MMORPG Info Logo Still Clicking Cows

I want to talk about Cow Clicker again.

First, although I don’t play a lot of Facebook games, I’m really glad they exist. It means my more mainstream friends no longer whisper “she spends her free time playing games” in a snide voice when I walk into the room. But another great thing about the Facebook phenomenon is how much conversation is being created as the gaming industry tries to understand what the hell is going on.

As a case in point, I wrote a facetious article about Cow Clicker over the summer. Cow Clicker is a Facebook app which encapsulates everything that is “great” about the latest crop of social games:

You start with a single cow and a pasture. In your pasture, you can house your friend’s cow. When your cow moos, the other cows in your pasture moo. Clicking your cow earns them clicks and when they click you get credit. This is viral game sharing at its best.

In the barn, you can collect different cows. You start with a plain cow but you can swiftly move up the ranks and get exciting upgrades like a Holstein Cow or a Hereford Cow or even a Bacon Cow! If you are impatient, you can buy Mooney which allows you to click more often or simply buy that handsome new cow you have your eye on. At a rate of 1,000 Mooney for $10, it’s a bargain!

Ian Bogost, the developer, gave a talk at GDC Online about his experiences with Cow Clicker. A write-up of his speech is on Gamasutra which discusses the backstory of the game (Bogost originally used the term Cow Clicker as a pejorative term for click-oriented play such as FarmVille) and why he created it (Raph Koster suggested that he make a game in the genre himself before being so critical).

Gamasutra – News – GDC Online: Ian Bogost’s Troubling Experiences With Cow Clicker:

He finds it “incredibly disturbing” that the game went on to be what he calls the most successful piece of art he’s ever made. Its numbers are not impressive by social game marketplace standards — 50,000 cow clickers at the game’s peak, clicking around two million times, a number that has since declined. But he watched the game’s users to see how many users actually “got” the satire. And people seemed to receive Cow Clicker as satire, judging by amusing puns, jokes and meta-satire that players left on the game’s Facebook page.

Something one finds “evil” doesn’t become less so because it’s coupled with intent and design, Bogost notes. “I don’t know what you can make of the fact that you’re celebrating your ability to sell tripe to people who want it,” he says. But he’s encouraged, in some ways, by the “fuck the users, whatever I need to do to get revenue” party line of many social gaming companies: “At least I know where to put that in my frame of understanding,” he says.

Raph Koster blogged about the talk the same day, following a comment on Twitter: “I don’t think Ian learned the right things from Cow Clicker.” Koster makes the point that he thinks Bogost should consider the experiment to have been a positive success.

Raph’s Website » Thoughts on Cow Clicker:

I also think that there is a danger in saying, as he did, that he is concerned that people actually play Cow Clicker for entertainment. It is a mistake for a creator, IMHO, to believe that they “own” the “proper” uses/interpretations of their creation once it leaves their hands, and it has a whiff of worrisome elitism. This may perhaps be implicit in its origins as a satire. When I mentioned this point to him, he agreed, but said “But I don’t need to like it.” And that is also equally true.

It amused me somewhat that within the top ten comments to the blog post is someone asking Bogost to reveal how he got 50,000 users. But more interestingly, there is a comment by Richard Bartle as well:

Raph’s Website » Thoughts on Cow Clicker:

There was something bothering me about this after the talk, and finally I realised what it was. What Ian dislikes about this kind of game – the mercenary approach, the lack of ideals, the lack of respect for players – was not a factor in the creation of Cow Clicker. Ian could never create a game of the kind he was challenged to create because that would involve his doing it for the reasons such games are created, rather than doing it to see what it was like to operate one.

Cow Clicker is a parody, and a pretty good one at that. Ian does make his point. However, because most players know it’s a parody, they’re not playing the game, they’re playing the meta-game. It’s the Facebook equivalent of Mornington Crescent: the game itself is pointless, but, knowing this is what makes the playing of the game fun.

End result: in trying to make the essence of a bad Facebook game, Ian captured the essence of a good one.


I think Bartle is exactly correct. I looked at the game (and spread the word) because I loved the fact that it was such a perfect parody. My friends posted updates on their walls in retribution for all the Farmville and Mafia Wars wall posts we’ve had to endure. The banners and the descriptions and even the money grubbing were amusing. The people arguing that players will shell out for any old tripe are completely missing the point.

Bogost complains that Richard (and others) are underestimating the number of players who are not playing the game ironically. I would posit that instead, Bogost is overestimating his players’ ability to be humorous. Playing the game because it is silly is not the same as playing the game despite the fact that it is silly.

Which has reminded me that I have a cow to click. I shall click it, if only to keep the conversation going.



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