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 in Cow 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 FarmVille clone 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 Clicker sickness 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.
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