Why Unwinnable Games Are Massively Popular

Three explanations for "the Flappy Bird phenomenon"

Flappy bird

.Gears Studios

Flappy Bird, the notoriously difficult mobile game, burst forth in 2013. Now, creator Dong Nguyen has released an even harder game called Swinging Copters. But long before Flappy Bird, unwinnable games were massively popular. Remember Donkey Kong? Here are three theories as to why, despite the odds, players keep coming back.

The Stakes

“The fundamental challenge of game design is to make the outcome of the game matter to the players. By threatening frustration, you raise the stakes from zero, and the players will tend to try to play well, to play creatively and skillfully.”

—Bennett Foddy, assistant arts professor at the New York University Game Center

The Hook

“Flappy Bird is unusual in that the difficulty curve is flat. This means that whenever we fail, it is obvious what we should do to improve our performance—just flap the wings sooner or later. And this leads to the famous ‘just one more time’ effect.”

—Jesper Juul, author of The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games

The Rewards

“In some games, the reward is new graphics or an advancement in the narrative. In the case of Flappy Bird, you get the juicy reward of bright lights and colors when you fail.”

—Michael Schmierbach, associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Popular Science, under the title "The Pleasure Of Failure."