Some people claim that the digital is like a big game. But what kind of game is it? If we focus on an aspect that is both particular and universal – the gestures that interfaces allow, encourage or impose – perhaps we can answer this question.
All those who inhabit the digital, namely networked computers, both desktop and mobile, have something in common: the role of users. This is their basic condition. It can be said that agency, the user’s ability to act, manifests itself within two opposite modes of interaction. These, in turn, can be identified with two now classic video games that we all know and, perhaps, we couldn’t stand much anymore. Both see birds as protagonists, both are games mostly suitable for smartphones, both have had a viral spread; both, finally, got us hooked. The first is Angry Birds, the second is Flappy Bird. They embody the two conflicting mechanics through which user-players play the great digital game.
Angry Birds, published in 2009 by the Finnish Rovio, consists of using a slingshot to throw wingless birds on the wobbly camps of a herd of green pigs (the inspiration was swine flu). The goal is to destroy them. It is a game of ballistics and calculus: a game of war. Flappy Bird, released in 2013 by Vietnamese game designer Dong Nguyen, is simpler: you have to prevent a flying bird from crashing against a series of tubes that appear at various heights. It is a game of rhythm and tenacity, a choreographic one, a game of dance. In Flappy Bird, as in traditional arcades, death is permanent: after each lost game you have to start all over again; not in Angry Birds: once you destroy the pigs hidden in their shack, you move on to the next one. Flappy Bird is a side-scroller: the game goes from left to right; Angry Birds has static screens.
Angry Birds is the game of action. Flappy Bird is the game of behaviour. Playing Angry Birds is to break the balance of the pig bivouac. Playing Flappy Bird is about modulating the semi-autonomous behaviour of the bird. By action I mean what interrupts behaviour, which is always repeating itself. According to Hannah Arendt, action is what breaks the “fateful automatism of sheer happening”. In this sense, agency should not coincide with the mere possibility of reproducing usual gestures, but with the faculty to interrupt them.
In Angry Birds the user is given agency: their gesture causes a rupture. Birds, on the contrary, have no way to escape the user’s will. Without wings, some of them endowed with a special “power”, they act as inanimate objects. They are both the bullet and the vehicle of the user. Admittedly, this is a deterministic game: each act always corresponds to the same result and therefore the rupture is only apparent. When we play we tend to ignore this, we don’t think of our gesture as a pre-programmed behaviour. The user’s gesture feels like an action because it unhinges the stasis of the environment. It is the opposite of Flappy Bird, where the gesture serves to safeguard stability. In Angry Birds the action has a clear beginning and causes a series of direct and indirect consequences. According to Vilém Flusser, “fingertips are organs of choice, of decision”. Action manifests itself as choice. The moment in which the finger is detached from the screen to let go of the slingshot is fatidic because it originates events. Angry Birds is the game of human agency traditionally intended. Everything that is not a subject (the user) is an object, whether animated or not: birds, bars, pigs, boulders and so on.
In Flappy Bird, it is hard to tell who holds agency. Certainly not the user, who’s busy integrating the imperfect conduct of the bird. Probably not even the bird, which doesn’t seem to be willing to fly, but having to fly in order to survive, since neither up nor down there is escape: its behaviour is the product of its condition. So, the only expression of agency shared by user and bird is perhaps the possibility of perishing, surrendering to gravity. Rather than the game of non-human agency, it is the game of non-agency, of pure behaviour, of being acted upon by necessity. It is the game of conditioning. In other words, it is the game of labour, of what needs to be done in order to subsist. It is maybe no coincidence that Dong Nguyen pulled out Flappy Bird of the app stores. He designed it for people on the move (on the subway or on the train) who have only one thumb available and don’t even want to think about which part of the screen to press. Soon, these people couldn’t stop pressing. So, in 2014 Nguyen, devoured by guilt, pulled the game’s plug, giving up the $50,000 a day he was earning.
Angry Birds is the constellation of links punctuating a Wikipedia entry or the landing page of The Guardian or The New York Times. It is Open Street Maps or Google Earth. It is Radio.garden. In short, it stands for any territory that allows a destination, right or wrong. It is a multidimensional (though monodirectional) game. The user-player is here a user-navigator.
Flappy Bird is the bottomless feed of Facebook or Twitter, the chain of Instagram stories, the automatic playlist of Youtube and Netflix. It is all that goes by itself and therefore paralyses the user, making their intervention accidental or superfluous. In the inexhaustible feed, scrolling fells like a mechanical, rudimentary activity, ready to be automated, like turning the crank of a phonograph. You don’t navigate a feed, at best you unfold it. With stories and playlists, instead, full automation is finally achieved. The stream goes completely by itself, careless of the user who simply modulates it, intervenes on its rhythm, suspends it briefly. The user-player is here a user-supervisor. The feed, the story and the playlist deprive the user of their agency, that is, of the very possibility of interrupting, or better, rupturing, their behaviour. This is only allowed by pulling out of the system: uninstalling Facebook, closing Instagram, turning off Netflix.
To go by itself, the stream must know where to go, or rather what to bring. This knowledge takes the form of a list. The list is convenient because it spares the user the onus of the journey, with its missteps, backtracks and sudden detours. The list comes and brings what it knows to the user so that the user doesn’t have to go. Flappy Bird already knows what in Angry Birds has to be discovered through action. The web in its original conception is Angry Birds; platforms are Flappy Bird. According to Olia Lialina, “the WWW, outside of Facebook, is an environment open for interpretation”; action is another word for such interpretation.
How to call this subtraction of agency? French philosopher Bernard Stiegler speaks of proletarianisation: the interface expropriates the user of the fullness of their gestures and puts them at its service before making them completely useless. The gesture is first standardised and then automated. The mindless gesture of scrolling is analogous to the repetitive gesture of assembling parts of a product in a factory. Whereas the worker doesn’t leave their position, the user doesn’t leave the page. Both feature movement without relocation. Furthermore, what the platform and the factory have in common is the possession of a knowledge that is externalised, opaque and held in its entirety only by them. In the factory, machines are organised according to an industrial know-how which fully understands the functional relationships between parts. In the platform, the algorithm embodies the logic to arrange data into lists that are then fed to the user. The platform-factory is smart and dynamic, the user-worker is dumb and static.
|repetitive, semi-automatic, “mindless” gestures||infinite scroll, swipe||assembly|
|movement without relocation||feed (the user doesn’t leave the page)||conveyor belt (the worker doesn’t leave their position)|
|externalised, opaque, inaccessible knowledge (savoir)||algorithm (arranging data into lists)||industrial know-how (arranging parts into objects)|
A synthetic table of user proletarianisation.
Action is irreducible to the list. Action — like History, which is its product — becomes a list, that is, behaviour, only after the event. Behavior and action are fighting souls in the great digital game. It remains to be seen who will win.
A shorter version of this text was published in Italian on Not.