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Birds as far as the eye can see.

I am aware that many very serious and otherwise very intelligent and insightful video game writers and analysts have been studiously ignoring the phenomenon of Angry Birds, hoping that it will flame out quickly and let us get on with the very serious business of bringing our very serious knowledge of very serious games to very serious people like us who will take it all very seriously. We want to play our Batman and our Battlefield and then complain about the niggling negative details about each. We want to write about how many hats are too many hats, and why downloadable content is cheating the customer. We want to wage Total War with our keyboards and mice and moan about how infrequently we get the chance to do so anymore. We want, in other words, to preserve what we most first loved about gaming and justify our belief that this will all someday be more than just an overly complicated and prohibitively expensive hobby that only a handful of humans are willing to try. I am also aware that it is time to wake up and take the blinders off.

Businessmen and soccer moms are buying them, and then dropping $0.99 to $1.99 a pop on Angry Birds.
While serious gaming journalists have been attempting to woo an ever-expanding, gaming-savvy audience base with tales of rich narrative experiences, immersive worlds, and meaningful digital interactions, all the while bemoaning the fact that gaming is not a mainstream pursuit, gaming has become a mainstream pursuit--just not how we imagined it. iPhones and other "smart" devices may be as expensive as gaming consoles, but they are multipurpose tools. Businessmen and soccer moms are buying them, and then dropping $0.99 to $1.99 a pop on Angry Birds. Not just a few of them--hundreds of millions of them. More than will play all of this holiday season's AAA titles combined.

Angry Birds was released late in 2009. That year, many major outlets (including the one I ran) proclaimed Batman: Arkham Asylum their game of the year. Last year, many of those same outlets (including mine) selected Red Dead Redemption. Both were fine choices. Both games presented vast, semi-open worlds, cross-genre play styles, and deep narrative experiences. Both games have sold approximately 13-15 million copies combined.

Meanwhile, Angry Birds has moved approximately 400 million. And that number has roughly doubled from approximately 200 million in May of this year, just a month before Apple announced that it had sold approximately 222 million of its iOS devices. In other words, almost every person who has purchased an iOS device (the best-selling electronics devices in the history of the world) has also downloaded Angry Birds.

Still not buying it? All right. Those of you raised on Nintendo devices playing some variation of a Mario game may consider the iconic plumber to be one of the most widely recognized video game characters of all time. If so, you're not alone. Guinness World Records did too, just this year. Yet, Nintendo has sold only approximately 260 million copies of its Super Mario-themed games in the nearly 30 years it has been making them. That's roughly half the number of Angry Birds titles that are estimated will be downloaded by the end of this year, just two years after it was first debuted.

And yet, people who had never heard of Fallout had heard of Minesweeper, and most of them had played it.
I used to say that I believed the most popular video game of all time was Minesweeper. Everyone with a Windows PC had it, and most of them played it. It was hard to come by sales or playtime data for the game, however, so this was a difficult argument to make, and it was hard to be taken seriously. And yet, people who had never heard of Fallout had heard of Minesweeper, and most of them had played it. Before most of the currently popular online game media organizations were even founded, bankers and secretaries were playing games--just not the same games played by the journalists who started those outlets. The journalists starting those outlets were not starting them to write about Minesweeper and, to be fair, Minesweeper is not among the games that have been pushing the industry forward of late. Yet most people still played it. Even those who claimed they didn't play video games.

Now there's Angry Birds. Not only is everyone playing it, but nobody is ashamed to admit to doing so except hardcore gamers. Most of us who have been playing and writing about video games for decades can (and should) take some credit for helping to eradicate the stigma associated with video gaming. We can (and should) feel proud that this pastime is now something shared by hundreds of millions of people around the world. We can also (and should) try to play what those people are choosing to play, even when it is not the same thing we're playing.

This month Rovio added a new edition of Angry Birds to its market-crushing lineup: the next iteration of Angry Birds Seasons, featuring more levels based on Halloween and other holidays. There's even a new bird, which is such a momentous occasion for Angry Birds fans that it has become mainstream news, eclipsing Blizzard's announcement from BlizzCon of a World of Warcraft expansion featuring the once mythical pandas. According to Gamasutra, Angry Birds Seasons is now the number two best-selling app on the Apple App store. What's number one? The original Angry Birds.

This game will sell more copies than any video game ever made before it is forgotten…
Angry Birds may eventually work its way loose from the mainstream, but to ignore it in the meantime is to ignore the irrefutable evidence that video gaming has so deeply insinuated itself into popular culture that a bird from a video game (one with no name, no less) is rapidly becoming one of the most iconic, instantly recognizable characters in popular culture, and a company that no one had ever heard of just three years ago is piggybacking on Apple's world-changing technological architecture to change the way video games are played--and by whom.

This game will sell more copies than any video game ever made before it is forgotten, and it will shatter every perception of what a video game can do. Think about that while you're spending your Q4 reading and writing about AAA "blockbusters."

Russ Pitts is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist and the former producer of TechTV's The Screen Savers. He is currently writing freelance, and blogging at False Gravity. Follow him on Twitter.

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