'Angry Birds' is only the beginning

Michael Geertsma

"Angry Birds" is becoming an animated series and a board game.

If that sentence means nothing to you, you may be in the minority. This puzzle-based video game, originally designed for the iPhone, has been downloaded over 50 million times. When the Android version of the game was released in October of 2010, it took just three days to reach 2 million downloads.

Even to those of you familiar with "Angry Birds," this may not seem newsworthy. After all, the game is free - or, at the very least, incredibly cheap (the “full” version on the iPhone costs a mere $0.99). However, with over 200 million minutes spent playing "Angry Birds" every day, it seems we have accepted video games like never before. In fact, I believe the unprecedented success of this simple game signifies a major shift in the way our culture thinks about gaming. Subsequently, it requires that Christians - either for the first time, or with renewed fervor - begin to ponder the ramifications of video games on nearly every aspect of life.

Consider the following, taken from the Entertainment Software Association’s annual study of game players:

  • Nearly 70 percent of American households play video games.
  • 97 percent of youth play computer and video games.
  • 40 percent of all gamers are women.
  • One out of four gamers is over the age of 50.
  • In 2007, the game industry sold over 267,800,000 units - more than $9.5 billion in revenue.

These statistics clearly demonstrate that video games, once viewed as a novelty (or, at best, a subculture) are now accepted as a mainstream media format, placed alongside television, movies and music as a key player in the shaping of culture. This shift has caused many to wonder about the negative effects of gaming--but not everyone is so worried.


In her new book, "Reality is Broken," game designer Jane McGonigal suggests that video games aren’t merely popular and fun, but essential. She writes,

Reality, compared to games, is broken… In today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

McGonigal believes that video games provide four intrinsic rewards that are all-too-often missing in our “real” lives: satisfying work, the experience of being successful, deep social connections and meaning. For example, she believes that the controversial and addictive "World of Warcraft" has connected with so many people primarily because it offers a constant feeling of “blissful productivity.” You are "immersed in work that produces immediate and obvious results.” (Side note: I am a former "World of Warcraft" player and I completely agree with her assessment. More on that in another post, but suffice to say that the game offers far more than simple escapism). McGonigal then goes much further. She wonders if we might be able to use such game design to fix our so-called “broken” reality

What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real business and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?

I appreciate her positive perspective as a counterpoint to the typical negativity surrounding video games. Sex, violence, addiction, laziness: these are words many people to continue to associate with gaming. Are video games turning our children into mindless zombies? Are they to blame for ADD? Autism? School shootings? Is it ever OK to disconnect from reality?

All are valid concerns, but all tempt us to accept an incomplete view of gaming. Jane McGonigal may take an extreme stance in suggesting that video games can fix what's broken about our world, but her assertion that gaming provides more meaning than "real life" for a growing group of people is both accurate and slightly disturbing.

As someone who has owned virtually every video game console ever made, who has built computers specifically for gaming and who has played "World of Warcraft" for nearly five years, I have much to say about the role, dangers and importance of video games. But for now, I will leave you with this: gaming is a social and cultural reality that Christians will spend the next decade (or longer) wrestling with. Video games are not going away. They will continue to become more immersive, more interactive, more addictive and more formative. "Angry Birds," as immensely popular as it is, represents a mere drop in the bucket of the impact video games can potentially have - an impact that will, someday soon, extend far beyond the realm of mere entertainment.

The question is, will Christians embrace this reality and engage its unique challenges? Or will we, like we have so many times before, simply ignore or condemn it until it has passed us by?

Image courtesy of Rovio.

Topics: Games, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure