Why Is Angry Birds So Addictive?: A Cognitive Teardown

By , Columnist
Not all of my teen years were spent drinking and kissing boys; the majority were wasted in arcades playing Frogger. I spent hours attempting to move a group of frog-shaped pixels across road and log-shaped pixels due to OCD levels of perfectionism and a strong competitive streak.

Fifteen years later and once again I find myself again addicted to a game and trapped in a perpetual loop of “just one more level.” Angry Birds has grown into a pop culture phenomenon since Rovio first released the game in December 2009. Recently reaching 250 million downloads, the enterprise has also delved into creating merchandise, cookbooks, a a movie, a potential TV show, and most recently, an announcement about "looking at every [gaming] console" as a potential nest for Angry Birds.


What is it about strategically launching colorful birds at grinning green swine that people have found so addicting? Charles Mauro of Mauro New Media, a 30-year veteran of usability engineering, has given a cognitive teardown of the game’s success for the following reasons:

1) A simple yet engaging interaction model that is easy to learn because it allows the user to quickly develop a mental model of the game.

2) Cleverly managed response time. Rather than adhere to the universal law of user interface design, “the faster the response time, the better,” in Angry Birds, the flight of the flock follows a leisurely pace. This slowed response time, combined with a carefully crafted trajectory trace (the flight path of the bird) solves one huge problem for all user interfaces - error correction.

3) Manipulation of short-term memory. By simple manipulation of the user interface, designers created significant short-term memory loss, which in turn increases game play complexity and adds to the addictive nature of the game itself.

4) Mystery (conceptual depth) created with just enough context to consume mental resources in subtle and compelling ways. For example, why are tiny bananas suddenly strewn about in some play sequences and not in others?

5) Sound. The audio in Angry Birds serves to enhance the user’s experience by mapping tightly to the user’s simple mental model of conflict; known as “action syncing” in film production, provides enhanced levels of the feedback for users at just the right time.

6) How things look. The simple visual design of those tiny cartoon-ish birds is so compelling and simple, it brings an additional level of continuous interest to the game play experience. The visual design works like any branding endeavor, in that it must be memorable and it must convey the desired attributes of the game play model.

Mauro presents an excellent cognitive analysis of the simple, yet compelling nature of Angry Birds; but we can’t forget appealing to the psyche of perfectionists and competitive types who consistently return for “just one more try.” There is also promotion, and a great deal of it. Frogger and Angry Birds grew from simple concepts into iconic pop culture status and I have wasted entirely too much time on both. It would be impossible to predict what the next phenomenon will be, but, as my game addictions originated with spending several hours in an arcade and found me again years later spending several hours in the bathroom, whatever the next Angry Birds is, I’m not buying it.

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Holly is a freelance writer and copy editor with a background in journalism and publishing. Like a grandmother's purse, she is about three decades old, worn around the edges and mostly full of crap.

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