Angry Birds: A psychiatrist explains the addicition

Angry Birds: A psychiatrist explains the addicitionJoe Frisch is a staff scientist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University. Dr. Frisch writes: “I wonder when we will start seeing really addictive games banned? I don’t know what makes games addictive though. Angry birds is a mystery to me – there is no ongoing story line, you don’t really gain any abilities as the game goes on, so WHY DO I WANT TO SMASH THE PIGGIES? Isn’t there some sort of conditioning to fix this – electric shocks or something?”

I’m now on Level 4-19 of 2. Mighty Hoax. It took me days to finish Poached Eggs. Am I losing my mind? I am way too old for this. I’m slinging virtual animated birds while I leave ClinkShrink to cure the criminals of this world and Roy to index our book. What has gotten in to me?

So I want to write a post about the psychology of Angry Birds, but I need to start with a disclaimer. I haven’t tried many video games. My experience is limited, and the few games I’ve tried, I’ve liked. I was once a very accomplished Tetris Player. But with limited exposure, it’s hard for me to say why Angry Birds is more compelling than any other game.

But I’ll take a stab at it. Please feel free to add your thoughts.

1. There’s the challenge of trying to smash all the Piggies. Practice helps: the more you play, the better you get. It takes a little while, especially at first, but there is this enormous sense of accomplishment when those piggies smash– especially if you don’t use all your birds and get an extra 10,000 points/leftover bird.

2. The games are short. you move through one and then can go on to the next. So there is variety to the difficulty and landscape. Each scenario has different birds: the black bomber guys who explode are my favorite. The red do-nothings are my least favorite. The gray guys who divide into three would be better if they were more powerful. There’s an option to buy some eagle guy, but I haven’t done that. It’s challenging, but not impossible. Okay, I did watch some YouTube tutorial videos like the one I embedded here, but only for the first level.

3. Each game can be won with 1 to 3 stars. This allows the game to accommodate the player’s personality. You can proceed with just one star. To me, that feels like getting a C and I was never happy with C’s. At the same time, if I needed to get 3 stars on every single game, I’d never eat or sleep, so I’m content to get 2 or 3 stars on each game, depending on how impossible it seems. Joe and Igor tell me they both move on with 1 star wins. I wonder what Roy would do with this.

4. It clears my mind and occupies my time in a relatively angst-free way. It’s what I imagine that other people get out of TV, but most TV shows feel like work for me. They don’t hold my attention and I have to make myself pay attention.

5. It feels important. That’s really crazy, isn’t it? I had the same sense with Tetris.

6. Somehow, I don’t feel the least bit guilty spending hours of my day doing this. Hopefully that will change if I’m still at it in a few weeks. I typically am very efficient with, and protective of, my time, and it seems like it should be fine to devote some time to pure, mindless entertainment. I suppose the question is how many years and at the expense of what? So my kids have had to order pizza every night for the past week—is that a problem? They like pizza…

7. Empathy? I’m supposed to feel empathy during video games? I’m a psychiatrist … I empathize all day long. I don’t care about the birds or the little green piggies. They aren’t real. And I had no empathy for the falling geometric shapes in Tetris. Maybe you’re spending too much time in that accelerator, Joe.

8. Shock treatments for video game addiction? Hmm .. we could do a study here. I don’t think we’d get past any research review boards if we proposed ECT as a treatment for video game addictions (ah, it didn’t make it past APA as a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, for one thing), but I imagine we could do a before and after survey of people having ECT for depression to see if their coincidental interest in Angry Birds changed with treatment. Get me the funding and I’m there.

9. Let’s talk about the anger. Are the birds really angry? The human player flings them at the structures in an attempt to vaporize the green piggies. So who’s angry: the birds, the human player, or is anger even part of this equation? Joe tells me the piggies are evil. They steal eggs. I haven’t seen them steal eggs. They just sort of sit their in their structures, waiting to see if the birds will vaporize them. I would contend that there really isn’t much emotion of any kind involved here on the part of the animated little players. Would the game be as good if the human was flinging colored balls rather than birds? If the object of destruction were a plate or a star or a non-green-piggy object? I think so.

Dinah Miller is a psychiatrist who blogs at Shrink Rap and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work.

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  • Anonymous

    As my mother said when I was young, “Go outside and play.”  I still think this is great advice.

  • Emily Gibson

    I’m not a video game person either, never have been~~ but do enjoy online Scrabble primarily for the side chats with my friends and family, so that is 50% social, 50% competitive.

