I came across this article by Steve Rosenbaum on huffingtonpost. The work Makerfaire does is fascinating, to say the least. The very idea that kids could go out and try their hands at technology to do just about anything they want to is exciting and encouraging. I am a firm believer that children must be left to explore the world outside them by themselves as much as possible, with adults providing guidance when asked for. The Schools today were built to produce laborers who could do a given task in a given time - Fair enough, for an industrial world. But hey, we are not in an industrial world anymore. Some say we are amidst a knowledge revolution. I think we have gone a step beyond that. We are living in an innovation economy, where making sense of the knowledge and wisdom humans have collected over the generations and deploying this knowledge to create meaningful solutions is the way forward - Connectivism (Siemens, 2004) & Constructionism (Papert, 1991) in play. And Makerfaire does exactly that. So does Apps for good and so does readiymate. What is emerging here is an alternate way of learning about the things around us, which is considerably different from the "talk and chalk" approach schools follow. Is there a way for these two practices to meet? Will the schools consider letting their kids play around with arduino to understand electronics? I sure hope they do. Because tomorrow, as Steve Rosenbaum says, work might never be the same again!
Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. at URL:
http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm (viewed 25/02/11
Papert, S. and Harel, I. (1991) Constructionism. New York: Ablex Publishing Corporation
External Grammar Design
As discussed in the earlier post, external grammar refers to the rules and practices followed by the affinity group (fan clubs) associated with the semiotic domain of the game. As an angry bird gamer, my engagement with the game does not just end with my mobile. There are various mediums through which I constantly come across the game one way or the other. I have subscribed the game’s twitter feed to know the latest updates and release dates. I am also a fan of the game’s facebook page, to keep up with the game’s latest updates and see what my fellow gamers have to say. I come across angry bird stuffed toys when I visit a stationery shop. And I come across hundreds of fan videos on youtube on the game.
Fig 1. A cake designed like the game Angry bird by a fan for his son’s birthday.
Thus, the game has built itself an ‘ecosystem’ with a huge fan following, thus becoming part of what is called ‘popular culture’. It is relevant to quote Gee’s (2003) idea of ‘External Grammar’ denoting how the gamers interact outside the game. This may include fan groups, online discussion forums, and fan-created websites and so on. Gee calls these gamers belonging to ‘affinity group’, sharing a set of practices and beliefs among themselves. An example of such an affinity group is the facebook fan page of the game. With a fan following of more than 2 million as I am writing this essay, this page is a single platform for the game’s fans to come together to find out what is going on in the ‘Angry birds ecosystem’. The game’s makers use this platform to promote their merchandise, which is reflective of a consumer driven culture. The fans have opted in to the facebook page to receive updates on the game and its merchandise. Thus, the game makers don’t use the traditional mass media to promote their offerings. Instead, their sales is powered by the new media driven by the consumers. This new media includes the game, the website, the facebook fan page and twitter and so on. This deviation from popular media towards a ‘convergent new media’ is what Jenkins (2008) calls ‘Convergence culture’. He propagates the power of consumer driven media and the availability and leverage of numerous media channels as opposed to old and traditional media.
