Cow Clicker: If You Can’t Ruin It, Destroy It

June 13, 2012 5:05 am 0 comments Views:

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Marcel Duchamp had his urinal. Ian Bogost has his cows. And while the grand old man of conceptual art wanted to make a complex point about art in the 20th century, hanging a utilitarian piece of porcelain in an art gallery, Bogost just started out making fun of social games. But it wasn’t long before this Georgia Tech professor and distinguished academic found himself knee deep inCow Clicker. A Facebook game that asked players to click on an icon of a cow every six hours for the promise of earning a single point, Cow Clicker is a clear poke in the eye of every FarmVilleclone that tempts players with an endless treadmill of hollow clicking and accumulation.

Somehow the cows struck a nerve, and a year after its creation, the game has generated as many as 50,000 players a month and produced a few thousand dollars in income as cowboys and girls spend real dollars to purchase ridiculous in-game rewards. Expansions and partnerships with PopCap Games and the political game activists at Molleindustri show Cow Clicker stampeding to an unexpected level of cultural importance. At the very least, Cow Clicker is certainly no joke.

“It was very important to me that it would be real, says Bogost. “I made a commitment that it was not going to be a joke, it was not going to be a one-liner, it was really going to work.”

Dressed in black, with flowing dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard, Bogost clearly relishes his Rasputin image as he sits down with us for breakfast and the opportunity to set the record straight about his cows.

Part of Bogost’s charm and formidable intellectual profile comes from his apparently effortless mastery in many domains. Here’s a guy who translates Greek, lectures on phenomenology and ontology, designs games, writes books and even had the chance to school television personality Stephen Colbert in the persuasive power of games on Comedy Central. Most surprising of all, he writes his own code.

Catch him giving a university lecture on his love for Atari’s VCS and you’re likely to observe him knocking out some assembly code live on a machine language compiler to illustrate a point about Yar’s Revenge. No one should be surprised, then, that Cow Clicker is a one-man project, with Bogost slinging code, drawing cows and inventing devilish interactions for his users.

Ian Bogost is an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a founder of social and political game studio Persuasive Games (he’s on the left)

When the idea for Cow Clicker first popped into Bogost’s head, it was a brainy insult. All he wanted was to highlight the absurdity of Facebook games whose design principles echoed Skinner Boxes, the small chambers behaviourist BF Skinner used to study operant conditioning in animals. Bogost wanted players to understand that game developers treated them like rats in a lab maze. So he built a very unfriendly game to prove the point: “One of things that interested me was: ‘How many features could I add to the game without adding any gameplay?’”

While players can somewhat optimise their clicking by adding friends to their pasture, and sharing clicks back and forth with fellow clickers, almost everything Bogost added to Cow Clicker provides mindless choices and pointlessly conspicuous rewards, such as earning yourself a silver cow bell with a mere 10,000 accumulated clicks.

In an industry that spoon-feeds players the easy victory, where saving the world is only a few respawns away, Bogost set out to make a point about the hard thinking that gives our lives meaning. After boiling down the complexity of social games to its simplest form, all he had left with Cow Clicker was to gum up the essential pleasure of playing by asking his cow clickers to consider the complex conditions of games in modern life: “I try very hard not to give players want they want. When they asked for something I would say ‘no’. And then when they pushed and pushed and pushed, I would give them the opposite of what they wanted.”

So, for example, his players implored him to create and offer Cowthulu, a cute-looking cow with tentacles modelled after the HP Lovecraft beast of abject horror. When Bogost finally crafted the cow, he made it so that you couldn’t buy it with accumulated clicks. Instead, you had to spend real money. And the players hated him for it. At the thought of frustrating his players, Bogost chuckles, relishing this object lesson in making wishes and getting what you wished for, even if it wasn’t what you wanted. But, much to his surprise, the players kept on playing, and kept on enjoying his increasingly problematic cow game. “No matter how much shit you throw at people, they rise above it. It’s incredible how resilient people are.”

“I don’t know why I keep playing it,” Linda Merja Holmgren, a player from Sweden, admits over a Facebook chat. “I like the cows, I like the people I’ve started chatting with through the game, I like the cow-humour. I play to escape my boring reality. Isn’t that why we all play online games?”

“And she’s got a point,” Bogost admits. “I can’t just say: ‘Well, your new friends are not real friends’.” As Cow Clicker grew in scope and popularity, the creator found that he wasn’t immune to the game’s bovine charms. Late nights of coding extensions and expansions while his family wondered where it would end persistently grew his cow empire into something even stranger than a smartassed game trading points for clicking on cows.

“It’s kind of a compulsion, to be honest. I have the Cow Clickersickness like some of my players do,” he admits. First, he added more cows, then cow achievements, then cowfights. He published an iPhone version of the game, so players wouldn’t miss a click when they were away from their computers. Before the year was out, he found an unlikely ally in PopCap co-founder Jason Kapalka, which led to a casual collaboration in the Bejeweled-inspired Cow Clicker Blitz.

“Is Cow Clicker a weird academic joke?” Kapalka muses. “Sure. But it’s not like Facebook is drowning in ironic, satirical, self-referential games right now. With so many blatantly commercial or exploitative titles flooding the market, something like Cow Clicker is incredibly refreshing, puncturing a bit of the overinflated rhetoric and expectations.”

