Love Your Addiction

Up until today, I did not know what Flappy Bird was. Now I know. It’s an downloadable game, an app, and I have decided that I love it, without ever playing it.

And I will never play it: it’s unavailable as of a few days ago. After millions and millions of downloads, the creator took it down because he thought it was too addictive.


Interesting, right? Evidently it is for Forbes, CNNNewsweek, Slate, IGN, and a dozen or more mid-level news outlets. Here’s what happened:

Awesomely-named Vietnamese game developer Dong Nguyen threw together the ultra-simple game in a matter of a few days, and put it up for grabs on May 24th of last year, eight months ago. Since then, about 50 million people experienced what often comes with ridiculously good games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush. They got hooked. Really hooked. More information available here.

I’ve enjoyed my quality time with video games, Street Fighter 2 when I was a kid up through the required 24 hour Angry Birds phase, but Lord…

What’s crazier about all this is that, despite some people saying the entire situation is the mass scale equivalent of an inside joke, others really seem to think that video game addiction is a big problem. The most obvious example is Mr. Dong himself, saying, “I cannot take this anymore.” It looks like a crack dealer coming out and saying that he finally figured out that his product is dangerous, a conscience thing.

Naturally, lots of people in the press don’t buy this. I’m not talking about the addiction thing, but rather, the conscience element: they need a bad guy. The big conspiratorial rumor revolved around Nintendo making noise over trademark infringement, which sounds likely because even the most casual screenshot look at this thing makes it clear that the gaming environment owes an awful lot to Super Mario Brothers. But Nintendo has now killed that rumor itself. That doesn’t mean the rumor died: some investigative reporting turned up a couple of friends who, despite the denials, insisted that Dong had received a warning after all.

This was important enough to make it into Forbes, as you can see: the opening quote on their website when accessing the story was by Hugh Cameron, saying, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

Let’s say that Dong was serious, and he pulled the game because of addiction issues leading to a guilty conscience. Is this the way that addiction is actually seen by people? Because I don’t think it is. I think this is the way that addiction is seen by the press.

On a more respectable note, CVS recently decided to do something similar: they pulled all the cigarettes off their shelves. People lauded this move immediately: every major news outlet covered it in a positive light, with all the holy-roller Puritanism we’ve come to expect from the left when dealing with any issue related to public health.

Now, do you have to ingest a substance to be addicted? Certainly not. Really, all you have to do is not take responsibility for your actions. Oh yeah, remember, you live in a victim culture. Like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, the thing to keep telling yourself is, “it’s not your fault.”

This is what separates conservatives of most stripes from liberals in the American context: conservatives understand that individualism requires a sense of accountability to go along with the prerogative to do what you like. Now, since this could clearly lead to justifying absolutely anything, any exploitation or assault, on the grounds that the individual holds all responsibility for dealing with it, the balance between prerogatives and responsibilities is understood to be cultural and to hold a traditional component, for the sake of establishing expectations and allowing the individual to adapt to those expectations. In the case of addiction, a conservative might accept that those peddling addictive wares might need restrain themselves from targeting children, for example, but adults can make their own choices, and pay for them. Hence, there is freedom… of a sort. It’s kind of a mess of arbitrary culture management, but the individual has to have the burden of his own welfare primarily on his own shoulders.

For a liberal, addiction is simply an evil, because the resulting desire creates a power inequality. Living in a society where people are allowed to exploit each other in this manner is unethical, so they will push to kill vices, down to the lowest common denominator, going as far up the social ladder as possible when placing responsibility. This means the management, the inventors, the investors, the patriarchs of all kinds, who create the pitfalls which swallow the theoretically innocent. To create freedom, they must create fairness, which means managing the social environment rigorously to give everyone a chance.

There is a certain moral totalitarianism going on when you buy such a narrative. In order to prevent a culture of exploitation, it’s fairly easy to see how a concerned group could come to the conclusion that they must control the culture themselves, in the name of freedom. And, yeah, there is a lot to be said here about the coherence of that ideal of freedom. What does not need to be said is how this is an obvious exchange of one set of dependencies for another.

I know people are pathetic, but I’m not convinced that they’ve always been THAT pathetic. We seem to be getting less and less capable of good personal judgment as dangers in the world are removed, less inclined to value the decisions that push the long-term over the short-term, to watching our step even if it means missing out on some marginally intriguing pleasures. Some people are obviously more vulnerable to vice than others, and on those grounds, choosing one’s vices is evidently not expected to be our choice anymore.

Because of this attitude, I have no real problem believing that a kid made what he sees as a moral decision: he created something that trapped people without meaning to, so he saved his soul by ceasing to offer it. Instead of making a dump truck full of money, he’s relegated himself to filling a mere hatchback. We should all be very proud of him, and may his shining example convince inventors of the Next Big Stupid Wasteful Thing to do sleep in tomorrow.

I really do think it’s great, because between the game and the decision to pull the game, this kid has created metric fucktons of entertainment for those of us who walk on the edge of misanthropy. Hopefully, thousands of dollars will be spent by in-withdrawal Flappy Bird addicts, doing the kinkiest of sexual favors in exchange for mere minutes with a beat up iPhone password controlled by their pimp, flapping their poor resolution wings before it’s time for the next pervert with a mayonnaise fetish.

How long before the media really moves on to non-substance addictions to scare people with, to make them feel out of control? Probably not long, because I think there are a lot of people who enjoy making the excuses, and I expect said people to look increasingly ridiculous as they lose all personal discipline and clamor for attention and pity in the future. It’ll make for compelling television.