You likely need no introduction to Flappy Bird, nor to its controversial rise to fame and fall from the top of the online game stores early this year (though, in truth it was more a push than a fall). Rolling Stone, Bloomberg, CNN, BBC, The Guardian, and other big boys have squeezed all the birdy juice they could out of the little guy.

But in all of the slobbering media attention that was ladled out for Flappy Bird and its famously press-shy creator, Hanoi-based indie developer Dong Nguyen, one thing that was missing was any real discussion of what the local folks thought of all this. After all, Dong started out as a perfectly typical young Vietnamese kid – albeit one with a knack for coding and a good idea — and in many ways he’s an every-man on which the face of modern Vietnam can be projected. But Dong’s coyness with the press, and especially his reticence to  explain himself, made him also a cipher upon which each person saw what he or she expected — or wanted — to see.

The Experts

Naturally, Vietnam’s first globally successful game drew zealous attention from all layers of the social strata, or at least all those with a smartphone and an Internet connection. From on high, self-appointed experts in one field or another peddled their opinions of the phenomenon on Facebook, the blogosphere, discussion forums, and elsewhere.

I see in here a professional and effective marketing campaign, with a touch of Vietnamese mischief. Upping the game, downing it, placing a cellphone on Ebay with the game installed – all seem to me parts of coordinated efforts, not by-chance incidents.” (Anh Gau Pham).

Blah blah blah

“Look, they’re all wasting time playing Flappy Bird. They keep complaining about how hard it is, but they keep playing.”

“A game in which everything – from its graphics to its sound – was ripped off from Super Mario Bros, and the bird and mechanics stolen from 2011’s Piou Piou, which suddenly ‘reaped success,’ make many people raise the questions of cheating or bot-manipulating, but is now praised as the ‘big inspiration’ for Vietnam’s game industry. Look at that, and we’ll see how unaware our people are of copyright. It’s no news since, for sure, more than 90% of Vietnamese are still using pirated or cracked software without feeling they’re doing anything wrong.” (Nguyen Thanh Tuan)

The Common Man

Nevertheless, you’ve heard hordes of conversations like that. On this planet, every success story, even a flash in the pan, compels deconstruction. What distinguishes the conversations amongst local folks in Vietnam apart is another dimension altogether: nationalism. And its opposite: GATO.

GATO is an abbreviation for Ghen Ăn Tức Ở. In literal translation, it means ‘jealous with the eats, upset with the living.’ Put more simply: envy with a healthy dash of sour grapes.

The rise of Dong Nguyen and the simplistic (but by no means simple) eight-bit smartphone game he created (in a single night!) prompted a tidal wave of criticism around the globe, and nowhere was the tide higher or more forceful than in Vietnam. The Vietnamese Internet was deluged with skeptics offering up analysis that questioned Flappy Bird’s value, its originality, its graphics, its music, its sincerity. It was all part of the GATO syndrome, an embarrassing but fundamental part of being Vietnamese:

“Vietnam’s talents can only attain a name on a global scale when they don’t choose Vietnam as the place to start at, because the GATO wave can crush all innovation and hard work right from the first second.” (Chín Ba Chín Chín )

“A Vietnamese must support another Vietnamese. This game is an innovative creation of a Vietnamese. Chinamen steal everything and make them theirs. Look at that.” (Nguyễn Thành)

"This is the first and also the last time a Vietnamese game dominates the world. Congratulations, Dong. Vietnamese people are proud of you."

“This is the first and also the last time a Vietnamese game dominates the world. Congratulations, Dong. Vietnamese people are proud of you.”

This meme reaped 23,635 likes on the Facebook page Góc Thư Giãn alone. A response was quickly thrown back:

“And then he got bawled out by his own compatriots.” (Khang Lê)

“While South Koreans used PSY to promote their country, or YouTube or Facebook celebrities in other countries are supported, in Vietnam GATO syndrome towards Dong’s success drowns the country. Our country is still so poor, but not just in money.” (Tùng Rc)

“Even though I am a Vietnamese, I am deeply ashamed for my people. Whoever rises above will be envied and harmed. Don’t you wonder why those with great talents would choose to go overseas instead of serving their own people.”  (Nguyễn Hào Quang)

From GATO to the piety of the tax bureau

Flappy Bird’s popularity  in Vietnam occurred only long after its international success. The biggest reason for this may well have been that Dong Nguyen mainly interacted with his fans on Twitter (naturally), a platform that Vietnamese Internet users have, for some reason, left to gather dust. Only after February 6, when Vietnam’s media picked

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GATO is an abbreviation for Ghen Ăn Tức Ở. In literal translation, it means ‘jealous with the eats, upset with the living.’ Put more simply: envy with a healthy dash of sour grapes.

up Dong’s interview with The Verge and published a translation and excerpts in local press, did the buzz really began in the developer’s home country.

