Wired | Read original
You work for the Transportation Security Administration, manning the x-ray machine at a local airport. Your day begins easily enough, quickly scanning passengers’ luggage and bodies and waving them through. But after a few minutes, you get an alert—shirts are now contraband. OK, fine, you dutifully strip people of their T-shirts as they pass through the metal detector. Then another alert: Mobile phones are prohibited, too. Wait, now coffee isn’t allowed either, but cell phones are OK again. As you struggle to keep the new rules straight, the line of cranky passengers gets longer. Wait, snakes and turbans have just been outlawed. Oh, and shirts are allowed now, but you didn’t realize that until you’d already stripped down another passenger. That’s one strike against you. Now native headdresses are forbidden, turbans are OK, but shoes must be removed. You get confused and let a snake through—another black mark. The line of passengers begins to stretch across the room even as new regulations keep coming in faster than you can process them. Before long, you are fired—not because you’ve endangered anyone’s safety, but because you failed to cope with the illogical edicts of a capricious bureaucracy.
That pretty much sums up the experience of playing Jetset, a tongue-in-cheek but nerve-jangling iPhone game that almost makes you feel sorry for the petty tyrants behind the backscatter machine. Jetset is the brainchild of Ian Bogost, a game developer and academic. While some videogames let players vicariously experience the thrill of tossing a grenade into an enemy machine-gun nest, Bogost’s offerings—designed under the auspices of his small development company, Persuasive Games—tend to simulate grinding, unsatisfying everyday experiences. In Fatworld, players are charged with managing a diet-and-exercise regimen on a limited budget; in Bacteria Salad, they must grow and sell tomatoes and spinach as quickly as possible while containing E. coli outbreaks. (The game ends when too many people violently shit themselves.) In one of Bogost’s sentimental favorites, Disaffected!, surly Kinko’s employees struggle to fill orders for angry customers. At first, the game seems similar to classics like Tapper or Diner Dash, which transform workplace demands into a source of fun. But Disaffected! offers no such alchemy. “Conventional games are structured to ensure you can accomplish tasks and level up,” says Bogost, who has a PhD in comparative literature and is director of Georgia Tech’s graduate program in digital media. “In our game, you can’t. You can’t see it as working your way up to becoming a manager or to starting your own office-supply store. That is not what this game is about. It is about working a bad job.”
Bogost’s role in the gaming industry is much like that of the acid-tongued class clown who knows he’s smarter than his teachers. He writes a column for the news site Gamasutra in which he has compared Sony to “a baby that doesn’t know its own arms aren’t alien beings.” His acerbic perspective has won him invitations to countless gaming conferences, where he always commands the center of attention—whether onstage or tweeting furiously from the audience. He even looks the part of the rebellious grad student, with hair that falls to the base of his neck, ebullient sideburns that almost reach to his goatee, and a lazy eye that twinkles with every bon mot.
But Bogost’s irreverence belies a sincere belief in the potential of videogames. He sees them as tools to educate and enlighten, to “disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world,” as he put it in his 2007 book, Persuasive Games. By immersing players in a foreign experience, games can help them understand the challenges and choices that others face, whether it’s cash-strapped diabetics trying to be healthy or agriculture-supply-chain managers. Bogost’s games may not hew to traditional definitions of fun, but hey, neither does life.
It’s an interesting notion but not, to date, a particularly popular one. Other than Disaffected!, which found success among Kinko’s employees (“Someone was interested enough in their shitty job to make a game out of it,” Bogost explains), most of his games haven’t made much of a splash outside the insular world of game theorists and scrappy independent developers.
So it’s ironic that Bogost’s breakout hit—the game that has made him a celebrity within his industry, attracted tens of thousands of players, and even earned him a bit of money—is a cynical trifle he whipped up in a matter of days. It’s a Facebook game called Cow Clicker, and it’s unlike anything Bogost ever made before, a borderline-evil piece of work that was intended to embody the worst aspects of the modern gaming industry. He meant Cow Clicker to be a satire with a short shelf life. Instead, it enslaved him and many of its players for much of the past 18 months. Even Bogost can’t decide whether it represents his greatest success—or his most colossal failure.
