To encapsulate many game experts' view of wildly successful social games as mindless and repetitive, one video game theorist has created the purposely inane "Cow Clicker" as a statement.
There's a silly but enduring bit of apocrypha about the alleged rural pastime of "cow tipping"--in which, supposedly, there are so few ways for mischievous young people in the boondocks to amuse themselves that they resort to knocking over cows standing in slumber. (Actually, cows don't sleep upright. Should you try to "tip" a standing cow, be forewarned: it isn't asleep.)
Fittingly, a recently launched Facebook-based game designed to make a statement about the supposed inanity of other Facebook games--like the now-antiquated "sheep throwing" of Slide's SuperPoke and the stampeding success of Zynga's FarmVille--takes the form of what's more or less virtual cow tipping. It's called "Cow Clicker."
Install Cow Clicker on your Facebook profile, and the app will display a fairly generic cartoon cow. You are allowed to click on that cow once every six hours, and clicking will earn you more clicks. If you are sufficiently enthralled with Cow Clicker to spend real-world money (or "mooney" as the game calls it) you can buy fancier "premium" cows like the "Bacon Cow" or pay to be able to click your cow more frequently than once every six hours. Stories about your Cow Clicker activity, naturally, show up in your Facebook news feed so that your friends can get in on the action. It seems, on the surface, tailor-made to do nothing but dispel boredom, much like the cow tipping of legend.
"Cow Clicker is Facebook games distilled to their essence," wrote Cow Clicker developer Ian Bogost, a video game theorist and Georgia Tech professor in a blog post explaining why he built the seemingly silly game. "Most will consider Cow Clicker to be satire, and that's true in part at least. But satire these days risks becoming mere conceptual art. The idea of the 'cow clicker' arose almost involuntarily, as a playfully deprecatory name that seemed plausible enough that it might be real."
The name "cow clicker," Bogost explained, was originally just a snappy slang term that was formulated over the course of conversations at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year. A nearly unavoidable topic of conversation there was the mushrooming of social games on the Facebook platform, games like FarmVille and Pet Society and Mafia Wars--with simple, uniform and easily replicable sets of rules, and as Bogost put it, "challenge-free," social games were drawing disapproval and even outright anger from traditional game developers.
But the game Cow Clicker is designed to draw attention to the enduring appeal of games like FarmVille, not just to their shortcomings--and it's developed a bit of a cult following. Since launching on July 21, Cow Clicker has drawn nearly 15,000 active users, including "a good number of players who are playing intensely," Bogost told CNET. Some, he says, are actually exchanging real-world currency for "mooney," and others are buying merchandise like a T-shirt that says "I Clicked A Cow And I Liked It." The Cow Clicker app refers to it as "haute cowture."
Most of those fans seem to be people who are well attuned to the satirical undertones of Cow Clicker and, perhaps frustrated themselves at the FarmVille activities that pop up endlessly on their friends' Facebook profiles, are eager to feign obsession. "A game of godly proportions," one reviewer extolled. "I sit around thinking about what I'm going to do until I can click my cow again. Things such as, sleeping, nothing, and reviewing the game." Another said, "It is like I have stared into the very meaning of life itself, when I click upon my cow." Still another: "Probably the best thing since 'Twilight.'"
Likewise, Bogost's blog post explaining the rationale behind Cow Clicker pulled in dozens of comments, including cheers from supporters, deep thoughts from fellow academics, and some very harsh critics who said that Bogost was more or less just jealous of the success of companies like FarmVille manufacturer Zynga in corralling mainstream attention. "It's hard to swallow that, instead of your little proteges and named successors, it was a for-profit commercial enterprise that became instantly successful because it saw what you didn't see: it's about the players," one particularly opinionated commenter wrote. "It's about what they want, not what you want to tell them."
And when game-industry intellectuals like Bogost do what some see as criticizing the pedestrian nature of FarmVille and its ilk, they may indeed look like they're harvesting a crop of sour grapes. Social games are simply enormous. Playfish sold to Electronic Arts for about $300 million. Another, Playdom, is rumored to be in acquisition talks with Disney. FarmVille parent company Zynga, the biggest of them all, is the subject of about a thousand rumors of an initial public offering that may turn out to bear fruit--it's raised more than $400 million in financing, after all--or may ultimately be as fictitious as cow tipping.
Zynga, around the time of the industry dissatisfaction that became evident during the Game Developers Conference, asserted that it has "the utmost respect for independent developers and their talents." And to be fair, as far as the sophistication of barnyard-themed games go, FarmVille is a few notches above merely throwing a sheep--with social-network gaming platforms mostly fewer than four years old, there are still many opportunities for increased complexity and new ways to tempt and tug at Facebook's social patchwork of more than 500 million users. That hasn't dissuaded independent game developers who believe that it's using tactics that are at best uncreative and tacky, at worst sleazy and thuggish in the name of sheer profit, like a step backward in the evolution of the games industry. With the advent of Cow Clicker, FarmVille now has its own "Animal Farm."
But the satirical commentary is meant to still be light and probably doesn't need to be pried on the level of an advanced-placement high school English class' analysis of an Orwell novel. When informed that "Mooney" is, in addition to the name of Cow Clicker's silly currency, also the surname of the FarmVille general manager at Zynga, Bogost said it was a "startling coincidence."