How cows predicted the seedy underbelly of social gaming

It is reasonable to assume that the most ironically successful sardonic game of 2010 is getting a sequel, and probably soon.

If you make your way over to the official website for Cow Clicker, a game designed by lecturer, professor, author and game maker Ian Bogost, you'll find at the top of the page a giant image of the iconic cow with a pointer hovering over its midsection, perhaps rebounding from a click.

Click on the cow and it turns into the number two with a cow udder dangling from its lower horizontal line.

So Cow Clicker 2 is likely inbound.

But why?

This week marks the fourth anniversary of Cow Clicker, a game designed to poke fun at everything bad about FarmVille, which in turn became a moderate success riding on those same derided principles.

I spoke with Bogost earlier this week about the game, its history and how it would be viewed today given the evolving nature of gaming. That conversation wrapped up with my asking him what sort of game he would make today if he wanted to create another piece of playable satire.

"Maybe instead of answering that question," he said, "when we're done talking, go visit the Cow Clicker website."

Game as lecture

Cow Clicker could have been another screed about the evils of monetization and early free-to-play gaming, instead of a game.

"There was a lecture series at NYU on the theme of 'Are social games bad?'" Bogost said.

He and another lecturer were meant to have a sort of debate of the topic, Bogost taking the con and the other taking the pro.

"I was kind of bored of giving talks, so I thought I would make a game and that the game would be the argument for this talk."

The idea for turning a philosophical debate into a game came in part from Bogost's work on the book Alien Phenomenology or What it's like to be a thing. In the book, Bogost took a whole chapter to discuss the idea of making philosophy out of stuff other than words.

"How do you do thinking, how do you do serious philosophical thinking in other types of formats and with other sorts of materials?" he said. "What kind of experience would be distracting and interesting and unusual in the context of an academic conversation? It can be boring to hear the same sort of arguments over and over.

"I think the rationale behind making Cow Clicker a game was that it was different than making an article or a book or a one-off argument."

Bogost doesn't remember how long he worked on the game, but he does remember he wrapped it up the night before the talk.

cowclicker

"I remember I went to New York for this event and I was staying with [NYU's] Eric Zimmerman, I was sitting in his living room writing Cow Clicker," he said. "It didn't seem like a big deal.

"There wasn't much game in the game."

Cow Clicker launched with all of the basic mechanics and visuals it maintained throughout its life. There was a pasture, you could have friend's cows, you could click on your cow, you could buy new cows, you could share your clicks and spend "mooney" to pay down the timer.

"All of those basic features were in there that I thought were representative of the core idea of a social game," he said.

Later, Bogost added rankings, contests and the ability to give cows to friends. He even created a mobile app and a "kiddie" version of the game. And of course he added many, many hand drawn cows.

The game was almost immediately successful, attracting both a crowd who seemed to cherish the irony and another crowd that didn't seem to notice it. So Bogost continued to push the idea, all the while making a steady, but small stream of cash from the game.

In September, 2011, Bogost launched the biggest change: The Cowpocolypse.

"All of the cows were raptured according to the mythos," he said. "There hasn't been a cow in the game since September 2011. There is a little shadow where the cow used to be and the game functions in exactly the same way.

"People still go there and click where the cow was and it still works."

The destruction of time

While Bogost initially intended to let the game make his entire argument, the day after releasing it to Facebook he published a paper explaining his thoughts.

Why not just let the game speak for itself, I asked him.

"This was an interesting question," he said. "Should I write this down? The whole point of this was to not write it down. But once I made it ... There's this thing called Poe's Law. The adage goes that without any indication of a creator's intention it's almost impossible to tell the difference between parody and extremism.

"I was concerned that people might think I was serious about this as a game and not as an argument."

In the paper, Bogost outlined and discussed four aspects of social games in hopes of undermining them.

"One of them is enframing, the idea that your friends become resources to put to use in a game," he said. "When you play FarmVille you connect with people not to be friends but to use them."

How social games tap into the naturally compulsive nature of modern life was another.

And then there was optionalism.

"There is optionalism at work in the rise of Facebook games," he said. "This was the beginning of pay-to-win. These games aren't there to be mastered. The most striking way we don't play games is to spend money. Social games were games you didn't play."

And finally, the destruction of time.

"It's the flip side of compulsion," he said. "These games have infected the time you have spent outside of them. You end up dreading returning because what awaits you. It's the the idea of infecting and coveting our time outside of the game."

But those explanations, and the higher goals for the game beyond play, never seemed to impact the game's success, which was a bit of a surprise to Bogost.

"It was always meant to be playable," he said. "I didn't know anyone would actually play it. Having something as potentially playable but that functions more like conceptual art is one thing, but having something that people are actually playing and doing things that far exceed the plans or the idea or the notions that occurred to me, that was quite another."

In retrospect, Bogost pins Cow Clicker's success on the rising feeling of unease many had with the success of FarmVille and their time playing that Facebook game. People were starting to think about their time spent playing FarmVille, and starting to worry over it.

"There was a space there in people's heads that Cow Clicker could occupy," he said. "Here's a piece of equipment I can use to think through what I think about social games."

The game eventually sort of took on a life of its own. More importantly, Bogost said, the questions it raised did as well.

"There were people talking about it without me," he said. "Often when I do stuff I'm very attached to them, it's my voice. With Cow Clicker they didn't need me."

And of course there was the money Bogost made from the game. But it's not nearly as much as some might assume.

Bogost cleared about $10,000 on the game. Some of that money was used to purchase real cows for people in third-world countries. He said he also used some of the money to have a friend create a  $1,000 Cow Clicker skull ring as sort of a "memento moori" of the game and its Cowpocolypse.

The legacy of the clicked cow

Whether he likes it or not, Cow Clicker has become a major work of Bogost's and he understands that. If it were a boxed game it would likely sit up there with editions of his books like "How to do things with videogames," "Newsgames" and "Persuasive Games."

"It's definitely a major work of mine," he said. "If you ask the average person who follows the industry what I've done, I'm the Cow Clicker guy, and that's fine. It's weird. It's certainly not the project I thought would have been my legacy, but who am I to complain about that?"

But what about the game itself as legacy?

Is Cow Clicker, which some people still play, still relevant as a game that examines the downside of modern social games?

"I think things have only accelerated," Bogost said. "All of the features of Cow Clicker, those are only amplified. It's just mostly in mobile games now.

"I think in some ways what we chose to do, whether we knew it or not, was to make the Cow Clicker model even more real than it was in 2010. Back then it was ridiculous enough, but now there's Cookie Clicker, there's Make It Rain. I don't think I brought it about, but I think the thing worth remembering or looking at again is how much it presaged the way we play many games today. Rather than games becoming more complex or sophisticated — though some games have in other ways — more than that they've become more like Cow Clicker."

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