For a country whose annual per capita income clocks in at less than $2,000, Flappy Bird’s cited daily ad revenue of US$50,000 – all pouring into the hands of a 28 year old nobody – instantly sent people into a frenzy.

The tax bureau, too, lost their cool to this sensational news. Merely two days after Flappy Bird’s lucrative power made headlines in the country, on February 8, the Minister of Finance directed the general tax bureau to “eye up” (sic) the game developer.

It was as if the authorities were asking for a beating. And they got a good one.

On a well-credited tech blogger’s page, a commenter whipped, “Greedy, bigoted, and hideous. With such treatments, don’t you ever wonder why we’ll never get even a very much humbler version of Mark Zuckerberg.  This stinks so bad.”

“Nine months played by the world, the game ran well. It rose in Vietnam for a week, got deleted. ”

“Nine months played by the world, the game ran well. It rose in Vietnam for a week, got deleted. ”

Facebook user Hoang Thi Mai Huong remarked: “Tax is an everyday job, just like eating, shitting, pissing. Where have they been but now as soon as he spilled a figure, they barge right in to make a buck?”

It went as far as VNExpress.net, one of Vietnam’s most-read online newspapers and, like all other mainstream media channels, owned and controlled by the state, published a reader’s opinion piece that dripped with sarcasm. An typical take on the authorities’ motives read:

“Ah, yes, the tax bureau spoke up in a timely manner, as they are determined not to miss out on this revenue. They forgot the revenue-sustaining part. They forgot that they didn’t spend a dime on advertising but now the world has come to know of Vietnam and its talents. On the other hand, income tax revenue is a year-end accounting matter, why are they suddenly in such a hurry to collect? If only our corrupt, embezzling officials got such swift attention.”

An Epitaph

“Who’s dead? Flappy Bird.” (Source)

“Who’s dead? Flappy Bird.” (Source)

On February 10, Dong and Flappy Bird cashed in their chips. The Vietnamese public seemed to regard Dong’s sudden removal of his game from the iTunes store as either a response to ‘pressure’ from elements within the country or as a strategic commercial move. Though the developer was infuriatingly vague in explaining his decision (“It’s ruined my life.”) most suggested that they believed it was either the online GATO backlash or the tax intimidation that prompted his withdrawal.

A commenter aliased as OZ says:

“I am sort of sorry and also disappointed. Ha Dong, you are 29, you are not a child. All that GATO hate speech should not have weighed much nor brought about your yielding. […] In this case, you’ve gotta ignore the barking dogs and keep on your way.”

After all the cacophony around this bird, when all the scrutinizers have done their work, and the netizens of Vietnam have taken this chance to vent their skepticism toward their government and compatriots, the national pride remains. In a Facebook note full of thoughtful comments, professional business manager Rùa Một Nắng concluded“I oftentimes complain to my brother that I feel like everyday I get poisoned with tits and arses, and rapes and robberies everywhere I go on the Net. But in the past two weeks, it was

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“As soon as China produce a new copycat, their people cheer on. Whatever Vietnam manages to produce, all gather to chew out.”

thanks to you (Dong Nguyen) that I learnt loads of interesting stuff, and loads of brainiacs in hiding. And for the first time, I’ve seen a Vietnamese mentioned that much on international tech and business channels that I’ve been following. And before, I used to think they were created solely for news on Silicon Valley.”

When all is said and done, it is safe to assume that if the bird is buried forever, on its gravestone the Vietnamese would engrave what was widely used as a meme caption:

As soon as China produce a new copycat, their people cheer on. Whatever Vietnam manages to produce, all gather to chew out. (Source)

Mai Huyen Chi