More recently, 20th Century Fox, a media giant, partnered with the makers of Angry birds, to come out with a version of Angry birds exclusive to its movie “Rio”, an animation feature film. The resulting game, which I personally think is better than the other versions of Angry birds, is another example of “Convergence Culture”. The movie’s characters have entered the domain of the game, thereby benefiting both the moviemakers and the game makers, also in the process entertaining the consumers. Thus, traditional media, which relied primarily on broadcasting, is now taking a more interactive and personal shape to reach its audience. Speaking of personalised media, Drotner (2005) says “Mobile communicators extend seemingly de-institutionalised discourses of intimacy with close friends or partners into public spaces.” This has important implications in the way a game or any entertainment media reaches its audience; popular media today is not just about consumption; it is also about participation. In Jenkins’s words, we are moving from a “spectatorial culture” to “participatory culture” and the voice of the audience is becoming more and more decisive in a venture’s success. The makers of the game Angry birds have understood this, and are actively engaging their fans through social networking websites and offline events. For example, consider the real life setup of the game by the producers of the game in Spain:
Such offline interactions and attempts to reach out to the audience bode well with its audience. This video, apart from garnering 2500 visits in youtube within a week after being posted, has also been shared by the company and the fans alike across social networking websites like facebook and twitter. The fans are not just consumers here, but active promoters of the product. That sense of ownership and belonging, the feeling of being part of the affinity group, also contributes to the success of the game and increased adoption among the new users. Citing a personal example, just as one would want to be up to date with current affairs or popular media, I downloaded and played the game to stay on top of the trends. Since I enjoyed playing the game, I recommended the game to my friends, who downloaded and started playing the game as well. This game forms the basis of a few of our conversations, just as any other popular news would. Our discussion spans beyond the game, as we share our opinions on the fan videos and the merchandise and the promotional events about the game. Thus, we slowly become part of the affinity group, which plays a significant role in our continuous engagement with the game.
Marketing Technology and Culture
The game can further be analyzed in terms of “Three Circuits Model” as proposed by Kline (2003, p 50) to understand what makes the game such a success. According to this model, the three elements – Technology, Culture and Marketing – interact among each other and complex and dynamic ways that enable us get a richer perspective in terms of analyzing today’s new media. Each of these circuits is a loop of meanings circulating between the producers, commodities and the consumers. For example, in the technology circuit, the programmers are producers, consoles and computers are commodities and users are the consumers. Thus, these three elements – producers, commodities and consumers – undergo cycles of creation, consumption and communication (Kline, 2003, p 52) to constitute “socially organized structured flows, cultural practices, and feedback loops that bind human agents and artefacts” (Kline, 2003, p 52)
Let us look at each of the circuits in a bit more detail:
The Cultural circuit has designers as producers, games as commodities and players as consumers. The designers, who produce the games, set limits and constraints on the artefacts they produce, albeit giving choices within those constraints for the players to play around with. For example, in the game Angry Birds, the designers have set the rules such as the pigs are the targets of attack, and the birds have various powers to destroy the pigs. Yellow birds move faster upon tapping while the white ones lay an egg bomb. These choices play along nicely for the player in order for him to maximize his chances of success. However, the player cannot choose to be a pig and defend himself against the attack from the birds. Thus, the choice and meaning making within the game is constrained by the designer’s decisions and ideas. The game then conforms to and is representational of the designer’s ideals and beliefs, which may or may not be influenced by popular culture.
The game as such, as a commodity, plays a significant role within a cultural context; as I had discussed earlier, the game has become a part of popular culture, and thus has become an “accepted social practice” among the mobile gaming community. By “accepted social practice”, what I mean is this: While a game with a simple gameplay like Angry Birds does not give so much scope to analyze in terms of gender representations or stereotypes, it does give evidence to the fact that the mobile gamers play simple and addictive games, which has turned to be a recently developed and accepted social practice.
“In the technological circuit, the subject of the interactive experience is now positioned not only as a player but also, and simultaneously, as a ‘user’ of computers and consoles that are increasingly linked to a networked telecommunications environment.” (Kline, 2003, p 55) Thus, the player not only deals with the games, but also a set of consoles and devices through which he manipulates the gaming elements. In the case of angry birds, the game is played primarily on smartphones. Very recently (as I am writing this on the 20th June 2011), a web based version was also released. Thus, the players of this game should have been well-versed with using smartphones and web in the first place in order to play this game. It is also interesting to think why the web based version was released, despite the smartphone version being extremely popular. The answer is precisely this – “The game is popular and adopted by smartphone users; the game can now be made available to web users as well.” Thus, it is the adoption of the game by the smartphone users that has prompted the producers of the game release a web version. This is yet another evidence of “social construction of technology” as opposed to the technologically deterministic view held by techno-utopian scholars.