Cow Clicker Blitz was designed as a launchpad for an even more inside jab – this time at the idea of ‘gameification’. Rather than accept the idea that game mechanics could save the world or help sell products, Bogost saw more opportunities for satire. Why gamify when you could cowclickify your applications with his Cowclickification API? Whether playing Cow Clicker Blitz, searching the web with a Cow Clicker-themed Google search page or simply posting a comment on Bogost’s blog by clicking on a cow, you’d earn clicks on your account. “Wouldn’t you rather post a comment by clicking a cow?” asks Bogost. “Of course you would. And you get a point!”

The heifers have increasingly become a platform for talking about – and making fun of – everything in the videogame business. The recently released My First Cow Clicker iPhone app gives toddlers a simple cow-matching game, and encourages parents to sweep up their children’s clicks and add them to their own accounts. And, in what might be considered bordering on poor taste, Bogost teamed with Molleindustri, a political game think tank best known for its scathing satire The McDonald’s Game, to produce Cow Clicktivisim. Players are invited to click on a cute, but emaciated, cow. The player earns a click for their Cow Clicker account, and when enough people click the activist cow, the Cow Clicktivisim project will donate a real cow to real people in the third world through Oxfam.

Maybe that seems callous or too selfinterestedly convenient. And it probably is. But Bogost has his eye on something else. As an academic, he has taken his acid wit and surgical insight and focused his ample critical tools on himself. “I’ve been asking myself, why do I write?” he says. “I mean, I like writing. But why is writing the only currency of intellectual work that’s worthy?”

His answer is simple. After writing four books that talked in one way or the other about the power of an algorithmic system, a game, to carry meaning and make arguments, Bogost concluded that he didn’t need to rely on the crutch of words. He could make games that were just as complex, engaging, ambiguous and revolutionary as anything he could hammer into sentence form. And that message embodied in the mechanics of a game seems to be getting through. At least to someone like Kapalka: “Cow Clicker is intriguing because it’s a rare example of a truly satirical game, laying bare the often ridiculous or reprehensible mechanics behind many social games.”

Here, Bogost not only conjures the ghost of Duchamp’s urinal, he seems ready to provide some new plumbing to take this turn-of-the-last-century idea into something that makes sense today. Where Duchamp these days suffers the innovator’s paradox – so many have followed in his footsteps making broad, single-note conceptual gestures that it gets harder and harder to see why the original was so distinctive and important – Bogost wants to do more than just shock and dismay the average game fan: “Maybe Cow Clicker is really a platform for satire and anxiety. It took this moment in social games and sent it up in way that wasn’t just a one-liner, as conceptual art.”

Bogost separates Cow Clicker from other self-referential games that exist. Play You Have to Burn The Rope, and after you burn the rope, you can almost hear the cymbal. That’s the punchline, and the joke lingers only as long as the theme song plays. Similarly, even Progress Quest or a self-deprecating epic like Brütal Legendonly keeps the laughs coming for so long. Sooner or later, the clowning around ends and the game is over. These games bow off stage while the audience is still laughing. Cow Clicker, like the late, great surreal comedian Andy Kaufmann, stays in the limelight, waiting until a real angst develops in the audience, and then starts up again.

To make this point that conceptual art needs to move to a new place 100 years after Duchamp, Bogost talks glowingly of British artist Banksy. Here he sees an artist working in ambiguous spaces and consistently refusing to explain what he does, a point underlined by the recent documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. “That’s a piece of art that does the work. You realise that I’ve just gone and done all this work – watching the film and researching it – only to realise that’s the whole point. The point is, you can’t tell the difference any more between truth and fiction. And what do I do with the fact that I can’t tell the difference?”

On that point, Bogost opens himself to some fair criticism. Some question whether or not all this hoary academic philosophising actually makes it through to the player. Scott Jon Siegel, game designer at Playdom and frequent commenter on the social game space, has been open in questioning whether the game explains itself as well as it could. “There are a multitude of ways in which I feel Ian could have used Cow Clicker to better explore the potential for social games to be unlike anything else,” says Siegel. “Instead, he used his academic powers for evil, and simply highlighted the absurd monetisation practices and meaningless clicking which social games are all too well known for.”

In the end, Siegel worries about rhetorical mad cow disease, poisoning those that it claims to nourish: “I think Cow Clicker is a polished editorial on social games – one man’s opinion on the lack of depth seemingly inherent with the space. My concern is that every time I see a game developer clicking a cow, I fear it means they agree.”

Bogost, however, doesn’t seem too worried. If Cow Clicker gets underneath the hide of the industry, he seems unconcerned about what that means, and whether or not it might accidentally qualify as entertainment. “Happy is not really what I am after. What I am after is a certain kind of novelty that might actually be really uncomfortable and disappointing, to show you something that you didn’t see. Which is quite a bit different than contentment or happiness or fun.”

And perhaps he has a point. We’ve grown culturally lazy, expecting games served up in consumer-friendly packages. Bogost enjoys his breakfast and talks of the inherent self-loathing and anxiety in his cow project, gobbling up beignets in a Cajun breakfast joint in the bucolic college town of Boulder, Colorado. A couple of thousand miles from the Bayou, it never occurs just how bizarre and normal these cultural and geographic disjunctions have become in people’s daily lives.

Maybe it takes a ridiculous cow game to remind us just how weird modern life has become, and how easily we’ve adopted our newfound home beyond the looking glass. As Bogost ponders the future of Cow Clicker and looks for an inspiring idea that would let him end the game in a memorable and appropriately satirical manner, he faces the ultimate irony of a joke layered this deeply. Bogost made the cows you click, but the cows may have the last laugh: “This might be it. This might be my legacy. More people know about this than anything else that I have done.”


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