A few years ago, a friend of mine was staying up nights playing the game Angry Birds. I tried it but I had the sense that I was behind the curve, so I declined this particular trend. Plus, it was an obsession for him and I didn’t want that.
To be sure, I’m not a gamer, as you can already tell. But soon after my Angry Birds friend had become sucked into this world, I dabbled in gaming at the lowest possible levels. In fact, I became pretty serious. The game started to dominate my conversation. I played it at stoplights. I recruited others. I stayed awake at night thinking about strategy. I had begun to live in this world, at least part of the time.
The game is called Tiny Wings. I can hear the groans already. But, really, it is wonderful, or was. I knew nothing of it until I was watching a home-made YouTube of a smart kid rapping about First World Problems. There was a line in the video in which he said: “Someone keeps texting me while I’m playing Tiny Wings.”
So of course I had to know what Tiny Wings was. I downloaded it on my phone. I loved the music; so groovy, jazzy, freeing.
This little bird is sitting on a small ledge. When you touch the screen, he starts to move down the hill. The touch gives him a bit of weight to fall. When you lift off the screen, he gets lighter so he can fly. (Why do I assume the bird is a he? n/m.)
What follows is a long series of hills of various heights. They exist on islands. To get from island to island, he slides down a huge hill to gain momentum. Then he soars through the air and screams “Wheeeee!” Eventually he comes to land on the peak of a mountain. If you do nothing, he bounces. If you manage the weight control exactly right, you can bring the bird down just after the top of the mountain peak and then let him get maximum momentum to fly as far as possible.
Are you bored yet? It’s actually a wonderful game. It thrilled me. Why? Maybe it was the simplicity? Don’t know. Maybe the music. Maybe the sweet personality of the bird and his lovely ambition to get as far as possible during the day before nightfall comes.
That’s sort of the way I work. I fly as far as possible until I can’t fly anymore. Then I crash and sleep, just like this nice bird.
I am Tiny Wings. Playing this game was like playing my life. The only problem was that Tiny Wings took over my life.
Another aspect of this game thrilled me in the same way all games are amazing. They are whole worlds invented by the human mind and without any permission of the lords of the earth. The entrepreneurs behind these games begin as tinkerers who like building stuff that wouldn’t otherwise exist. They are creators in the service of the human longing for challenge and adventure.
It’s so magnificent that we live in a world that enables them to make money while pursuing their passions.
At first, my Tiny Wings indulgence didn’t seem like a problem. I had some sense that I had to play it every day. Even an hour a day. Even several hours. I was getting better and better, and my bird friend was flying further each day. He seemed happy. Every time I opened the app, he seemed excited that I was back. With my thumb, I was enabling his life and giving him the opportunity to do what he was born to do.
He needed me. I had to get better at bringing him joy.
And I did get better. One thing I really liked was playing and showing others what I was doing. They would ask how they too could get involved in this incredibly cool activity. I showed them how to download the app. When they first started, they were pathetic at it. I was able to show off my amazing skill.
At this point, I didn’t want to believe that I was secretly reveling in others’ failure. Surely not. Still, there was a slight bit of pleasure in thinking of myself as a Tiny Wings master. It seemed to me that I was a becoming a master.
I did nothing but advance, day after day. It was thrilling for me, and for the bird.
Then one day my advancement slowed. I was alarmed at first and then figured it was completely normal to briefly stagnate. But then I started to fall back. My high score receded further and further into history. I could not repeat it. I tried mornings, thinking that being fresh was the key. Then I tried nights. Then I tried being slightly inebriated. I tried relaxed. I tried nervous.
Nothing seemed to work.
Then the fateful day arrived. I decided to look up online tutorials. The way YouTube works, it linked other videos of actual amazing Tiny Wings experts. There were Tiny Wings tournaments. People all over the world posted their bragging videos.
What I saw astonished me. There were hundreds of people who posted perfect scores! They made no mistakes — ever. They got to the end of the islands without any problem. Stunning. Demoralizing actually. I was nowhere near being a master. In fact, I wasn’t even in the running.
The makers of Tiny Wings eventually responded to the new level of global expertise. They released other iterations of the game. Now Tiny Wings did other things. He had to navigate a new world with pools of water and lily pads and other things. And instead of one bird, there were several in a race. I tried the new version briefly and realized that I had no capacity for this new world. History seemed to have moved on. I was behind.
I never set out to abandon my friend. But as time went on, I stopped visiting. For some reason I couldn’t understand, it was just over. The romance died. I just couldn’t muster the energy to care anymore. My app just went unused — even un-updated. Tiny Wings and I broke up.
It wasn’t his fault. I get that. In so many ways, it was mine. But, really, there was no good guy. There was no bad guy. There was only him and me and we just disagreed.
Thus ended my whole gaming life. I’ve never been tempted to return. My Angry Birds friend even invited me to a new game that is supposed to be far more interesting. I just couldn’t face it. The gaming world created by digits is as least as real as that which exists in physical form.
I’ve been hurt before and I just can’t take that risk again.