As I had discussed in earlier sections, the makers of the game have managed to create an ecosystem for the game through various online fan channels like website, facebook, twitter and youtube pages, merchandise like toys and clothes, and offline promotional events. Thus, a well-designed game alone is not sufficient to ensure its adoption. “Although video game companies at first relied on the novelty of the new technology to attract interest, they rapidly realized that high-intensity advertising was critical to continued growth and aimed at beckoning consumers into being through an array of marketing communication practices, surveillance, prediction, solicitation, and elaborate feedback relations.” (Kline, 2003, p 56, 57) It is important to note here that the marketing efforts do not stop with getting the word out, but it goes beyond in terms of establishing “communication practices” – facebook fan pages and twitter fan following, for example, “surveillance” – monitoring user feedback and sentiment on these platforms, “prediction” – analysing user anticipation for the release of a new version or merchandise, “solicitation” – getting user inputs and ideas for upcoming releases, and “feedback relations” – establishing rapport with the users through the aforesaid platforms. Thus, such an elaborate marketing mechanism helps the makers of the game monitor and predicts their performance, thus leading them to release better products. Again, “user voice” becomes a key aspect in deciding the game maker’s decision, thus bearing evidence to the “participatory culture” as discussed in the earlier sections.
Thus, the popularity of the game cannot be attributed to one single factor. As I have attempted from this essay, there are ludological factors that contribute to the addictive gameplay. Then there are the representational elements that add meaning to the game and make it attractive. The external participatory culture encourages staying up to date with the game’s news which is outside the gameplay. The three circuits of interactivity namely culture, technology and marketing interact with each other contributing to the game’s adoption. Thus, while the game’s design of rules and mechanics, or Ludology, is entertaining and exciting, it narratives and representations, and the constant engagement with its ecosystem also contributes immensely to its success. The game has placed itself in a premier position in popular culture and has thus resulted in a widespread adaptation all around the world. Hence, as a participatory consumer of new media, I think the game conforms to both the internal and external grammar design principles that lead to instant adoption and continuous engagement, with the marketing, technological and cultural factors working in its favour, thus making the game compulsorily addictive.
Aarseth, E. (2004) Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation, in Harrigan, P. and Wardrip-Fruin, N. (eds) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Barthes, R. (1972) Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. London: Paladin
Dovey, J. and Kennedy, H. (2006) Games Cultures: Computer Games as New Media (Issues in Cultural & Media Stu). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Drotner, K. (2005) Media on the move: personalised media and the transformation of publicness. Audiences and publics: When cultural engagement matters for the public sphere. Portland: Intellect Books.
Eskelinen, M. (2004) Towards Computer Game Studies, in Harrigan, P. and Wardrip-Fruin, N. (eds) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Frasca, G. (2003) Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology. Video/Game/Theory. Edited by Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. Abingdon: Routledge
Gee. J. P. (2003) What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. London: Palgrave.
Jenkins, H. (2008) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press.
Kline, S., Dyer-Witheford & N., Peuter, G.D. (2003) Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing. Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (1996) Reading Images: Grammar of Visual Design. Abingdon: Routledge.
Mobiledia. (2011) Mobile, Social Games Disrupt Gaming Industry. [online] Available at: http://www.mobiledia.com/news/83869.html [Accessed 10 May 2011]
Rheingold, H. (2002). Smart mobs: The next social revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
Roberts, D. F., Foehr, U. G., & Rideout, V. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8-18 year-olds. Washington, DC: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation
Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2003) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
The last decade has seen a significant proliferation of mobile and hand held technologies. Access and ownership of Wireless Handheld Devices is increasing among all demographics and cultures throughout the world, especially among adolescents and young adults (Rheingold, 2002; Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005). These devices can be music players, notebooks, smartphones, gaming devices or ebook readers. This has led to an ever increasing popularity of handheld gaming among today’s tech savvy young generation. Much like the evolution of PC games, which started with the likes of abstract games like Pacman and tetris and slowly graduated into games like super Mario and commando before growing in popularity via virtual worlds and MMORPG (Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games), handheld games are also set to follow a similar growth curve. As a result, we see the first wave of abstract games like Angry birds and Fruit Ninja gaining popularity even as more complex games like Infinity Blade and Dungeon Defenders slowly come out into the market. For example, Angry birds has been downloaded more than 50 million times (Mobiledia, 2011). The success of such games opens a window for research into what makes these games successful. This essay attempts to explain the factors that contribute to the success of the game Angry birds.
