The Life and Death of Angry Birds
Angry Birds is an interesting cultural phenomenon. What started out as a simple game for smartphones back in 2009 has evolved into eighteen different versions of the game, three different cartoon series, a feature film, and a plethora of merchandise (from plush dolls to Legos). It’s also become a favorite pastime of college students who sit in the back of the classroom pretending to take notes (at least they’re not texting?). As fun or frustrating as it may be to play Angry Birds (depending on your skill level) perhaps the excitement we experience is related to one of the most puzzling concepts observed by Sigmund Freud: the death drive.
The basic premise goes like this: there is a life drive (Eros) and a death drive (Thanatos), the life drive seeks to build life, the death drive seeks to destroy it (and when you’re in college you do both at the same time). In the life drive, we attach ourselves to things, build relationships, and increase our chances for survival. This makes sense. It’s why our lives are structured around finding mates, creating families, and having children (and a retirement plan).
In the death drive, however, we’re compelled to initiate conflict, build tension, and disintegrate ourselves until we return to a state of not-being (it’s called a Frat Party). This doesn’t make sense because it runs counter to how our lives and our societies are structured. Yet, this is exactly what the Angry Birds games do. You win when you kill all the pigs, even if you have to sacrifice all your birds to do it. The game is predicated on conflict that leads to complete annihilation, illustrating not just the death drive but our fascination (or at least curiosity) with death.
We’re mortal. Nothing can change that (though transhumanists are doing their best to learn how to play God so we can be immortal or at least get some upgraded parts and double our life-spans – a premise that grows more appealing as one inches closer toward fifty). No matter what we believe may or may not happen when we die, we don’t really know because there’s no absolute, definitive answer. The uncertainty scares us, but our fear is just another form of desire as the death drive impels us to seek our death, not because our fascination is necessarily morbid, but because death, as Freud explains, is where we came from – its calling to us. As Freud writes:
The attributes of life were at some time evoked in inanimate matter by the action of a force of whose nature we can form no conception […] The tension which then arose in what had hitherto been an inanimate substance endeavored to cancel itself out. In this way, the first instinct came into being: the instinct to return to the inanimate state. It was still an easy matter at that time for a living substance to die; the course of its life was probably only a brief one, whose direction was determined by the chemical structure of the young life. (from Beyond the Pleasure Principle)
In other words, life is somehow created out of nothing and the way it is created (its nature or its program) compels it to return to nothing. Like E.T. or Dory, we’re just trying to find our way home.
Freud is also equating existence with tension, suggesting that our first instinct is to release the tension. Death becomes the goal of life. Perhaps that’s why Yoda tells Anakin in Episode III, “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not.” It sounds nice, but the reality is that most of us fear death and if we’re honest, we really don’t want to experience it.
And that’s why we have Angry Birds – because games allow us to experiment with death in some capacity without having to deal with the consequences. We practice dying and like BSG’s Cylons, we learn from our deaths, honing our skills each time we die (until eventually you can get by for two hours after middle school at the 7-11 on just a dollar). Thus, the fascination with (or fear of) death remains, even if it’s just simulated death.
Perhaps this is why most games are designed around conflict. In Angry Birds, the birds are angry and the pigs are devious because the game wouldn’t work if nice birds tried to kill honest pigs. We have to be motivated to kill. We need a reason to justify mortal combat (from self-defense to revenge to the Bush Doctrine) because those we kill need to deserve being killed. It’s the standard conflict-plot formula in narrative theory – protagonist versus antagonist (which, when you think about it, creates an interesting dilemma with regard to the death drive). Otherwise, the killing is meaningless.
But, we don’t know why the birds and pigs are in conflict because the motivation is never clearly explained in the video games. The pigs steal the eggs, but we don’t know why and while it makes sense that the birds want their eggs back, why resort to suicide bombing? This is what makes the Angry Birds Movie noteworthy and thought-provoking – we finally get an explanation for the conflict, we get a back-story. Ironically, it has to do with the life drive.
In the Angry Birds games, the sole purpose of a bird’s life is to cause death through suicide. In the movie, however, nobody dies – not one bird, not one pig (a rarity in kids’ flicks). There’s still plenty of destruction and the birds still launch themselves (Kamikaze style) at the pigs – most of Piggy Island is laid waste. But death is feared more than it’s pursued. Instead, the narrative focuses on the appreciation of life.
