Angry Birds and a gaming revolution

This is the pre-edited version of my December comment piece for the Observer on casual games, and why they may be a better guide to the digital future than blockbuster titles.

As Christmas approaches, it’s becoming difficult to board a train or watch a film without being bombarded by adverts for the season’s round of blockbuster video games. The latest expansion to the all-conquering World of Warcraft, out on December 7th, has cinematic trailers that put Hollwood to shame—and it will assuredly make more money than any seasonal movie.

On 10th December, however, a rather more modest digital entertainment celebrates its first birthday—and marks, in its way, a more radical digital development than any of the big screen’s pyrotechnics. The game is Angry Birds: a cute and casual slice of play whose 36 million admirers include our prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer, and quite possibly half of the people sharing your carriage on the next commute home.

Playing Angry Birds is a defiantly silly way to spend a few minutes: you whip out your smartphone or iPad, and stroke the screen to start launching cartoon birds from an elastic catapult at a bunch of nefarious pigs. It’s self-evidently absurd. Yet its physics-based puzzles (the pigs insist on hiding behind a rickety series of wood and stone fortifications that you must demolish) possess bewildering depths, and have has made its Finnish developers Rovio many millions.

Angry Birds is just one example of what can safely be called the world’s fastest-growing entertainment sector: casual gaming. And if it isn’t too your taste, you can always indulge your darker side in Doodle Devil; delight virtual diners in Tiny Chef; share and collect virtual amphibian pets in the aptly-named Pocket Frog; or perhaps match coloured, numbered blocks in the fiendish logical puzzler Drop7. You may think you’re just passing the time. But you’re also participating in an increasingly significant slice of the future of technology.

Forget Tron: with powerful mobile computing devices increasingly found in every pocket, the future of technology suddenly looks less like virtual reality and more like a casually augmented version of ordinary experience. And more than almost anything else, it seems that what people of all stripes—young and old, male and female, from students to heads of government—want to inject into their days is play: the kind of fun that can be picked up, put down, and returned to at a moment’s notice.

Why is this? At its best, playing a game like Angry Birds is an Edenic experience. Across several hundred individually-crafted levels, you, the player, are incrementally mastering the dynamics of a tiny world within which everything is guaranteed to work out. The grass is always green, the sun is always shining. There is no limit, other than patience, to the number of times you are entitled to attempt each task. Here is a tiny, unfallen realm where each minor triumph is noted, measured and—if you wish—proudly displayed to the world.

Like many of the world’s best games, Angry Birds is not so much an escape from the laborious pressures of actuality as an unreality where skill and labour are amply, perpetually rewarded. As the title of the American game-theorist Jane McGonigal’s latest book puts it, “reality is broken.” It’s only in play that everything makes sense. And, she adds for good measure, “games make us better.” Because we humans, whether in Africa, America, Europe or the Antarctic, love few things more than losing ourselves in a game. Or, at least, we like losing our working, commuting selves—and rediscovering instead that person who can think of no better use for a moment’s leisure than lobbing just one more explosive avian at a cartoon pig in a helmet.