About Angry birds
Angry birds is a game developed by Roxio, a game development company based in Finland. It is a puzzle game where fluffy birds are catapulted using a slingshot against castles built by pigs to defend themselves. The game has many types of birds, with unique powers to each of them. For example, the yellow birds can hit targets at high speed whereas the black ones explode at the target. The game has various levels and the player completes each level by successfully destroying all the pigs in a given level. The game play can be found in this video -
Internal Grammar Design
Let me first explain what I mean by internal grammar design and external grammar design. These are design principles that make sense when considered in relation with what Gee calls “Semiotic domains”. “By a semiotic domain I mean any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g., oral or written language, images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, graphs, artefacts, etc.) to communicate distinctive types of meanings.” (Gee, 2003, p18) For example, in the game angry birds, the act of pigs stealing eggs makes sense inside the gameplay. However, it is not something common outside the game; for example, someone who is not familiar with the game cannot make sense of why a pig would steal a bird’s egg. Thus, this act is meaningful inside the “semiotic domain” of angry birds. Within these semiotic domains are found and followed a set of rules and accepted practices, which Gee calls “design grammar”. By internal design grammar, Gee denotes what is acceptable and what is not inside the semiotic domain; the act of launching birds onto the pigs to topple them through a slingshot is an acceptable practice inside the game. This action is repeated over and over within the game, constituting to the design of the internal grammar of the game. External grammar refers to how the game’s followers and fans, or in Gee’s words, “affinity groups” interact with each other, and the rules and practices they abide by.
The answer to the question “What makes the game angry birds so addictive?” can be found by carefully considering both the internal design grammar and external design grammar of the game. I am going to have a deeper look inside the internal design grammar of the game in this section. In the next section, I will discuss more on the external grammar.
Let us briefly discuss the ludological and representational perspectives of gaming to aid our understanding of the internal grammar of the game. Ludology can be defined as a discipline that studies games in general, and video games in particular (Frasca, 2003). Ludologists typically take a stand that the game’s set of rules and equipments and their manipulations are the critical factors in a game’s success and the narratives and representations are optional. To quote Eskelinen (2001b, p39), “The dominant temporal relation in (computer) games is the one between user time (the actions of the player) and event time (the happenings of the game), whereas in narratives it’s between story time (the time of the events told) and discourse time (the time of the telling). Despite possible hybrids the underlying restrictions of temporality remain the same: there’s no narrative without story and discourse times and no game without user and event times – everything else is optional. ” Citing abstract games like tetris, Ludologists claim that the act of manipulating the game and its outcomes is the reason why people engage in games. In fact, Aarseth (2004, p 48) argues that when he beings playing the game Tomb raider, the character of Lara Croft does not play any role in how he goes about exploring the game world; he claims to “see through” the character. However, Dovey (2006) argues that although the portrayal character does not affect the underlying game mechanics, it certainly affects the overall gaming experience. Quoting Salen and Zimmerman’s (2003, p 120) argument on playing poker with a deck of cards called Death, Sex, War and Love, “On a formal level nothing has changed at all: the game remains the same. Of course, it goes without saying that the experience of playing Poker with such a deck would be different than the experience a player would have with a standard deck. But the formal system of a game, the game considered as a set of rules, is not the experience of the game.”
