SJSU in the News: "Angry Birds" Stir Prof to Comment

Games on Smartphones Snare a New Breed of Player

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News 1/23/2011

By Sue McAllister

Demetrias Farley realizes the way she plays games on her mobile phone verges on obsession.

On a recent weekend, “from Friday to Sunday, that’s all I would do — to the point that if I got a text or a phone call that interrupted the game, I got mad,” she says, referring to “Angry Birds,” a wildly popular game in which players try to destroy smug-faced pigs by slinging birds at them. “I was talking to a representative at the bank yesterday and playing ‘Angry Birds’ at the same time. That’s how bad I am.”

Like many of the people poking intently at their phones in line at the supermarket or while waiting for dental appointments, Farley, a 42-year-old Concord resident, never had the slightest interest in trying her daughter’s PlayStation and Xbox a few years back. “I don’t even know how to use the controller,” Farley says.

But that all changed when she got her first smartphone a little more than a year ago. Thanks to the recent explosion in inexpensive games for mobile-phone platforms, she and legions of people who don’t know an Xbox from a breadbox are getting hooked on mobile games. The most habit-forming are appealing to look at and easy to learn, deliver quick rewards and challenge players to keep going, experts say.

Of the top 10 paid apps of all time for iPhones, nine are games, Apple announced this month. “Angry Birds,” launched a little more than a year ago, ranks as the fourth most popular of all time, but has been solidly in the No. 1 spot since last summer. As of last month, “Angry Birds” had been downloaded more than 42 million times for various types of phones, according to gaming industry reports.

“These (games) are sort of brief vacations that we can carry with us,” says Andrew Wood, a professor of communications studies at San Jose State. “The idea of being able to get out of your work zone or transportation zone or even family zone and dive into a highly vivid, interactive medium is a real treat.”

Wood calls mobile games such as “Angry Birds,” “Fruit Ninja” or “F.A.S.T.” — a jet-flying game he was hooked on for a time — “the high-fructose corn syrup of entertainment,” providing delicious pastimes without much nutritional value, so to speak.

And consumers appear to be gulping down the syrup. Market research firm NPD Group estimates that consumers spent about $6 billion last year on digitally downloaded games, including mobile-phone games, one of the fastest-growing segments of the gaming industry. It is estimated that more than 45,000 game apps are available for Apple devices alone. The allure of the games is expected to transform more of the people who enjoy doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku on paper into compulsive mobile gamers, plotting how to vanquish the dastardly green pigs of “Angry Birds.”

Part of the appeal is that it costs nothing, or very little, to download most games and try them on a smartphone. No-cost versions of many popular games are accompanied by on-screen ads; commercial-free versions usually run only a few dollars. “Especially for the economic times we are in, it’s an amazing value,” says Joel Brodie, chief executive of Gamezebo, a website that provides reviews of games for the iPhone, Facebook and PCs.

Mobile games also give quick hits of satisfaction — flashes of lights and sound reward you when you do something well. In addition, the popular games are frequently updated to provide new twists. The “Seasons” version of “Angry Birds,” for example, features a Christmas theme, complete with animals in Santa hats.

And some of the games are much more interactive than “first-person shooter” games, the industry tag for those in which — you guessed it — the player runs around shooting things. The popular “Words with Friends,” for example, is a Scrabble-like game you play with others. Farley, who likes it, says, “My phone was in my hand constantly, waiting for everybody to play.”

Many mobile games, however, can be played in short spurts, with no need to end the game when taking a phone call or attending to other demands of real life.

Jennifer Deauville, 39, has worked in the video game industry for about 15 years, but never picked up the habit of playing them until smartphones came along.

Now, she says, she plays “Angry Birds,” “Bejeweled 2,” “Fruit Ninja,” “Words with Friends” and “Tetris” in spare moments: “If I’m waiting in line at the grocery store, if I am waiting to pick my son up from school, before going to bed, while watching TV. “… I’m addicted,” says Deauville, who works for graphics chip maker Nvidia and lives in Sunnyvale. Nonetheless, she has spent less than $50, she estimates, equipping her Android phone and her iPod Touch with all the games she wants.

One silver lining to the addiction of games is that the obsessions can be fairly fleeting, some players say. Mountain View resident Neil Gordon, 28, says he was “super-addicted” to “Angry Birds” for a few weeks last fall. “I got three stars on every level, and every golden egg you could possibly find,” he says, referring to his mastery of the game. “I didn’t walk away thinking ‘That was a great use of my time,’ ” he says, laughing wryly. “It was more a sense of gratification that it was over.”