Stamatakis: Angry Birds and the human condition

By Nick Stamatakis

Opinionizing often amounts to nothing more than making extraordinary claims about ordinary… Opinionizing often amounts to nothing more than making extraordinary claims about ordinary events or objects. An opinion maker, professional or private, can take February’s Obamacare birth control fiasco and turn it into either a polemic about supreme religious persecution or supreme sexist bigotry. Maybe both positions are exaggerated, but they’re at least supposed to make us think.

But who wants to hear more about Obamacare? A much more interesting topic for semi-reckless opinionizing is America’s favorite handheld pastime, Angry Birds. To make things more interesting, we can use the game’s older sister, Tetris, as a foil.

A great deal of literature has already been written about Tetris’ appeal to a generation of players. For its creator, Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris isn’t just a game, but a creative endeavor that allows users to “take the chaos of the pieces falling down in random and put them together in some kind of ordered way.”

Other analyses of the game are more eccentric: British musical comedy band Pig With The Face Of A Boy took Tetris’ theme song and using the refrain “I am the man who arranges the blocks,” explained how the player represents the Russian people, buffeted carelessly back and forth by the winds of history through czardom, communism and eventually faux-capitalism. A popular CollegeHumor video uses the Tetris experience as a lesson in cruel fate, with a heartless god hurling down pieces we don’t need when all we want is the long one to score a Tetris.

But I think one of the most negative interpretations has more resonance: Georgia Tech professor Janet Murray theorizes that Tetris is the “perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans.” The game, she says, embodies the idea that life feels like nothing more than a to-do list we have to keep clearing, just to make room for more things.

But if Tetris represented yesterday, what can we learn about ourselves from Angry Birds?

For one thing, we don’t live in the work-oriented world of Tetris anymore. Florida State University researchers surveyed 1,100 full-time workers in 2010 and found that the recession has pushed many into thinking more deeply about the nature and value of their professional lives, with 37 percent feeling that work wasn’t as important as it once was in the overall scheme of things.

Maybe Angry Birds just represents a shift from grueling habits to a more event-based view on life. Let’s do something substantial with our day — like knocking a wooden structure down with a screaming animated bird — rather than slogging through more office work for no other reason than opening up room for more work.

The shift from Tetris to Angry Birds isn’t just a happy-go-lucky transition towards a leisurely life, however. Another phenomenon that seems to coincide with Tetris’ decline in popularity is the apparent increase in random, unpredictable events. More and more, craziness seems to emerge from nowhere.

9/11, the 2008 Financial Crisis, Hurricane Katrina and even the Pitt bomb threats and Western Psych shooting all fit this profile. These events weren’t just random — they incurred unpredictably large consequences, ranging from personal hardship and despair to broad chaos. While in retrospect, we might have been able to see some of the problems coming (time will tell with the shooting and bomb threats), there was no probable way these things could have been stopped.

For this world, Angry Birds is again the better representative game. Had we been better Tetris players and exercised more foresight — keeping a space open for the squiggly tetromino — the events listed above still would have happened. In Angry Birds, there’s no predictability; life is just a series of birds being hurled at fragile structures, and sometimes one comes out of nowhere, taking down everything. Of course, we can guess and plan and study the past, but every once in a while that bird comes shrieking in from the left, unleashing unexpected damage.

So the next time you pick Angry Birds over Tetris, remember that you might actually be picking chaos and spontaneous disorder over a more controlled model of the universe.

Or maybe not.

Contact Nick at [email protected]