    But Angry Birds captured my interest on my new iPad and besides the things Dinah mentions, it appeals to my inner physics geek that I didn’t know I had.  Aim, trajectory, velocity, acceleration, precision, figuring out the weak point of a structure–so different from how my brain has to think the rest of the day.

    And I do get secret satisfaction (I guess it isn’t a secret anymore) from doing something completely non-productive since the rest of my day is uber-productive.  I wonder what a psychiatrist would have to say about that…

  • Anonymous

    Interesting. I have thought about this myself often. This is what I concluded. Points 1,2,3 are applicable to me. You do get better as you play. And there is a sense of marvel that the physics are modeled well (mostly). I agree with Emily Gibson’s point (below). Even more than that, I find the sounds funny, and the birds cutely comical.

  • ShrinkRap Blog

    I’m pleased to say that since I originally wrote about this, I have gotten over my addiction.  In a way, it was a nice relief from the things I usually dwell on!  ~ Dinah

  • Anonymous

    I find solitaire card games as addictive as Joe Frisch describes Angry Birds, so my inclination is to look for similarities to explain addiction while the leftovers must be special to the individual game. Both have a tactical  learning curve, ie rapid decisions that could go either way, so when you fail you wonder if the other decision would have been better and you want to go back to it.  Short games make that much easier to do and I think that is the seed of the addiction… You do it once…then again and again. Simplicity gives both games mass appeal as does familiarity of concept. Both are trivial so they won’t be too serious or threatening to play or discuss with others, 
    The main  difference seems to be that Angry Birds is dynamic when card games are not. It is also ridiculous which makes it consciously amusing, much helped by the graphics.  It does not require the same numeric astuteness as solitaire and I wonder if that suits  a generation that uses calculators instead of mental arithmetic.   This all concerns me because I have produced a board game app about the players’ personalities on the theory that fascination with self  and human character will overcome the novelty and apparent complexity of the moves. 

  • Luis Remisio

    To be Honest i just like the fact that u feel like killing the pigs … when u say the pigs you mean cops just siting there in their car writing tickets on their power trips sitting on their eggs =P i have nothing against cops but there is a wonderfull feeling of acomplishment when some1 asks you … what are you doin ? and you respond “I´m Killing those PIGS”…… v

    • Anonymous

      To be honest, Luis, you need to accept that cops are protectors and not the bad guys. Sure some of them, like in any profession, overstep their boundaries and get a little power-hungry. But “killing those pigs” ?? You might need to reevaluate your mindset for the health of your future.

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  • Allison

    I would suggest that all video games are addictive, to some degree.  What differs about Angry Birds is the distribution mechanism, which reaches a demographic not yet hooked by many games.  Studies show that games capture an audience when they are well calibrated to their skills:  hard enough to provide a challenge but easy enough to provide a sense of growing mastery. I have been holding my breath waiting for psychologists to apply the addiction model to video games.  While the games remain sequestered in the domain of childhood, they escape the careful scrutiny of serious thinkers.  Now that they are breaking into the adult world, I hope that we will begin to examine the risks of overuse.  Perhaps an analysis of the neurological effects of video games could shed light on the mechanism of addition in general.   
    I am glad to read that you have broken free of the game now, but hope that you will continue in your questioning.  Why were you able to break free while others do not?  What level of use represents a problem? Can we measure the impact of video games on productivity? Do the costs of this preoccupation differ for children and adults?  This is a very interesting area for research, which you are now well qualified to explore.  Please do!

  • Ragu Vijaykumar

    There is an excellent post on a designer’s perspective on the UI/UX experience for Angry Birds and how it causes high levels of engagement. This is how non-MDs like to think about the design of computer interfaces and new HCI guidelines.

  • RIchard Feinman

    I love Joe Frisch.  He doesn’t understand it but he is already prepared to have it banned.  This hostile reaction to other people’s activity is giving me a good idea for a video game.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. I am impressed that we are all so into this game that we take the time to read and comment on a post about it! lol

    I agree with the list too. Mostly, as a person who is NOT a gamer, I find the simplicity and ease of slinging the birds at the pigs to be engaging. And there is NO running story line, like so many other games. There is no complex world to enter and navigate (a la World of Warcraft etc). When I want to stop, I just finish the scene in front of me and turn off the iPad. Perfect simplicity and short-term diversion.

    Ban all you want Dr I-Don’t-Get-It. That’s never worked for anything else in the past. lol

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