The 2010 Game Developers Conference, the largest annual gathering of gaming professionals, was a tense affair. The year, though only two months old, was already shaping up to be a bad one for makers of traditional videogames. Console sales dropped 8 percent in 2009 and were destined to fall 12 percent more over the course of 2010; console games were suffering a similar slide. Some of the biggest publishers in the industry, including powerhouses like Activision/Blizzard and Electronic Arts, had seen their stock prices fall by half over the previous couple of years.
But while console games were crumbling, a new breed was flourishing: social games. These lightweight offerings—titles like Happy Aquarium and Restaurant City, designed for casual gamers to play with their friends online—were attracting visitors by the millions, despite the fact that they had none of the strategic complexity or button-mashing action of traditional videogames. Throughout the conference, developers trudged from one session to another, hearing executives from social- gaming companies like Playdom, ngmoco, and Mind Candy celebrate the revolution.
Nobody made the case as explicitly as Zynga. It was by far the most prosperous of the new social-gaming companies, and also, to traditional gamemakers, the most suspect. Its CEO, Mark Pincus, hadn’t come up through the gaming industry but from the world of Silicon Valley startups; his company’s focus on things like monetization and user growth seemed blatantly mercenary to the digital artistes who were more concerned with rag-doll physics and rendering engines. And though Zynga executives claimed their games were all about bringing friends closer together, they carried a whiff of exploitation. FarmVille, Zynga’s flagship franchise, encouraged people to publicize their every action on Facebook newsfeeds and pester their friends to join them. It kept players coming back by setting onerous time limits—return in 16 hours to harvest your rhubarb or your fields would be riddled with withered stalks. And it compelled them to pay money if they wanted to avoid mindless tasks or lengthy delays.
But there was no denying that FarmVille was a hit; at the time of the conference, it had signed up 110 million people, with 31 million playing daily. So it was no surprise when, at the awards ceremony on the third day of the conference, FarmVille won the honor for Best Social/Online Game. Accepting the award, Zynga studio vice president Bill Mooney urged independent developers to join his company. “Two years ago, we were 20 people sitting together in a crappy little room,” he said. The sentiment was not warmly received by the independent developers in the audience, many of whom were proud to work in crappy little rooms instead of at giant corporations. Mooney left the stage amid boos and catcalls.
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.”
Mooney’s GDC speech catalyzed a backlash, and Bogost emerged as one of Zynga’s most vocal critics, telling CNET that the company’s games were “like behaviorist experiments with rats” and calling them “the Wall Street hedge-fund guys of games” in the pages of Fast Company.
Zynga and its proponents argued that its critics were hysterical. Brian Reynolds, who gave up developing PC strategy titles like Civilization II to become Zynga’s chief game designer in 2009, says that the company isn’t exploiting anyone but simply tying traditional gaming urges into a new, player-friendly business model. “You can keep playing the game for free, but if you want the higher level of entertainment, you pay for it,” Reynolds says. “We’ll give you, whatever, 50 clicks today, and tomorrow you can have 50 more. But if you want 100 clicks today, we’ll sell you more clicks.”
As the debate over Zynga—and social games in general—became an industry obsession, Bogost was asked to speak at several conference panels and academic colloquiums. Before a seminar at New York University called Social Games on Trial, he decided that instead of creating the usual series of slides to accompany his talk, he would design a game that would illustrate what he saw as the worst abuses of social gaming in the clearest possible manner. That way, rather than just listening to his argument, people could play it.
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.
In fact, despite itself, Cow Clicker was perversely enjoyable. The cartoon cow was cute, with a boxy nose and nonplussed expression. After every click, it emitted a satisfying moo. The game may have been dumb and even mean. But it was also, for some reason that resisted easy explanation, kind of appealing.
Adam Scriven, a stay-at-home dad in Burnaby, British Columbia, had been a dedicated player of social games like Zynga’s Mafia Wars when he discovered Cow Clicker. “I just dumped most of those other games and started playing this one,” he says. “Instead of stupid games that have no point, we might as well play a stupid game that has a point.” Yes, Scriven was playing ironically. But he—along with thousands of others like him—was still clicking.