As John Cohen, the film’s producer, explains, “We have created an origin story for how the birds got angry […] One thing that we introduce in the beginning of the movie, is the central, hallowed role of eggs.” In the film, the eggs represent the birds’ children. To the pigs, they’re food. Thus, the birds are understandably angry and afraid when the pigs steal them. This is where Master Yoda might have overlooked the positive effects of fear and anger – in Star Wars they lead to the Dark Side, but in the Angry Birds Movie, fear and anger become a mobilizing force, one that leads to salvation and survival, as the birds end up saving the eggs (in the same way Sadness ends up saving Riley in Inside Out – we may not want our kids to get angry or be sad, but maybe these emotions aren’t as bad as we think).
What’s significant is that the birds are also angry because they embrace the life drive and the abduction of every single egg in the community threatens the existence of every bird, hatched or unhatched (because if the pigs had succeeded in making their omelets, the birds would’ve lost an entire generation). Remember, it’s an origin story, the birds aren’t “Angry Birds” yet, so the possibility of the death drive has never occurred to them – they don’t even think they can fly. And can we really blame the pigs for stealing the eggs? Aren’t they embracing the life drive, too?
We might want to still think of the pigs as blameworthy villains, given their actions, but as the filmmakers explain, the pigs operate with a “hive mind,” focused on a singular mission. It might be villainy, but it’s also survival. After all, the eggs represent a valuable resource and what species doesn’t try to sustain itself at the expense of another species? (The Lion King and Elton John called this the “circle of life” and Zootopia called it “going savage” – the food chain is a common trope in kids’ movies.)
It’s certainly interesting how the pigs are portrayed as seafaring explorers who arrive on a new island and plunder its resources. It’s what those who embrace the life drive do. Sure, the pigs tricked the birds and stole the eggs and they don’t show any compassion or empathy – they’re clearly supposed to be the villains. Yet, at least we understand their motivation (even if it resembles the humans’ motivation in Avatar, who don’t care about the native Na’vi, just the unobtanium). It may seem cruel, but, in defense of the pigs, they’ve never been about destroying themselves (not sure if we can say the same about humans).
Still, the leader of the pigs, Leonard, isn’t sympathetic – if he’d been shown to need the eggs because of some famine, maybe we’d care more (because he’d just be trying to save his people). But Leonard and his mindless followers aren’t hungry, they’re greedy – though, like it or not, gluttony still reinforces the life drive.
What’s paramount is that the war waged for possession of the eggs becomes a war for the life drive, with a clear mission: save the species by any means necessary. It’s a meaningful battle and it stands in stark contrast to the video game versions of Angry Birds, which embrace the emptiness of the death drive – where a bird’s purpose is to kill as many pigs as it can and a pig exists only as a living shield protecting its loot.
Thus, it’s significant that the hero of the Angry Birds Movie is Red – the iconic poster-bird for the Angry Bird franchise. Like the Incredible Hulk, Red’s always angry (it really doesn’t take much to piss him off) and early in the film, after a series of mishaps, Red is sentenced to anger management therapy – because on Bird Island, anger is something that needs to be managed, not embraced … until the pigs come along. Then, it’s Red who mobilizes an army of “angry flocking birds” to get the eggs back, putting himself in harm’s way many times in order to save every single egg.
It’s compelling, especially since Red isn’t a father and has never really been part of the flock. He’s depicted as an outcast who lives on the beach by himself, away from the city. So, his evolution from outcast to hero is a captivating and relatable arc – because Red is the everyman embodying the part in all of us who’d just rather be left alone but who (when properly motivated) has the capacity to rise to greatness. This gives the elements of anger and sacrifice that the games are based on a new meaning. It’s no longer kill yourself to kill pigs, it’s sacrifice yourself to save others (especially children) – the mayhem has a purpose (chaos preserving life). Now we know what we’re fighting for when we angrily launch ourselves (in strategic, pinpoint trajectories) at greedy pigs. It’s not because we want to die, it’s because we want to live.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Angry Birds Movie, DVD, Sony Pictures, 2016.
Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” Dover Publications, 2015.
Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Ga