Sample Clearance: Flappy Bird and the Art of Sampling

You may be thinking this is yet another Flappy Bird think piece, wherein the writer wistfully gazes into his own navel for thousands of agonizing words, wondering what he could have done and why it is a lesson to the rest of us to be better people or to fix the acerbic nature of online interactions, the definition of “indie” development, or any other of a number of things that others will write about until we find something else to grouse about.

No, this is not that piece. Instead of rehashing any number of tired arguments about Flappy Bird’s place in the video game landscape, I’m going to talk to you today about hip-hop music and why the creator of Flappy Bird, Dong Ngyuen, is an artistic genius.

They say necessity is the mother of all invention. In 1970s New York, groups of young Black and Latino men and women basically invented a musical genre, all revolving around repurposing other people’s music into something they enjoyed.

DJs would find specific sections of various disco, funk, and soul records (these would come to be known as “breaks”) and would separate and recombine them into something completely new and original (“breakbeats”). Most of these creators didn’t have access to instruments and proper training; they just found something that sounded cool and got people dancing and went with it. This is the foundation for what has now widely been accepted as “sampling,” which is now found in all types of music: hip-hop, rock, electronic, and many others. Chances are that you hear samples all of the time when listening to the radio, you just don’t know it.

As sampling became more popular and artists such as Puff Daddy pushed the boundaries of what mainstream culture would consider “appropriate sampling,” there began a minor cultural uprising that considered sampling as less musical than playing an instrument which, for those who have actually attempted to sample, induces eye-rolls. It’s terribly hard to pick small portions of a song (popular or otherwise) and take parts of it and make it your own.

It’s also art.

That recombination is key. A talented producer or DJ can find something in a song that hundreds of thousands of people have listened to and find one unique piece of the music that they can make something gorgeous with. Or, the really dedicated ones find new pieces of previously-forgotten music and make them relevant again with clever usage.

What does this have to do with Flappy Bird?

Well, Flappy Bird is one of the first really popular games that I can think of that comes close to anything resembling sampling. Its art is eerily reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3, much the same way that Kanye West’s “Good Life” is eerily reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T.” or how The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” has elements of a Bossa Nova song from the 1960s.

In music, sampling is so ubiquitous that it’s accepted in most critical circles as a viable and creative enterprise in and of itself. For many, it’s almost as much fun to try to figure out the samples in any one song as it is to listen to the song itself. For me, samples have become the backbone of a musical education. I learned about Bossa Nova from J. Dilla, who produced “Runnin’.” I learned about old jazz from artists such as A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock, who built many of my favorite songs from dusty saxophone and trumpet loops. I went back and found the artists they sampled, and it opened up a whole new world of music to me.

So, when I see Flappy Bird and the negative press it’s engendered from the community because of its sampling of old Nintendo classics, I can’t help but wonder: why all the hate?

Flappy Bird could be inspirational just like hip-hop has been inspirational to millions of home beatmakers (myself included), who toil away on music in their spare time, trying to become the next Kanye West or Dr. Dre. Of all of the primary art forms in the culture, video games are by far the least accessible for creators. Anyone with a cell phone can make movies or become a photographer. Anyone with a MacBook instantly has access to a production suite where they can make music, or they can download any one of hundreds of low-cost iOS and Android apps to express themselves musically. Obviously anyone who can input text can become a writer basically overnight, and so on.

Gaming, however, still faces this accessibility problem. Outside of a handful of development tools such as Twine, making games requires too much technical skill to be something that anyone can pick up and learn. In order to make a game, you typically need a team: artist, programmer, etc. Sure, one person can wear all of those hats, but the innate talent or access to training that has to be present in one person to be able to pull of game development is rare.

However, what if game making tools were easier to use? What if, in order for a game to become popular, original art wasn’t required? It’s not like all original art is great or inspiring. Video game art copies itself all of the time, and art design in games is typically bland and uninteresting. Core mechanics are stale, plot elements are repeated ad-nauseam, and even game covers are just different variations on the same theme: a man, chin down, eyes up, looking directly at the player, glowering.

Fantasy games rely on 60-year-old tropes established in The Lord of the Rings, while almost every multiplayer shooter “samples” Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s persistent character system, with slight changes here and there so as to not wholly rip it off. Even Nintendo, the purported “victim” of Flappy Bird’s sampling, copies itself on a regular basis. What’s so different about New Super Mario Bros. U compared to any of the older games in the series? It even re-uses music from those games. This is original?

Which isn’t to say that these games are bad or not fun, which, ultimately, should be the only measurement by which we judge games. I didn’t think Flappy Bird was all that good, but it was making $50,000 per day in ad revenue for a reason. Although the controversy drove some of its explosion in popularity, people did connect with it, and it had little to do with the fact that the pipes resembled Mario pipes. Hundreds of games are released each year that resemble Mario games in art or mechanics, but not all of them are successful in the way Flappy Bird was.

Is it just that videogame culture needs to grow more in order to accept sampling as a viable way to create games? I don’t know, but how much longer should it take? We’ve been playing video games for about 60 years now, but we’ve been gaming as a culture for far longer. As kids, we would take board games and change the rules in ways that the designers never intended. The recently-released The LEGO Movie gives a lot of screen time to the inherent value of taking a LEGO set designed for some specific creation and using it to make something else. It’s something we’ve always done as a society, so why not in gaming?

My hypothesis is that video game culture is too reliant on technical know-how. Ultimately, it’s of little importance to people on a dance floor where or how a song came to be, just that it sounds good. Yet, in gaming, we focus on numbers irrespective of “fun”: framerate, resolution, install size, forgetting that it’s not in tech that a good game is found. It’s in the intangibles of design that the real fun and worthiness of a game is found. The fact that the jump distance in Super Mario Bros. 3 is perfect isn’t a simple formula that anyone can recreate. The feel and instinct of its creators contributed to its perfection just as much as the specific shape of its pipes, and Flappy Bird relies on its creator’s instincts just as much.

Any of us could have made Flappy Bird with recombinant parts of Mario games and been just as successful. But we didn’t, and that’s the point. Dong Nguyen was the only person on Earth who actually did create Flappy Bird and that, above all else, makes him an artistic genius.

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