Bogost’s office at Georgia Tech is crowded with in-jokes and personal obsessions. A basket filled with Garden Salsa SunChips sits below a window. (Bogost once publicly stated his disappointment that Delta Air Lines had stopped serving the flavor, after which someone sent him an anonymous shipment of the stuff. Bogost suspects his wife.) In the corner rests a 12-inch tube television attached to an Atari 2600 game console. A pile of cartridges sits beside it: Pitfall!, the infamous E.T., something called Lost Luggage, in which players have to catch baggage as it plummets to the tarmac. Copies of Bogost’s most recent project, a retro game with an accompanying book titled A Slow Year, are stacked on his bookshelf. A Slow Year is a series of what Bogost calls “game poems,” four minigames in which players accomplish leisurely, pensive tasks, like slowly sipping a cooling cup of coffee or focusing on a twig as it bobs down a stream. Bogost spent three years sporadically working on the collection for the archaic Atari 2600, which he says forced him to accept constraints similar to those self-imposed by Imagist poets, like Ezra Pound, who tried to use the most precise language possible in their work. If Cow Clicker is Bogost’s diagnosis of what games shouldn’t do, A Slow Year is his vision of what they might aspire to—exploring the artistic frontiers of the medium to create new kinds of experiences. A PC version of the game was published in November 2010.
Bogost considers A Slow Year to be one of his most important works. And yet, in the months leading up to its publication, he found himself drawn to its evil twin, Cow Clicker. Initially, Bogost planned to launch Cow Clicker and let the game run its course. But now that people were actually playing it, he felt an obligation to sustain the experience. When his server melted under the unexpected demand, he was besieged by complaints until he signed up for a cloud-computing service to handle the load. Social-game developers, many of whom saw the game as good-natured ribbing, suggested ways to improve it: Let players earn mooney by clicking one another’s newsfeed updates, for instance, which would further encourage them to spam their friends. Bogost added the feature, which he called “click on your clicks.” He also added transparently stupid prizes—bronze, silver, and golden udders and cowbells—that people could win only by amassing an outlandish number of points. (A golden cowbell, for instance, requires 100,000 clicks.)
On one level, this was all part of the act. Bogost was inhabiting the persona of a manipulative game designer, and therefore it made sense to pull every dirty trick he could to make the game as sticky and addictive as possible. But as he grew into the role, he got a genuine thrill from his creation’s popularity. Instead of addressing a few hundred participants at a conference, he was sharing his perspective with tens of thousands of players, many of whom checked in several times a day. Furthermore, every time he made the game better, he received some positive bit of feedback—more players, a nice review, a funny comment on his Facebook page. Tweaking the game was almost like a game itself: Finish a task, receive a reward.
The number of players peaked at 56,000 in October before beginning a long slide down to 10,000. What Cow Clicker lost in numbers, however, it gained in fan fervency. The people who remained may have begun playing in cheeky protest, but they soon began taking it surprisingly seriously. “There is a fair amount of strategy—maybe more than Ian intended,” says Kevin Almeroth, a computer science professor at UC Santa Barbara who climbed to the top of the leaderboard, earning a golden cowbell in the process. “You have to get the top clickers in your pasture and lure them away from somebody else. I actually started to understand the psychology of Survivor a bit better.” One player wrote an online strategy guide, which included chapters like “Advanced Pasture” and “Harvesting Strategies.” In November 2010, hackers discovered the game and set up fake Facebook accounts and scripts to maximize their clicks. At first, Bogost let the cheaters prosper, but outrage from the player community eventually overwhelmed his resolve, and he added a verification system to crack down on the counterfeit clicking.
Bogost kept his players hooked by introducing new cows for them to purchase using virtual mooney or real money. They ranged from the crowd-pleasingly topical (a cow covered in oil and sporting a BP-esque logo on its rump) to the aggressively cynical (the Stargrazer Cow, which was just the original cow facing the opposite direction and for which Bogost charged 2,500 mooney). They may have looked simple, but they were time-consuming to conceive and draw. By the end of the year, Bogost was devoting as much as 10 hours a week to Cow Clicker. Drawings of cows cluttered his house and office. “I was spending more time on it than I was comfortable with,” Bogost says. “But I was compelled to do it. I couldn’t stop.”
