A charming diversion: Dumb Ways to Die app offers a pleasant reminder of ways to stay alive

February 3, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 3, 2014

I’ve been recovering from a cold, and a few days ago, I was desperate for a new mindless distraction. This being 2014, I did what any au courant individual seeking diversion does: I turned to my smartphone.

I opened up the app store, tapped on the icon for the most-downloaded pograms, and started scrolling horizontally through the free apps. I was in search of a fun, simple game.

The first one that jumped out at me was called Unroll Me. I played with it for a few minutes but found it a bit too challenging. I deleted it and went in search of more fun.

That’s when I stumbled upon Dumb Ways to Die, a May 2013 release out of Australia. I downloaded it and found this digital gewgaw to be utterly charming.

Dumb Ways to Die is a series of minigames, each of which takes no more than about five seconds to play. The point, naturally, is to save the utterly charming but rather dull-minded characters from pointless, painful deaths by following the on-screen instructions.

In one game, the user must blow air at the phone (yes, you read that right) to provide a budding pilot with enough lift to avoid crashing. In another, the goal is to make the character duck away at key moments from the bear he’s poking with a stick. In a third, the user must apply pressure to on-screen bullet holes. (If successful, the player’s rewarded with an odd, and oddly charming, glimpse of a moose-human romance.) Still another contest requires the player to flick away piranhas eager to chomp down on the (nondescript) private parts of a character that blissfully gyrates in shallow water with (his? her? its?) eyes closed.

Other challenges involve swatting yellow jackets, putting out a fire by running (not recommended in real life), tilting one’s phone to correct the failing balance of a character that has ingested super glue, and picking which of three doors is safe to open. (A friendly panda is knocking on one; serial killers in hockey masks lurk behind the others.)

In one game, an homage to the 1983 movie WarGames, the correct move is doing nothing. (“Don’t press the red button,” the screen directs.) Other contests involve applying mustard to a hot dog — a cranky snake will kill you if you don’t follow the pattern — and using a fork to extract toast from a device that’s still plugged in.

These tasks tend to be simple enough, but as the player progresses, the pace speeds up and the amount of available time decreases. Beyond the escalating challenge, two things keep the player engaged. One is the opportunity to “unlock” wacky new characters who populate the train station in the app’s main menu. (New characters are parceled out as the player reaches new high-score marks.) The other is the chance to enjoy the game’s catchy music, which keeps on boosting its tempo as game play continues.

The behavior shown in most of these games is strenuously not recommended for real life. Which is actually the point: Dumb Ways to Die is part of an award-winning 2012 safety campaign by Metro Trains of Melbourne. The campaign’s designers, McCann Melbourne, wrote the lyrics and recruited musicians Emily Lubitz and Ollie McGill (billed as Tangerine Kitty) to write and perform the song. The ditty calls standing on the edge of a train platform, running across the tracks at a train station and ignoring the lowered gates at road crossings the dumbest ways to die.

An animated video featuring the music has been seen about 70 million times on YouTube. There’s also an official karaoke version of the video with more than 1.2 million views, not to mention countless takeoffs inspired by the original. There are parodies involving the Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft video games and a 20-minute instructional video on how to make “cake-pops” resembling the various Dumb Ways to Die characters.

Is the Dumb Ways to Die app a great game? Not at all; despite its being fun and charming, I’ll likely delete it in a week or two. I don’t know if it’s actually an effective educational tool, either. But you could do a lot worse than to download it as a distraction for yourself or your favorite youngsters.

Even better, if you haven’t yet seen the video, take a look and show it to your kids. And remember: Be safe around trains!

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