No one really knows what makes a game click. Tim Schafer’s game attracted nearly 90,000 backers. Zynga, the leading Facebook gaming company, has some 240 million monthly active players logged into games that critics say do little more than suck money out of their pockets. One such critic, game designer Ian Bogost, figured the best way to slam these games would be to build a vicious parody of them, but despite his worst intentions, that’s not how it played out, as OTM producer PJ Vogt reported last fall. Here’s a replay.
PJ VOGT: Last summer Cindy Barrett got hooked on this Facebook game.
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The way the game works, you get a point every time you click. Cindy was battling her brother Eric, who was routinely beating her.
CINDY BARRETT: At that point, I maybe had 10 clicks a week? My brother would always have 12 clicks, and it would make me frustrated. So I befriended the top clickers. They taught me how to get more clicks. Literally, within a day, I had something like 200 clicks. And I was like, “Hey, Eric, uh, is there any way you can compete with me,” ‘cause I think at that point he had 6. And it just went downhill from there.
PJ VOGT: The game is called Cow Clicker. It’s the work of a video game designer named Ian Bogost. Bogost’s creations are usually more like art than entertainment. People don’t typically get hooked on them.
Bogost hates popular social networking video games, games like Farmville that clog your Facebook newsfeed with notifications about how your aunt just harvested her virtual crops or your dad put out a hit on a mob boss. He decided the best way to criticize those games would be to make the dumbest one he could imagine. That was Cow Clicker, the game Cindy found, the reductio ad absurdum of Facebook games.
IAN BOGOST: You know, a game in which all you do is click on a cow, and that's it. Maybe you pay for the privilege to click on a cow.
PJ VOGT: You click your cow. [CLICK] It moos. [MOO] Wait six hours [TICKING SOUND] and you can click it again. Or, you can get virtual money, either through clicks or by spending real cash that you spend to reset the timer and immediately click again. [MOO SOUND]
LEIGH ALEXANDER: People took notice. The media took notice.
PJ VOGT: Leigh Alexander is a game journalist who's also friends with Bogost. She wrote about Cow Clicker for the website Kotaku.
LEIGH ALEXANDER: He was in every gaming magazine and some non-gaming magazines, regarding Cow Clicker. It was much more popular than I think he had ever predicted it would be.
PJ VOGT: Game journalists liked Cow Clicker because they got the joke. And, as more players poured in, Bogost was surprised to find himself feeling pretty proud.
IAN BOGOST: Gleeful. I mean, when people play your game, you can't help but feel pleasure. That's what you want. And I did feel that way for some time, especially when, you know, there was a relatively even distribution of, of different kinds of reactions.
PJ VOGT: The resulting buzz brought in more players, but most of them weren't in on the joke.
LEIGH ALEXANDER: Somewhere along the line, his larger user base began to be people who either they understood it was a joke and they still enjoyed it.
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Or they just didn't get it or they just didn't care. Like, people really loved their cows.
PJ VOGT: Fifty thousand people. For many of them, Cow Clicker was just another mindless, addictive Facebook game, indistinguishable from the mindless, addictive games it was meant to parody.
IAN BOGOST: The ironous players dropped off. What I was left with were real players, who were making demands, you know, who wanted things that I wasn't giving them in the game. They wanted different cows. You know, they wanted like Cowthulu. They –
PJ VOGT: Wait, Cowthulu?
IAN BOGOST: Yeah they wanted a, you know, a, a Lovecraftian Cthulu cow, Cowthulu.
PJ VOGT: That's the bovine equivalent of a tentacled creature named Cthulu, created by H.P. Lovecraft, and beloved by geeks. Still psyched that people were into his game, Bogost gave them what they wanted.
IAN BOGOST: You know, there was a pirate cow, a ninja cow and a cow that cost over $100. When you bought that cow, we sent a real cow to the Third World. You know, I was very eager to, to put more material into the game to see how people would react.
PJ VOGT: But eventually, he got uneasy.
IAN BOGOST: After a while I realized they're doing exactly what concerned me about these games; they're, you know, becoming compulsively attached to it. There was one point when I realized that I was now attached to, in a compulsive way or I was worrying about what the cow clickers thought while I was away from the game. And that was the moment at which I both felt kind of empathy with the players, and also I began to feel very disturbed by the product.
PJ VOGT: He decided to sabotage the game, to tweak it, to make it more maddening, more dumb.
LEIGH ALEXANDER: At one point, he just like, he took the default cow, switched it to face the other direction and charged 20 bucks for it. And people bought it.
PJ VOGT: Bogost couldn't diminish people's love for Cow Clicker. The game generated its own fan culture.
IAN BOGOST: Cow Clicker poetry and silkscreen-printed t-shirts. There was this woman who did these sort of Cow Clicker portraits of all her Cow Clicker friends.
PJ VOGT: Bogost decided that if he couldn't ruin Cow Clicker, he'd kill it. He got in touch with friends across the world and he had them hide clues in the real world for Cow Clicker diehards to find. Once assembled, the clues spelled out a chilling prophecy.
IAN BOGOST: Cowpocalypse.
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And then there was this timer that started running, and with the timer ended then, you know, the game would shut down. At least that was the implication. I never really said what would happen.
PJ VOGT: In a final twist of perversity, Bogost designed his game-ending countdown clock to speed up whenever anyone played the game and [CHUCKLES] to reset, if people paid money.
IAN BOGOST: I wanted the players to feel like they were accelerating their own demise by playing and, and then be tempted to, to maybe purchase their way out of it. And several people like extended the clock at the very last minute a few times.
PJ VOGT: When you create something, you don't get to decide how it’ll be received. Ian Bogost's game wasn't designed to be enjoyable, but it turned out to be possibly the most resonant game he's ever made. His take on what that might mean is actually pretty optimistic.
IAN BOGOST: It shows us how weird and complicated simple things really are and shows me not that like I'm some sort of brilliant designer who made this thing that was bigger than I thought it was, but how resilient and creative people are. I did this thing that was Cow Clicker and, in spite of it, they rose above and, and made it, made it something more than it really was.
PJ VOGT: That's one way to look at it. Here's another. You remember that countdown clock?
IAN BOGOST: When the clock finally counted down to zero, there was a cow rapture.
PJ VOGT: Here's how the Cowpocalypse actually transpired.
IAN BOGOST: All of the cows were whisked away, and all that was left were the little shadows where they had been standing, but the game continued to run. And, in fact, the game continues to run, to this day. And there are still people clicking on the spot where a cow used to be.
PJ VOGT: Bogost still gets messages from confused Cow Clickers. A typical complaint, which Leigh Alexander, the videogame journalist, published, read that after the rapture Cow Clicker was quote, "not a very fun game any longer.” Bogost answered, “It wasn't very fun before.”
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For Bogost, Cow Clicker was never about fun. It was a joke. But, as it turned out, [MOOING SOUND] the joke was on him. For On the Media, I'm PJ Vogt.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jaime York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Luisa Beck and Rob Schoon. Thanks, Luisa and Rob, for all your help, and best of luck with everything. And the show is edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson and our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer, Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.