Bogost was not the only game theorist disturbed by Cow Clicker‘s addictive appeal. Nick Yee, a research scientist at PARC, the Xerox-owned innovation center, has been studying massively multiplayer online role-playing games for 12 years. He says that good games usually offer meaningful opportunities for achievement, social interaction, and challenge; otherwise, players become little more than rats in a Skinner box, hitting a button to get a jolt of reinforcement. “The scary thing about Cow Clicker is that it’s just an incredibly clear Skinner box,” Yee says. “What does that say about the human psyche and how easy it is to seduce us?”
Motivation researchers have studied the addictive qualities of games for decades. Game designer and futurist Jane McGonigal summarized the research in her best-selling book Reality Is Broken, in which she suggested that successful games mimic the feelings of accomplishment we get when we do fulfilling work. McGonigal argues that game mechanics—the rules and designs that govern gameplay—are captivating enough to make even the most miserable activities rewarding and compelling, from scrubbing a toilet to recovering from a brain injury. In recent years, companies have successfully used gamelike challenges and reward systems to encourage people to exercise (Nike+ and Wii Fit), explore their cities (Foursquare), and create models of proteins (Foldit).
Even nongaming companies are catching on to the power of games. Today, gamification—using game mechanics to influence real-world behavior—is a bona fide corporate buzzword. Executives attend gamification summits to learn how to leverage game features to attract and keep customers. The US edition of Google News offers badges that let people “level up” by reading articles online. Kobo, an ebook company, has a program that doles out “awards” when a reader highlights a passage, jots a note, or consults the dictionary. Corporations spent an estimated $100 million on gamification in 2010, and that figure is expected to rise to $2.8 billion by 2016.
To some industry stalwarts, the gamification craze looks a lot like Cow Clicker—mindlessly deploying gaming’s most superficial and addictive features, such as leaderboards and badges, without providing the underlying experience that gives them meaning. Bogost himself made this argument at a gamification conference, during a talk called Gamification Is Bullshit, in which he suggested an alternate term, exploitationware. That, he said, represents the true mission of gamifiers: to use game mechanics to cynically ensnare their customers, much as Cow Clicker had unwittingly hooked its prey—including, as it turned out, Bogost himself.
Game theorist Jesse Schell took this idea to its Orwellian extreme in a presentation at yet another industry conference. He described a world in which a person’s every action—brushing their teeth, showing up to work on time, tattooing an advertisement for Pop-Tarts onto their forearm—earned points. Schell says he wanted to encourage people to think carefully about which kinds of games and experiences were appropriate to develop. But not everyone picked up on those subtleties. “I’ve had dozens of people come to me saying, ‘Your talk was so influential to me that I started a company,’” Schell says. “All I can think is, oh God, don’t blame me for that.”
At the beginning of 2011, Bogost was still slaving away at Cow Clicker. In addition to critiquing social games, Bogost started using his creation to satirize other gaming trends he found distasteful. In January, he announced the advent of Cowclickification, “the application of cow-clicking mechanics to non-cow-clicking applications.” In case anyone missed the jab at gamification, Bogost made it explicit: “Businesses can employ new cow-clicking mechanics such as clicking a cow to distract customers from the vapid pointlessness of their products and services.” In February, disturbed by simplistic software that purported to be educational, Bogost created My First Cow Clicker, a “repetitive cow-clicking drill cleverly disguised as an entertaining videogame,” as Bogost’s promo copy described it, that promised to teach kids “how to click a cow effectively” for the low, low price of $1.99. (He sold dozens of them.) About a month later, troubled by the notion of “clicktivism”—the belief that mere participation in a social network could change the world—Bogost and a partner launched a sarcastic benefit: Players could donate to Oxfam America, either by clicking on a special sponsored “Cow Clicktivism” page or by purchasing a special $110 Cowclicktivist Cow (emaciated, with sagging ears and visible ribs). To date, $1,125 has been donated.
