This week the hit game Flappy Bird made as swift an exit from the market as was its spiral into success. The world remains bewildered: why would a developer who is allegedly earning US$50,000 a day from a game that has taken the world by storm take it down with so much haste and more importantly, so little explanation?
Just as in Western media, Flappy Bird generated a storm of coverage in Vietnam. Ironically in its home country Flappy Bird has attracted more controversy than it has praise. The screenshot below show the sharp contrast between English and Vietnamese reviews for the game.
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The Vietnamese reviews, if they contained anything more than profanity, claimed that the author stole the idea from other games, that it did not deserve its #1 ranking, that the game should be removed immediately etc… Others attacked the game’s baffling simplicity. Just like the rest of the world, Vietnam was dumbfounded by the success of Flappy Bird: however, at home the general attitude towards the game was decidedly more bitter than that of pure bewilderment.
This phenomenon reminded me of three things: (1) A story about five monkeys and a ladder, (2) The Crab Mentality, and (3) René Girard’s Mimetic Theory. In this article I will discuss them one by one. Hopefully along the way some explanations for this in-group hostility will become clear.
1. A Story about Five Monkeys and a Ladder
A group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a cage and in the middle, a ladder with bananas on the top. Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with cold water. After a while, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the others beat up the one on the ladder. After some time, no monkey dare[d] to go up the ladder regardless of the temptation.
Scientists then decided to substitute one of the monkeys. The 1st thing this new monkey did was to go up the ladder. Immediately the other monkeys beat him up. After several beatings, the new member learned not to climb the ladder even though he never knew why. A 2nd monkey was substituted and the same occurred. The 1st monkey participated on [sic] the beating for [sic] the 2nd monkey. A 3rd monkey was changed and the same was repeated (beating). The 4th was substituted and the beating was repeated and finally the 5th monkey was replaced. What was left was a group of 5 monkeys that even though never received a cold shower, continued to beat up any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder.
If it was possible to ask the monkeys why they would beat up all those who attempted to go up the ladder … I bet you the answer would be … “I don’t know — that’s how things are done around here” Does it sound familiar? Don’t miss the opportunity to share this with others as they might be asking themselves why we continue to do what we are doing if there is a different way out there.
While this “scientific” study was most likely fictitious and its conclusions sensationalised, the story captured a sentiment that many people identify with. It is commonly used in self-help books to inspire people to question the definition of normality. It also oddly resembles the Flappy Bird story. The difference is that in this circumstance, one of the monkeys has already taken the banana and the other monkeys are in the process of beating him down afterwards.
2. The Crab Mentality
The crab mentality is an old folk saying in the Philippines. It refers to an observable phenomenon where crabs that could easily escape from a pot individually start grabbing at each other when kept in a group, effectively preventing any one crab from escaping and ensuring their collective demise.
The human analogy for the story describes circumstances in which one person achieves success in a community where success seems distant, and others in the community proceed to attack that person in an attempt to bring him back down to their own level.
Manifestations of this mentality can also be found in other cultures, such as the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” in Anglosphere countries and the “Law of Jante” in Scandinavian countries. This points to its ubiquity as a sociological phenomenon.
It is not difficult to draw parallels between what we have here and the crab mentality: There’s nothing special about this game. His idea isn’t even original. Anyone including me could have made it. But then why is his game successful and not mine? Maybe he is just lucky. At any rate it’s clear he doesn’t deserve any of this success at all.
See how easy it is to reach this final conclusion? Much easier than accepting that the man has some talent, and definitely much easier than coming to terms with the fact that you and him both started from a disadvantaged position to begin with.
3. René Girard’s Mimetic Theory
Right now you might be wondering if there was any point in this hostility at all? After all, will discrediting Flappy Bird’s success really make us better off?
Girard’s Mimetic Theory suggests that it does. For brevity’s sake I will omit many details from the story, so many apologies for that in advance. Two excellent links are provided above for those interested in finding out more. The following paragraphs were edited directly from the second link as I could not have phrased some of the ideas more eloquently.
The main point to take from the theory is that in times of chaos, society often appoints one of its member to be sacrificed as a scapegoat. In some cultures witches were burned and in others people had their hearts cut out. Some details may be different but the dynamic – a bunch of crazed people making one of their own a sacrificial scapegoat – stays the same.
In cultures that had some degree of permanence, this became a cyclical process. Peace was never everlasting, something would always go wrong: maybe disease struck, or maybe there was some other kind of internal (and less often, external) conflict that led to complete chaos. Then people would gang up, unite against a scapegoat, and perform the sacrifice. Peace was restored, and the cycle repeats.
Dong Nguyen’s elevation to the world’s stage can be interpreted to be a disruption to the very fabric of society. Construed this way, under Mimetic theory his sacrifice will bring back balance to the world. Now that Flappy Bird is gone from the market, many have suggested that Dong’s exit was in fact quite “cunning”, that this was all a PR stunt to generate more publicity about his brand and his company. I, on the other hand, only see a man so victimised by his own society that his only way to find peace was to exile himself from the public world.
In any case, the concluding questions that we must ask ourselves are: What image about the Vietnamese gaming industry will this affair portray to Western media? Keep in mind that this is where our biggest market resides. Is this how you want to be be perceived by the rest of the world? Finally, how to do you intent to nourish talent in your community if this is the way they expect to be treated once they succeed?
Of course, it would be foolish for me to aim my criticisms at the entire Vietnamese society as a whole. There are also many others who take pride in Flappy Bird’s achievement and there are also others who are simply apathetic about the whole affair. However one cannot deny that when the success of one of our own is met with spears and daggers instead of pride and joy, there must be something very off here in the way our society works.
For further take-away lessons to take from this story please consult this excellent piece from TechInAsia.
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