Angry Birds – SERIOUS business?

Wired magazine April 2011

I decided to dedicate a blog post to the Angry Birds phenomenon to remind myself of interesting episodes I observed with the children playing this game on my laptop during their time at a holiday club (my field site). If you’d like to know more about Angry Birds or are interested in flash and mobile games, read “In depth: How Rovio made Angry Birds a winner (and what’s next)”, a recent feature published in Wired magazine (this month’s copy, it’s cover is graced with our feathered friends too:). For the journos out there, this is a very well-written feature article  – except for the lead which says that games are a waste of time, but that’s probably an ironic lead because the article expands on the time it took for Angry Birds to reach the average Joe as well as how profitable this little loveable app has become. Not to mention the comments – they’re quite funny but also provide evidence of the kinds of things people think about in relation to Angry Birds. One of the first comments said ‘wish it was a little less violent’… You’re ‘killing’ pigs (that magically pop/explode without blood) because they stole your eggs. The moral of the story: don’t steal other people’s eggs. Just joking, but come on – Angry Birds being violent?

The six/three (you get less birds the further you progress through the levels) birds to complete a level made for some interesting turn-taking which the children came up with all on their own. There was also lots of competition, which led to the kids finishing more levels than I have. Mainly, I found it remarkable how they transformed the game, which although it can be played as a flash game online and many kids do so, is designed for a single user – as a flash game and more recently as a mobile app. One of the boys even reported playing the game on his dad’s iPad. So Angry Birds took on a new social meaning at the club – it was no longer a game designed for a single user or even casual gaming. For primary school kids, Angry Birds became serious business…

Preliminary findings and chapter planning

(Pic from a promising blog on gender in game design from 2009 that seems to have died.)

During December 2010/January 2011, I did fieldwork with children at a  holiday club hosted at a Cape Town school. The following aspects played out when the children played games together:

  1. Making friends: Children with interests in similar games bonded over the games and spent time together away from the computer or TV as well during their time at the club (riding bikes together, swimming, etc).
  2. Managing turns: Children respected one another’s turns and the 30 minute playing time rule. Because there were so many children, the children and I put together a play schedule of who plays what and when. Needless to say, the children were quite strict to monitor each another’s turns. Many of the children observed and interacted while others were playing and ‘helping’ one another was a prominent feature.
  3. Gender differences: Although there is more diffusion nowadays between girls’ and boys’ access to games and preferences for particular games, gendered play patterns still persist. There were some interesting episodes where some degree of boundary crossing occurred, but this is largely due to the club setting where children assert themselves through difference, in this case mainly being a boy or a girl and playing games they see as boyish or girlish. However, discussions revealed that this is very different at school and with friends they are closer to. Girls sometimes play wrestling and racing, and boys like Sims.
  4. Games that are part of media franchises: Children’s knowledge about popular movies and music informs their like or dislike of certain games. How boys and girls related to some of the Sing Star songs was very interesting, choosing songs they perceived as suitable for their gender and criticising some of the artists based on their knowledge about these stars from popular media.
  5. Reading rules: Games are complex interfaces that involve interpreting game rules. The children negotiated these rules in interesting ways, sometimes against those set by the game and at other times to suit their agendas at the moment of play.

These aspects will be used as themes for different chapters in my PhD thesis: Understanding gendered social play with digital games, reading game rules, customization as multimodal practice, and I’ve also got some great data on cellphone games. I am currently working on a draft chapter “Beyond gaming contexts: The role of schooling and gender in children’s game play, differential access to digital games and interpretation of branded cultures in two diverse settings in Cape Town” but it’s way too multi-faceted and will probably be split up into separate chapters.

For the April holiday club I have chosen age-appropriate games with stronger storytelling (Harry Potter, etc.) and creative elements which depend on exploring the game’s interface and customizing elements of the game (EA Create where children design their own game scenes and Sims 2).