I admit it: I was the 500-millionth person to download Angry Birds.
It was late fall when I learned that for a mere $4.99 I could now purchase the app for my home computer, thereby averting a looming domestic crisis. First introduced to Angry Birds by a friendly teenager with an iPhone, the seven-year-old in my life had rapidly exhausted the free version you can play online. A loaner iPhone equipped with the 99-cent app had tided us over for a few weeks but it needed to be returned and we were facing the grim prospect of life without the joys of packing colourful cartoon birds into a slingshot and flinging them at the pigs that stole their eggs.
The seven-year-old, often frustrated by parents of the type who never did learn to program the VCR and now have the nerve to appear wistful that it's too late, was busy selling his father on the necessity of a smartphone. Then, in a uncharacteristic moment of technological savvy and pop-culture acumen, I discovered Angry Bird's platform expansion and handed over my credit-card number. A few days later, the Finnish game maker Rovio announced its paid downloads for the app were now halfway to one billion.
We live in oddly accelerated times. Or maybe we just live in odd times: It was Salman Rushdie who first told me about Angry Birds. Less than a year after the game's 2009 launch, I was interviewing the novelist about his new children's book, Luka and the Fire of Life. As Luka moves through increasingly complex tasks to achieve his quest, anyone who has ever played a computer game, or has a child who has played one, will quickly recognize the source for Rushdie's hazy world of solutions that fly out of the sky at you and deaths that don't actually kill you. When I asked Rushdie what computer games he played, he told me about some iPhone game of which I had never heard; within months, I could not imagine family life without daily petitions for more Angry Birds.
Like many parents, I was ambivalent. Angry Birds is ostensibly a puzzle game: In each level, there is a particular configuration of shots that will successfully demolish the wood, glass and stone structures that guard the pigs so as to kill them off. (After all, they stole the eggs; they have it coming.) The seven-year-old in my life had graduated to this from a game in which a monkey pops balloons with darts, a freebie that was satisfyingly destructive without being violent.
But I learned recently that the bulk of money now spent on online games can be attributed to players buying add-ons for free games. Bucking trends, I had refused to buy higher levels of balloon-popping, and the seven-year-old had moved on to a free game in which an ice-cream vendor pelts bad children with strawberry ripple. The player rapidly accumulates points that can be spent on equipping the ice-cream truck with turbo-launchers. I was already feeling uncomfortable with the turbo launchers when the seven-year-old switched to a Santa Claus game in which the jolly old elf pelts bad children with coal. This time bonus points bought you artillery for the sleigh that looked distinctly like bazookas and AK-47s. I drew the line. The seven-year-old pointed out my distinction was arbitrary. I did not budge.
So Angry Birds had rescued us from worse violence, but I still worried about the slaughter of the pigs, the way my parents' generation feared none of us Looney Tunes watchers understood that when you fall off a cliff in real life, you die. A colleague with older children shook his head at my naiveté – it's hardly Grand Theft Auto. The seven-year-old, meanwhile, was petitioning for the mighty eagle, the game's nuclear option, just another 99 cents. An adult who plays the game tells me the mighty eagle introduces a new level of complexity where you start measuring whether every scrap of the pigs' houses has been destroyed. He ought to know complexity: He had to delete Angry Birds from his iPad because he was losing hours playing the game when he was supposed to be studying. From where I sit, the mighty eagle is unsporting and defeats the purpose of the puzzles.
Besides, the seven-year-old was not in a strong position to negotiate for more shopping. He had already talked his parents into two Angry Bird stuffed toys. He was also drawing Angry Bird scenarios with his coloured pencils at school and was delighted at a recent party to receive a physical game in which he stacks up little blocks and little pigs and flings birds at them with a little plastic slingshot. Turns out, it's not the virtual experience that children want, it's the real one. Rovio knows this and is cashing in. It announced last week that it is developing playground equipment based on the game.
This all bodes very well for Rovio's much anticipated IPO, which the company has speculated will be made some time in 2012 or 2013. Or does it? While adult women, increasingly courted by game manufacturers, are everybody's target market because they make most household purchasing decisions, children are a capricious crowd: Now that Angry Birds has literally entered the playground, how long before it becomes the next Pac Man, Cabbage Patch doll or Silly Bandz?
I can withstand the sticky and sometimes fickle embrace of the seven-year-old any day, but I am not so sure Rovio can.