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Tom Alderman

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Angry Birds: Tarzan of the Apps

Posted: 10/11/11 03:34 PM ET

Alfred Hitchcock must be smiling. The birds are here, millions of them, plump little budgies with thick Groucho eyebrows and menacing expressions sling-shooting themselves Kamikaze-style into their, or is it our, very structural foundations. OMG, is this some sort of revealing cultural metaphor? Could be.

We're of course talking about an app, the Angry Birds app. If it's not on your phone, computer or tablet, if you have not heard, seen or tried Angry Birds, then you are not just off the grid, you don't even know what the grid is -- but it doesn't matter since there's no way you're reading this.

Created by Finland's small mobile game developer, Rovio Entertainment, Angry Birds is a digital phenomenon. It has been downloaded an estimated 50 million times by people of all ages. It's the No. 1 paid app in the U.S., Canada, Italy, Germany, Russia and the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has a mild addiction, as do a variety of other supposedly busy people, from Dick Cheney to Mad Men actor Jon Hamm, according the U.K's The Telegraph.

What is it about this little video game that has so dominated the app jungle? Well, for one thing, "It's such a great metaphor for life, with a little bit of Macbeth thrown in," says Robert Thompson, Prof. of Cultural Studies, Syracuse University. Life? Macbeth? I'm in.

"These are not monsters gone amok or killer sharks," Thompson explains. They're just plump little innocent birds making things fall down." In other words, these birds are using physics to remind us that, in the end, everything returns to chaos and entropy.

Thompson goes on to say, "We won't be taken out by nuclear bombs or by terrorists. Maybe the end of the world as we know it will be done by a bunch of cute little birds, or kitties playing piano, or babies that laugh." I am so in.

That's what Macbeth is about too, the professor reminds me. It's about the collapse of order. One person, the king, or you and your Angry Birds finger, have the power to bring chaos, disorder and destruction.

Sure, but isn't that what a lot of video games are about? Destroying something? Yes, indeed, which brings us to the other reason these birds rule. SIMPLICITY. Thompson, whose job it is to examine popular culture, points out that the great classic video games were so incredibly simple. Remember Pong, a plain back-and-forth ping-pong contest credited with being the first commercially successful video game that led to the start of the whole video game industry back in the early 1970s?

"Simple is a lot harder to pull off and it doesn't get any more simple than Angry Birds," Bottom line from Thompson: stuff falls down -- it's a fundamental law of the universe. Newton and Leibniz tagged this a long time ago. Put that together with elegant simplicity in a video game, and Angry Birds succeeds on a basic, primitive level that makes it highly satisfying.

And then there's the birds' chirpy music, squawking, grunting, giggling and cheers as an added aural bonus.

And let's not forget the biblical angle here, explains the professor. It taps into one of the greatest stories of human kind. It's a slingshot these birds are using! David and Goliath anyone?

I say we enjoy this app while we can because, eventually, you know it will become just another over-used commercial juggernaut. It will be cloned, copied and exploited into triviality. It's already started. Current Angry Birds merchandise includes a movie, T-shirts, backpacks, lunch boxes, Halloween costumes, plush Angry Bird toys, card games, key chains, charms, necklaces, umbrellas, nail clippers, calendars, fruit gummies, skate boards, collectable figurines, iPhone and iPad cases and men's pants. Yes, men's pants.

How soon will we see Angry Birds, on Saturday morning TV and self-help audiobooks like The Tao of the Angry Birds, Business Secrets of the Angry Birds and Unleash Your Inner Angry Bird, complete with squawks, grunting and giggles?

Finally when the flock has worn out its welcome and starts squabbling among themselves about top billing, look for Drew Pinsky's new audiobook, "Angry Birds: Codependent No More."

I am so out of it now.