I'm clicking a cow.

This is amazing and horrifying.

The Curse of Cow Clicker: How a Cheeky Satire Became a Videogame Hit

To Bogost, sitting in the audience, Mooney's triumphalism seemed a direct attack on gaming's artistic potential. "The day after Mooney's speech, this thought popped into my head," Bogost says: "Games like FarmVille are cow clickers. You click on a cow, and that's all you do. I remember thinking at the time that it felt like a one-liner, the kind of thing you would tweet. I just put it in the back of my mind." [...]

Remembering his cow-clicker idea, Bogost threw together a bare-bones Facebook game in three days. The rules were simple to the point of absurdity: There was a picture of a cow, which players were allowed to click once every six hours. Each time they did, they received one point, called a click. Players could invite as many as eight friends to join their "pasture"; whenever anyone within the pasture clicked their cow, they all received a click. A leaderboard tracked the game's most prodigious clickers. Players could purchase in-game currency, called mooney, which they could use to buy more cows or circumvent the time restriction. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement----""I'm clicking a cow"----"appeared on their Facebook newsfeed.

And that was pretty much it. That's not a nutshell description of the game; that's literally all there was to it. As a play experience, it was nothing more than a collection of cheap ruses, blatantly designed to get players to keep coming back, exploit their friends, and part with their money. "I didn't set out to make it fun," Bogost says. "Players were supposed to recognize that clicking a cow is a ridiculous thing to want to do."

Bogost launched Cow Clicker during the NYU event in July 2010. Within weeks, it had achieved cult status among indie-game fans and social-game critics. Every "I'm clicking a cow" newsfeed update served as a badge of ironic protest. Players gleefully clicked cows to send a message to their FarmVille-loving friends or to identify themselves as members of the anti-Zynga underground. The game began attracting press on sites like TechCrunch and Slashdot.

And then something surprising happened: Cow Clicker caught fire. The inherent virality of the game mechanics Bogost had mimicked, combined with the publicity, helped spread it well beyond its initial audience of game-industry insiders. Bogost watched in surprise and with a bit of alarm as the number of players grew consistently, from 5,000 soon after launch to 20,000 a few weeks later and then to 50,000 by early September. And not all of those people appeared to be in on the joke. The game received its fair share of five-star and one-star reviews from players who, respectively, appreciated the gag or simply thought the game was stupid. But what was startling was the occasional middling review from someone who treated Cow Clicker not as an acid commentary but as just another social game. "OK, not great though," one earnest example read.

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9 Responses:

  1. Otto says:

    From the article:

    Gabe Zichermann, a gamification expert, also dismisses Bogost’s critique of Zynga’s games. “Other gamers may think FarmVille is shallow, but the average player is happy to play it,” he says. “Two and a Half Men is the most popular show on television. Very few people would argue that it’s as good as Mad Men, but do the people watching Two and a Half Men sit around saying, oh, woe is me? At some point, you’re just an elitist fuck.”

    I see Gabe's point here, however his example is poor. People watching Two and a Half Men like it because they're idiots. Seriously, that show is just god-awful bad.

    • There's certainly something to the thought that not everything has to be high art. We can have both artsy films and summer blockbusters, and that's okay. However, when everyone starts pandering to the lowest common denominator, you get things like the nonstop barrage of reality TV. I don't think there's anything wrong with someone pointing out that some things truly are crap.

  2. Trevor says:

    You know, that is probably the most worrying thing I have ever read on your blog/lj in *years*. Ugh.

  3. I'm tickling a tortoise.

  4. Owen says:

    Cow clicker was awesome. I used to work at a small FB game company. We had one week where all the employees brainstormed ideas, we designed 10 games, each with a different theme, bought some small ads directing to a landing page one, and saw which ones got the most activity. That was really fun, and we hoped they would become real games. When cow clicker came along, it became like "why bother building a real game, let's just focus on viral mechanics and click farming". And that sucked.

  5. mikecotton says:

    If you make something idiot-proof, the world will build a better idiot.

  6. Yann says:

    An interesting article related to this kind of games (epub)