< Cow Clicker

Transcript

Friday, November 18, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Next week, Zynga, the company behind popular Facebook games like Farmville and Cityville, will have its initial public offering. Industry analysts have valued the company at 15 to 20 billion dollars. More than 200 million people play Zynga games each month, but despite its success the company inspires mostly grumbling from the video gamerati.

Zynga’s critics say its games are designed to addict gamers and suck money out of their pockets. One such critic, game designer Ian Bogost figured the best way to criticize these games would be to build a vicious parody of them. But despite his worst intentions, that's not how it played out

OTM producer PJ Vogt reports.

PJ VOGT:

Last summer Cindy Barrett got hooked on this Facebook game. 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 how 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, is there any way you can compete with me?”--‘cause I think at that point he had six--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.

Take his most recent work, a game poem called “A Slow Year.” The point in the game is to experience the seasons.

IAN BOGOST:

The winter game, the sun is rising, it's dawn and you've got a cup of coffee, which is slowly getting cold. And you want to kind of time your enjoyment of the cup of coffee with the amount of time that it's gonna take the sun to rise. It’s a first-person drinking game for the Atari.

PJ VOGT:

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, and you can click it again. [TICKING] 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. [TICKING/LOUD MOO]

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 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, or they just didn't get it, or they just didn't care. Like, people really loved their cows.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

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 ironist 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 dollars. 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.

[MUSIC OUT]

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. I as 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, 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 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.

[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

And then there was this timer that started running. And with the timer ended, then, youknow, 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 to [LAUGHS] 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 anylonger.”Bogost answered, “It wasn't very fun before.”

For Bogost, Cow Clicker was never about fun. It was a joke. But as it turned out, [COWS MOOING] 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 Dylan Keefe, Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Doug Anderson and Gianna Palmer, and edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, and more engineering help from Dylan.

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.

[MUSIC]

Moo!