Flappy Bird, Addictions, and the Empire of God

My Life Crashed Into Pieces When I Threw Flappy Bird Out Of My Life, Because I Never Truly Had The Chance To Say Goodbye. I Got Angry, I’m Only Human You Know.? So I Just.. I Deleted Him. And Before I Knew It.. Before I Even Had A Chance To Fix What Had Been Done, He Disappeared. I Guess It’s For The Better, Because, Well, He Truly Did Completely Screw My Life Up. My Relationships, My Schoolwork, Even My Eating Habits. He Alienated Me Into Thinking It Was MY fault, Like IM THE LAZY ONE.?!?! But I Still Missed Him. In My Days Of Mourning.. I Ran Across The App Called Splashy Fish. Now Now, We Have All Seen/Heard The Hate Comments About All The ‘Fake’ Flappy Bird Games. It May Not Be The Exact Same Thing, But, This.. THIS IS INCREDIBLE, ITS LIKE IM PLAYING WITH FLAPPY BIRDS LONG LOST COUSIN.!!! I’m Sorry Flappy Bird, For Replacing You. But Thankyou, Thankyou So Much.. For Your Cousin Splashy. It’s Filled The Void In My Life. A Void not Even Christ Could Fill. Yes, I Learned My Lesson. I Will NEVER Get Rid Of Splashy Fish For As Long I Live. -> Twitter: @Jesusistherazor

In Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral, Western society goes bezerk when their most beloved celebrity, Hannah Geist, suddenly dies from a viral infection. They cannot cope; the unexpected loss  creates a mad dash to consume what is left of her branded content. As the film continues, new technology begins to emerge that enables a kind of non-sentient immortality for Hannah. Called “Afterlife,” this technology allows the public to engage with their god once more. But, as the film reveals, the afterlife that is created is a grotesque perversion of what it means to be alive, calling into question the public engagement with it.

Those of you who haven’t seen the film (although I would definitely recommend it) can probably relate to a similar phenomenon: the rise and fall of Flappy Bird. Flappy Bird, as simple a game as could be, has proven to be gnawingly addictive to many people. My wife first got me hooked; I justified my first hours in the game as a suitable substitute of mindless consumption of the Super Bowl, which I began watching with less and less attention that night. Within a week, my wife had gotten about thirty people hooked on the game. It seemed impossible to resist it. Then, last weekend, the game was pulled from the market. Those who had already downloaded it retained their drug; those who had just discovered it or, like Jesusistherazor had just deleted it and wanted it back, were screwed. The developer claimed that he couldn’t take the buzz anymore and I can only imagine what he must have suffered given the buzz among us users.

In the wake of Flappy Bird’s death, a number of clone games have emerged, like Splashy Fish which Jesusistherazor satirizes (I think) above. One thing is clear: America is an addictive culture with a market for products that we can religiously identify with. I’ll spend the rest of the blog unpacking that in depth, but I think the basics are clear right away. To start to make things more serious, Flappy Bird hasn’t been the only story of addiction sweeping the internet these days. Of course, I’m speaking of the media buzz about heroin addiction after the sudden loss of a monumental actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Now, I would never argue that heroin isn’t a problem, but I fear the media coverage of police crackdowns on heroin trafficking, etc. are doing more harm than good. Let me explain: addiction is not a problem of supply but of demand. The same is true, I think, of many cultural evils, like school shootings. Too often we Americans reach for our police force to enforce a healthy society. This does nothing to address the problem of cultural demand, and as we should all know by now if people have a desire they will find a way to satisfy it. Restricting access to drugs or guns may be a good thing, but it does not solve the problem of people wanting to use them. And that’s the side of the problem I want to get at today.

Fortunately, I noticed a number of stories run after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death that attacked myths about addiction. Here’s a particularly good one at Electric Feast. The point of these was to point out that addiction is not a kind of selfishness or hedonism. Now, addiction might start as hedonism (although there are plenty of other reasons) but addiction quickly becomes a testament to the lie of hedonism: the myth that addiction isn’t a possibility no matter what practices you frequent. We are sometimes, through tragedy, reminded of the truth: when your practices become habits (which isn’t a hard transfer), you are changed by them. As Corrigan Vaughan at Electric Feast notes, “Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn’t out partying. He was alone in his bathroom, compelled.” Addiction changed him; it isolated him. Addiction is not a communal act. Addiction separates you from everyone, eventually in your death.

While the enjoyment of anything can start as a communal act, it doesn’t always end that way. I started playing Flappy Bird as a contest with three other Super Bowl-watchers. It was fun. The next day, they weren’t there anymore and I started to stop playing so much. Flappy Bird never became an addiction for me, but it seems to for some others. And those others quote an isolation from their friends and responsibilities. It’s the same pattern as any addiction, but until we find some related thumb-disease we are unlikely to take it seriously.

I want to take all habits seriously. And I mean that. I’ve become convinced that anything we do repeatedly has an effect on us. Since getting a smart phone about a year ago, I’ve noticed a certain addiction to it. In the morning, in the evening, and at noonday I check my phone for notifications, new stories from my network, world news, etc. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to stay informed. But I also think that my phone has become a source of identity for me. I check my phone and am reminded of my social world or my identity as a world citizen or even a Philadelphia Eagles’ fan. Through my phone, I am connected to various communities of similar interest. I don’t see these communities as harmful, but I still find it a bit unsettling how I have been identifying with them a hundred times a day without really even knowing it.

Now I’m going to put my cards on the table. As a Christian, I have the belief that following Jesus is a political act. In other words, being a Christian makes claims on my identity and my community. There has been a lot of theological talk lately about the Kingdom of God and, despite it’s gendered language, I think this discussion is a great one. As a Christian I am first and foremost a citizen of God’s kingdom, or empire. I actually like the term empire, even though some have used it for an Augustinian distinction between kingdom (civitas Dei) and empire (civitas mundi). But Augustine didn’t parse words, he called both the city of God and the city of the world a city. And I increasingly find in a market-driven America that there is a difference between the empire of God and the empire of the corporate. And I want to be identified with the former, which means my consumption of the latter’s goods (through technology, which is different than as technology, this point is Heidegger’s) is something to be careful of. That means it’s healthy to be wary of my phone, my television, not because they are new and sexy but because they are conduits for identity claims from all over. I think American culture has become numb to identity claims; we are subject to so many every day from so many different kinds of marketing that we don’t even notice anymore. I want to recover a sense for them and I want to empower the identity claims of Christ in the midst of the noise of the market. And so I am re-evaluating concrete practices, habits, like prayer, which repeatedly glorifies and thanks one Lord. And I am searching for ways to make these practices communal, as I think they were meant to be, rather than something I do by myself. On my own, I will never have the strength to overcome the noise of competing identities. I’ve tried it before and it failed. But in a community held together by the grace of God, we might be able to get somewhere as a witness to alternative politics. This vision could go on and on, and maybe at at later date it will. Today, I want to simply reflect on the formational practices that are all around us, the messages they convey, the addictions they create, and the ways in which we as people are dehumanized by them. And I want to start recovering humanizing practices that have been around for thousands of years.

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2 thoughts on “Flappy Bird, Addictions, and the Empire of God

  1. In other words, be wary of technological determinism!

  2. […] or discuss. But he doesn’t let the world take hold of him. Two weeks ago, I wrote about our culture of addiction, which cannot let be but rather must own, over and over […]

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