Take your piece of paper and lay it in front of you. Fold it in half to find the middle. Fold in the corners. Crease the edges tightly. Fold it in half, and then gently bend your wings outward, carefully. You’ve made a plane.
You did all this by tapping your finger on your screen. So, turn your phone sideways, and throw your plane.
Watch your plane circle the globe around and around. Imagine yourself on it, soaring through the purple and teal sky. Leave your plane to its flight and check back later. Someone has caught your plane, someone in Brazil. They opened your plane and stamped it inside, like a passport, so you can see where they were when they swung their phone like a net and caught your plane out of the digital sky.
“Paper Planes” is not a game, really. There is no way to win. The only thing to do is fold, catch, stamp, and throw these little digital planes around the globe. In its simplicity, the game has found something we can have in common—independent of politics, borders, and even language. We can all turn our phones to the side and throw a plane.
You have to play “Paper Planes” on your phone. On the desktop client, you can see the planes circle the world around and around, but you can’t throw or catch them. The creators of the game, Active Theory, most recently created the Patronus interactive for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter site Pottermore. But they wanted this game to be tactile, for users to have to physically turn their phones sideways and throw their plane.
“We guide the user with as little text as possible by using animation to direct them where to go next,” Michael Anthony, co-founder and Interactive Director at Active Theory, told me via email. “The original concept was just ‘fold and throw a paper plane into your screen’ so we had stayed true to that from the beginning.”
Airplanes are magic. The fact that a giant metal tube holding people or cargo can lift off the ground and soar through the sky is pretty incredible. There’s a reason that the National Air and Space Museum, full of flight history, is the most visited Smithsonian museum. Airplanes are new. It’s been only a little over 100 years since the Wright brothers made their inaugural flight. The cross-country trip that took Lewis and Clark a year and half to complete takes a mere five hours on an airplane. A journey from Britain to Australia, which would have taken months 200 years ago, can be completed in less than two days. The world feels smaller now.
But these aren’t real airplanes. They aren’t even real paper airplanes. They are so much simpler, so much more playful, so much more—well—fun.
“The aesthetic of ‘Paper Planes’ aimed for a feeling of child-like playfulness and relaxation,” Anthony told me. And it worked. With its pastel color palette of purples and teals and pinks, and its soothing background music, “Paper Planes” feels more like meditation than competition.
One of my favorite stories about paper planes is about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote the very playful and beloved children’s book Le Petit Prince.
Saint-Exupéry was a successful commercial pilot before World War II. The Frenchman flew airmail routes to Europe, Africa, and South Africa. When the war broke out, he joined the air force. During the war, though, France declared an armistice with Germany, and Saint-Exupéry moved to America for a two-year period. While living in the United States, he published his best selling book Pilote de Guerre. Despite his productivity, Saint-Exupéry was deeply depressed.
According to the New York Times in 1993, he was known and remembered for his eccentricities, “experimenting with green slime in his Central Park South bathtub, filling the sky outside of the apartment with fleets of paper airplanes.” Consuelo, his wife, told a story about how one day, as Saint-Exupéry in his gloom threw airplane after airplane off his Central Park balcony, a policeman rang the bell and told him to stop littering the streets.
And that is what playing this game felt like to me. Like a desperate attempt to lift my own spirits in a year that has been filled with outrage, and frustrations, and desperation.The endless election news cycle, filled with racism and sexism, has created for many of us a pit of anxiety that can be hard to shake even on our best days. Something this simple and silly shouldn’t have made me gasp with glee the first time I played it, but it did.
“It seems like an app that is providing value in people’s lives and that is something more than we expected from what was originally a tech experiment at an event,” Anthony told me. Active Theory (in conjunction with advertising company Droga5, who did not provide comment for this piece), premiered “Paper Planes” at Google I/O, an annual developer conference Google holds to let programmers from other companies know the products and services they’re working on.
But there’s something more intimate about playing the game at home by yourself, and seeing your plane caught not by a developer at a conference but a person in Russia, or Taiwan, or (as I recently saw) Lebanon.
“There is a lot of joy when you catch a plane and see it’s visited foreign locations,” Anthony told me. “But even more so when you see where one of your own planes has traveled.”
That’s the true beauty of this game. Not its graphics or its gentle song, but its ability to create connections out of absolutely nothing—its ability to remind us that there are people all over the world who are more like us than they are different. “Paper Planes” teaches us not how to win, but how to empathize.