02 September 2012

Angry Birds rule the World

Yeah, I said it. A lot of gamers hate the game. I play it occasionally, whenever they update new maps and I'm sitting on the bus to work. Never really thought about it. But now that I'm travelling through Asia again (something I'm bound to do every once-in-a-while), I realize that I've been ignorant at the scale that this phenomenon of a game has around the planet. Let's talk about it.

When I first played Angry Birds, I was late to the party. That was summer last year, on the laptop of my in-laws in Mongolia. It was a PC version, localized and translated into Mongolian, something I found odd as most stuff with the exception of movies isn't translated into Mongolian, because it is a developing nation of only a few million, not really a large market to tap. Was that version fan-made? Possibly. It didn't matter all that much anyways, as I quickly found out: The game is designed to be playable by someone entirely illiterate, like young children or people who cannot even read Latin letters. The games cut-scenes and little cartoons explaining how different types of birds work like the comics that explained weapons in World War II to illiterate resistance fighters in the Pacific are simple and can be understood by at least 90% of human beings living on earth right now. It's brilliant in its simple elegance, really. Like gaming is a universal language or something poetic like that. That was what I thought last year.

So later I got an Android phone and got the game myself, as it doesn't cost anything on that system. It's a decent bit of entertainment. The next thing I realized about it is, that a game this simple is going to work on pretty much any system. I bet my old Nokia could have run it, hardwarewise, had it had a compatible OS. It runs on cheap knock-off smartphones in Asia and on ancient Win9X computers powered by Diesel-generators for three hours per day in South America and Africa. Every internet-shack on the planet can have a copy of this installed and people will use it to kill time. Because you need no linguistic skills to understand it. If your mother tongue is, say, Hindi and you can barely read that, let alone any weird foreign language such as English, and you cannot afford any device besides that fake iPhone your cousin imported from China, you can still play angry birds while waiting for the bus taking you to the brick-factory. THAT is acessibility on a global level. A lot of people these days are cheering at Curiosity, congratulating themselves what "we" as a species have accomplished, forgetting that to two thirds of the world these things are completely irrelevant and so far off that, joke in-coming, they might as well be happening on Mars.

Now, I doubt that Rovio had any idea what they were starting when they made that little game. I doubt they know about the full extend of cultural phenomenon they have created by now. Which brings me to my observations this year: Southeast Asia friggin loves this game. Like, real bad. I know that there is stuffed angry-birds to toss at people, I have seen them at a friends house at home. But around here, some people will stuff the entire back of their cars with the things. Kids wear Angry-Birds-T-Shirts. There is Ed-Hardy-style caps with Angry Birds design, something that you can see not only in the urbanized parts of the country, but in the most backwater border-region of Cambodia, worn by teenagers in combination with baggy pants and basketball jerseys. A little girl I saw from an overland-bus while her parents were unpacking larges bundles of rice from the bowels of the bus had Angry-Birds hair-clips. There are hand-painted Angry Birds on the sides of rikshaws and tuk tuks.

Why is that so? I would say that the game has a universal appeal that no other game has had before. Tetris might be as easy to understand but it came in a time where the mere concept of a video game was something that was completely inaccessible to 90% of mankind. Times have changed though, and the cutesy-graphics make for a universal appeal, combined with linguistics and hardware-requirements so simple that now the so called third world has been able to catch up with it. This is a game played by 40 year old rice-selling women in Southeast Asia, by factory-workers in India, by kids all over the place, and I would say it is still growing. Of course, most of the products I mentioned aren't sanctioned by Rovio, they won't make a cent off that. But this isn't a blog about business, it's about gaming. And I think that Angry Birds has done a lot for gaming, on a global level that most AAA games cannot even imagine. Less than 1% of the people in most developing nations can afford the hardware to play a high-end game. Stories of characters yelling at each other are lost to anyone who doesn't understand them. This is globalized gaming. And I congratulate it.

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