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…

A South African perspective: children & digital games

Once I finished my MA on children’s use of educational software I found that there was very little research on South African children’s  use of commercial games. The majority of current research came  from the UK and USA. I even found lots of interesting work by Finnish  game scholars, but SA based research was scarce and I could count  the names of academics who had written about or had a research  interest in games in SA with one hand:  my supervisor Marion Walton,  Alan Amory and Steve Vosloo.  I felt that this was an area in need of  exploration because SA is a developing country and consumers here are often just a byproduct – globally distributed products are intentionally designed for people living in First World countries. In contrast to other countries, we got access to games and other technological resources relatively late thanks to apartheid and various sanctions against SA.

As a child, I played DOS games at home and at school and some of my friends had ‘TV games’ or SEGA consoles. My mom played the early LeisureSuite Larry and Prince of Persia games. I played Jazz Jackrabbit, The Lion King, Aladdin, Sam & Max and we had quite a collection of educational CD-ROM products such as Encarta, Ancient Lands, Dangerous Creatures and Dinosaurs. We also had clip art software to make cards as well as Mulan Print Studio. I find it interesting that children still have a relationship with Disney products, but in a different way because there is so much more available at the same time. There is even a Disney Channel and film franchises such as High School Musical. Although SA kids are not unique in what they consume due to globalisation (games, movies, TV, music, etc.) there are some differences in how they are consuming these products.

According to Euromonitor International, subdued market performance characterized the toys and games market in SA in 2010:

“The market performance for toys and games demonstrated declining trends over the review period. This affected developments in both traditional toys and games as well as video games hardware and software. The declining market performance can be attributed to the challenging conditions faced by consumers as a result of the economic recession. In video games, market performance was also affected by the growth in online gaming as well as the persistent problem of piracy.” (see Executive Summary)

For more insight on the gaming situation in SA, read The Lost South African Game Developer Interviews:

– Part 1: An Interview With Travis Bulford
– Part 2: An Interview With Luke Lamothe
– Part 3: An Interview With Danny Day
– Part 4: An Interview With Jacques Krige
– Part 5: An Interview With Damien Classen
– Part 6: An Interview With Judd Simantov

Gamasutra also had an interesting feature titled “The South African Game Development Scene: Past, Present, and Future” (2009) by Oliver Snyders.  Although these resources are focused on game development, they also allow for some insight into the consumption of games in SA.