But on an afternoon in September 2011, it is all coming to an end. Five months earlier, Bogost had put a countdown clock on Cow Clicker, the expiration of which would bring about something called the Cowpocalypse. Bogost never explained what the Cowpocalypse was, but it didn’t sound good. In keeping with the rest of the Cow Clicker exercise, he turned the countdown into a game. Every time someone clicked a cow, time was taken off the clock. But players could also pay to add time—$1 bought an extra hour; an additional month cost $400. A handful of players have staved off the “rapture” with last-minute infusions. But the clock is running down again, and this time Bogost is convinced the Cowpocalypse is finally nigh.
Sitting at his desk, Bogost fingers a sterling silver ring on his right middle finger. It depicts a cow skull—specifically, the skull of the Cow Clicker cow. The word click wraps around the back of the band. He had the ring made as a dark reminder of his experiment. “I like to think that having it on my body, especially on one of my typing fingers, will make me think twice about all these activities,” Bogost says. “I’ve made all these people click on cows. I’ve wasted my own time and my family’s time.”
Not everyone agrees that the months they spent cow-clicking have been for naught. Jamie Clark, a student and military spouse living on Ellsworth Air Force Base outside of Box Elder, South Dakota, says that she has made close friendships with her fellow clickers. “I don’t meet a lot of people who discuss politics and religion and philosophy, but these people do, and I like talking to them,” she says. “I’d rather talk to my Cow Clicker friends than to people I went to school with for 12 years.” It’s a common refrain among dedicated Cow Clickers, who have turned what was intended to be a vapid experience into a source of camaraderie and creativity. They post witty cow-themed comments and poems along with the announcements that clutter their newsfeeds. They design Cow Clicker T-shirts and stickers.
It may be that Cow Clicker demonstrates the opposite of what it set out to prove and that social games, no matter how cynically designed, can still provide meaningful experiences. That’s how Zynga’s Reynolds sees it. He argues that, while early versions of FarmVille aren’t as sophisticated as the company’s more recent offerings like FrontierVille and CastleVille, which include such features as involved narratives and fleshed-out characters, they still allow players to connect with one another and express themselves. “Ian made Cow Clicker and discovered, perhaps to his dismay, that people liked it,” Reynolds says. “Who are we to tell people what to like?”
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.”
Bogost delivered his response to this line of argument in a well-read blog essay called “Shit Crayons.” In the piece, he compared Cow Clicker players to the imprisoned Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, who composed poems from his cell using whatever writing material he could find. Bogost writes that Cow Clicker—and, by extension, games like FarmVille—are akin to the Nigerian prison, trapping players in a barren environment. The fact that people are able to exercise creativity despite the cruel limitations of the game—to craft crayons out of shit—is a sign of the indomitable human spirit but no reflection whatsoever on the merits of Cow Clicker. “Even if creativity comes from constraint, there’s constraint and there’s incarceration,” he writes. “A despot in a sorcerer’s hat does not deserve praise for inciting desperate resilience.”
After two months of delays thanks to donations totalling $700, the Cowpocalypse finally arrives at 7:20 pm on September 7. At that moment, all the cows disappear. They have been raptured—replaced with an image of an empty patch of grass. Players can still click on the grass, still generate points for doing so, but there are no new cows to buy, no mooing to celebrate their action. In some sense, this is the truest version of Cow Clicker—the pure, cold game mechanic without any ornamentation. Bogost says that he expects most people will “see this as an invitation to end their relationship with Cow Clicker.”
But months after the rapture, Adam Scriven, the enthusiastic player from British Columbia, hasn’t accepted that invitation. He is still clicking the space where his cow used to be. After the Cowpocalypse, Bogost added one more bedeviling feature—a diamond cowbell, which could be earned by reaching 1 million clicks. It was intended as a joke; it would probably take 10 years of steady clicking to garner that many points. But Scriven says he might go for it. “It is very interesting, clicking nothing,” Scriven says. “But then, we were clicking nothing the whole time. It just looked like we were clicking cows.”