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From Phyllida's Desk

Rooting For the Pigs

I was a latecomer to Angry Birds, as to so much of modern digital experience. Just this week, after barreling through season 3 of The Walking Dead and feeling a certain zombie-like resistance to resuming "normal life" (whatever that is) I decided to revisit the free game lurking untouched on my Kindle Fire mini-tablet. Seventy-two hours and countless levels later, I have a confession: I'm rooting for the pigs.

Am I the only one to be bothered by the fact that the minimal narrative of the game involves not merely knocking down structures, but killing the mostly civilian inhabitants, many of them children?

Yes, I know it's just a game, and not even remotely realistic. There are, after all, a number of warfare games, as well as the notorious Grand Theft Auto, that reward players for killing much more lifelike two-dimensional human, or at least humanoid, figures. In Angry Birds, by contrast, the birds don't look a lot like real birds. They don't even have wings. The enemy pigs are green and consist only of heads, without so much as a trotter or a curly tail.

So what's my problem?

Well, for a start, everybody recognizes that the "realistic" games are about killing. People argue over whether it's cathartic for people to release their aggression through a digital, two-dimensional simulation, or whether it accustoms people to violence, but at least they’re discussing the issues of war and murder turned into games.

With Angry Birds, it's all a joke. And I have to say I enjoyed it at first. The bird "missiles" say "Ow ow ow!" when they slam into a wall and bounce off, and after they've hit their target they implode with soft little puffs of exhaustion. When you "clear a level," the victorious birds sneer with the universal "har har, nyah nyah" taunt of winners; when your "level fails," the pigs grunt and snort in contempt. I found myself hesitating over the reset button several times instead of trying again immediately, taking solace in the fact that the pigs had lived to laugh at me for another round.

In fact, Angry Birds is a highly abstract form of siege warfare. And like most sieges throughout history, victory requires more than knocking down the defensive walls: you have to kill the inhabitants too. In Angry Birds, your level "fails" if even one tiny piglet is left alive after you've used up your allotment of bird missiles. I moved enthusiastically through the early levels of Angry Birds, but began to find the backgrounds increasingly disturbing, as the crude huts and wobbly towers gave way to sturdier, more elaborate structures, with glass windows and furniture.

Yes, some of the pigs are shown wearing helmets, suspiciously like the Germans' from WWII, and in some of the scenes the pigs occupy a tank or a fort--signals that these are not just simple farmers, but enemy soldiers. But not all of the pigs are combatants. There is a grandfatherly pig with a red mustache, and in later levels, a king pig with a crown. Some are children, tiny piglets. The levels alternate between military settings and very soft targets indeed. Perhaps the most disturbing scenario showed a multi-generational bunch of pigs, some civilians, some helmeted soldiers, huddling in an underground bunker. To "clear" that level, it wasn't enough to smash through the roof of wooden, glass and stone barricades--you had to kill every pig, down to the last survivor cowering in the back. I couldn’t help thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The hardest level for me from the emotional standpoint was a garden scene, in which the "enemy" was doing nothing more threatening than harvesting melons, and in which a very tiny piglet occupied the far seat of a child-size tractor. Surely even the most morally-challenged army of brigands would hesitate before dropping bombs on children enjoying a day in the melon patch, although our own country's shameful history against American Indian villages should silence that naïve thought. Like most soldiers, I did my duty, but I wasn’t proud of myself, and this was not a level that I cared to replay once I "cleared" it. I’m still feeling like a veteran of My Lai. Yes, sir, I destroyed the village and all its melons to save it, sir.

As millions of game fans will attest, there is a great addictive pleasure in knocking things down. I think I speak for all of sinful humanity when I say that it is far, far more enjoyable to aim a bomb just right at the sweet spot to make an impenetrable stone wall collapse, bringing down parapets of wood and glass, and exploding that conveniently placed box of "TNT" under the kitchen table, than it is to design the wall in the first place and build it over weeks and months, stone by stone and block by block.

When I came up for air after three days I learned, through Google and Wikipedia (how else?) that Angry Birds is a "physics" game based on an earlier game called, appropriately, Crush the Castle. While the launch weapon in Angry Birds is portrayed as a child's Y-shaped slingshot, what we're really doing is using a trebuchet, a complicated medieval siege engine that works with a counterweight and the force of gravity, to hurl a variety of modern-style warheads at the pigs. This is a well-designed game that makes the most of touch-screen technology. With the swipe of a finger, we can aim missiles, explode remote-control bombs, calculate angles and control velocity.

Perhaps because I'm a writer, I can't help being troubled by the enveloping storyline. Apparently the reason the birds are so "angry" is that the pigs are stealing their eggs. But as a native New Yorker, I have far more hostile feelings toward birds than pigs. I encounter pigs only as my favorite foods: bacon, sausages, ham and salami; but I have been pooped on by pigeons, repeatedly awakened at 5:00 AM by mating mourning doves that give new meaning to the term "screamers," and terrorized by a giant seagull at Jones Beach that deep-throated a friend's hot dog in one gulp.

If they give the pigs anti-aircraft weapons, I just might re-up.
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