With this argument in mind, let us discuss what makes the game angry birds addictive to play. I have played this game myself for the last 2 months and I have completed all levels of game play and I am now awaiting the release of the next version. While the gameplay is fairly simple to understand and master, the challenges presented are just about difficult enough to keep my interest in the game going. During the initial days of gameplay, the curiosity of discovering new levels and new characters kept my interest level high. But once I was familiar with all the characters in the game, my focus shifted towards making use of these characters in the best possible way to progress to increasingly difficult levels. Does the representation and narrative engage me us much as the game’s ludological design? For Comparing Angry birds with the principles stated by Eskelinen, “the user time” is the slingshot that I use to manipulate the angle and speed at which I release the birds, and how I make use of the distinct power each bird has by tapping on it. “The Event time” is what happens in the game, that is, the defensive castles of the pigs get destroyed, I get awarded points; complete a level and so on. It is also relevant to bring to notice Aarseth’s (2004, p48) “replaying” pleasure; the same level can be played over and over again, and the different levels have a similar gameplay, with slowly increasing levels of difficulty. While such a ‘ludologist’ perspective explains the game in terms of rules and mechanics, and to an extent why the game is addictive, what about the narrative and representational elements? Consider the following image that is shown during the gameplay:
This image appears in between the levels. The image shows a green pig with a mask pulling off a heist while the red, white and black birds look on with surprise. The yellow and blue birds look at the direction of the footprints, complaining the kidnapping of their eggs by the pigs. The objective of this image is to add a bit of drama to the gameplay, by trying to trigger an emotion of being victimised. Thus, when the next level begins, as a player, I am all primed up to take vengeance for the injustice caused. Let us analyze the image in terms of representational meaning, according to Kress and van Leeuwen’s (1996) systemic functional grammar to the visual dimension of texts. According to them, the process of action is indicated through what are called “vectors”. When an image has an actor and a goal involved, the image is said to be transactional in nature. In the above image, there are actors – the birds and the pig. However, the goal is not directly depicted, as we can see the footsteps of another pig escaping with the birds’ egg. This is an implied meaning, and the picture as such, is non-transactional in nature. We can also see the pig with the mask diverting the attention of the birds, with the three birds under the pig looking at it with awe. The pig also looks quite canny in its ways. Thus, since both the actors and the phenomenon of the pig carrying out the heist are depicted in the picture, this picture is reactional. Following Kress and van Leeuwen’s framework (1996), this image can thus be classified as “non-transactional reactional”. In terms of realism, the image has bright colours, with just about enough details to communicate a heist being carried out, such as the footsteps of another pig, and the pig on the rope diverting the birds’ attention. The image also confirms to the concept of “salience” according to Kress and van Leeuwen (1996), as the process of heist being prominent, thus identifying the audience with the birds in terms of the attention being drawn to the pig on rope while another pig makes its escape with the eggs. The birds also exhibit significant anthromorphic qualities, with expressions of anger and awe. This introduces a comic element into the game, to add a bit of humour. Such carefully constructed representation contributes a lot towards making the game likeable.
Consider the following image:
This image is a snapshot of gameplay in Angry birds seasons version of Halloween. Let us consider the compositional dimension of this image, using Barthes (1972). The sign tree with irregular and scary branches without leaves denote it is autumn. The pine trees at the background show the setting is away from a residential location. The huge moon signifies it is late in the night. The colours yellowish orange to red signify an eerie setup. The jack-o-lantern and two lamps signify the setup is themed around Halloween. The anxious pigs and the angry looking bird are the core elements of the game. The signifiers, thus build a story around these core elements to present a compelling picture; On a eerie full moon night around Halloween, in a remote place with spooky trees and scary branches, the angry birds are attacking anxious looking pigs with concrete and pumpkin hats resting on wooden and concrete blocks with lamps to light up the scene. Of course, the connotation of this text is that the designers of the game are trying to identify the game with the audience’s cultural activities. This version was released on Halloween, thus making it timely and also enabling it striking a chord with its audience. Similarly, the version released during Christmas had the following video in the gameplay:
The video ends with the pigs and the birds together watching the Christmas star under snow, signifying the spirit of brotherhood during Christmas. Such a narrative representation also adds a sense of attachment to the game, which is more than just Ludology.
In my next post, I will discuss about the external design grammar and the inter-relationship between marketing, technology and culture.