In the modern era in which we live, the popular social network Facebook has achieved the status of ‘gaming platform’ in its own right. Previously ‘gaming platform’ was a designation limited to home consoles such as PlayStation and Xbox, and people would magnanimously say ‘the PC is the largest gaming platform in America since everyone has a computer’ while forgetting to mention only really angry people who love their basements, or avid players of World of Warcraft or StarCraft, are the only people who consider a PC their primary gaming platform.
Now, there are numerous platforms on which to play video games. Economic pressure on the traditional packaged-goods retail game business has resulted in the development of all kinds of digital alt-avenues for game development, including mobile ‘smartphones’ such as iPhone and Android, tablet devices such as iPad, and social networks such as Facebook and [????].
Whenever an environment has a low barrier to entry, is designed to be accessible to all, and tries to be totally inclusive, there develops therein a high volume of suckage. There are over 50,000 games available on Apple’s App Store, for example, but only ~10-15 of them are remotely worth playing. Similarly, even though games account for a significant share of Facebook users’ time [some number memorized by venture capitalists looking to invest in the next million dollar social media empire] most of them are wall spam robots about telling fortunes, being a vampire farmer fighting off zombie mafias, or clicking on cows, sheep and ‘White Mystery Eggs.’ Gross.
It seems that people who enjoy clicking on a little green patch to repeatedly farm [something] via Facebook must be brain-dead, but in fact the games are designed the way that a biomedical researcher would create a disease in a petri dish – these games and apps are built to spread, to increase their statistical user numbers just by the act of users playing them/spamming each other’s walls. It is not enough to say they are focused on ‘going viral.’ Creators of Facebook games, those who make their living measuring the success of Facebook games, and those who spend their time going to conferences to yell at attendees about Facebook games invented their own word to describe the quality by which this is accomplished: ‘virality.’ It’s not even a real word.
In contrast, a large constituency of the game development community operates under beliefs such as ‘video games are art,’ ‘video games are the next great entertainment medium of the 21st century,’ ‘video games can leverage the power of interactivity and the principle of personification to offer users incredibly transformational experiences,’ ‘video games should have narrative,’ ‘video games are the personal expression of a creator,’ etc.
As a result of this contrast, there developed something of a contentious cultural relationship between Facebook game developers and ‘real’ game developers. In the midst of it, one author/academic/professor/game developer named Ian Bogost decided to develop a Facebook game that would act as a satire of Facebook games. He called it ‘Cow Clicker.’
Engineered to lambaste Facebook gaming products as spearheaded by arguably the most popular Facebook game, FarmVille, Cow Clicker simply required of players who install the game to click on a picture of a cow, the picture of a cow then appears in the player’s Facebook feed with the notification ‘[Facebook user] is clicking their cow.’
A player is allowed to click on the cow once every six hours, but they can earn more clicks by clicking on their friends’ cows, joining a ‘pasture’ with friends’ cows, or purchasing the ‘clicks’ with real money [via ‘microtransactions,’ the primary monetization strategy of Facebook games]. In its hollow opportunism, in the fashion in which it encourages Facebook users to exploit their friends for extra clicks, in its insulting simplicity and mindless repetition, Cow Clicker was intended, says its creator, to represent the quintessential evil of Facebook games in basic terms, for the purpose of encouraging fellow designers and players to question the sub-industry of games on Facebook.
Games actually make incredibly effective satire, because they interact with the players and ask of them a pattern of behavior that may lead them to the desired conclusion/viewpoint/state of questioning more experientially and efficiently than sitting the person down and talking at them, drawing an acerbic cartoon, or having a hyperbolic and narcissistic stand-up comedy routine.
A number of people who were part of the ‘real game industry’ or were avid fans/game culturists who harbored similar reservations about the possibly-insidious nature of Facebook games flocked to support Cow Clicker, even those who had deliberately avoided installing ‘real’ Facebook games on their pages in the past. Publishing a ‘story’ to one’s Facebook wall showing that they were clicking their Cow Clicker cow was a way for people who considered themselves part of the ‘intelligensia’ to show that they supported the satire, or that they were mocking Facebook games or those who developed them, or that they approved of questioning the nature of this rapidly-swelling game development sub-industry about which venture capitalists yell at conference attendees.
In that way, Cow Clicker rapidly went viral around a hardcore adopter niche who felt ‘in on it’ by clicking cows. Surprisingly to its creator, however, it attracted a wider audience of unsuspecting fans of farm games/games about clicking animals who did not realize that it wasn’t serious. They began posting things on Cow Clicker’s page such as suggestions to improve the game’s balance/mechanics or expressions of irritation that they spent a lot of time clicking cows and did not ‘get anything.’
As it is common for one Facebook game to shamelessly clone [rip off] the mechanics or identifying traits of a popular Facebook game in order to try to ride its coattails, another game developer appeared, propagating the Cow Clicker satire by cloning it and developing ‘Fish Clicker.’
Creator Bogost continued to nurture the satire. He rolled out ‘specialty cows’ [lampooning the new-ish design philosophy that users will pay for ‘customizations’ or want to ‘express themselves’ personally] and numerous individuals, including those ‘in on’ the satire, actually began to purchase them. He found himself addicted to monitoring the metrics of Cow Clicker’s user base as if he were a ‘real’ Facebook developer.
People who hated Facebook games were playing a lot of Cow Clicker to demonstrate how much they hated Facebook games. Cow Clicker became very popular, or at least relatively, at least given how hit-driven Facebook gaming is. In trying to create a satire of how Facebook games were bullshit, Bogost actually ended up proving that their hyper-simplistic viral methods work well and developed a legitimate audience. It was kind of a ‘mindfuck.’
Cow Clicker followed the reasonable trajectory of ‘real’ Facebook games even into its twilight period, toward which, like real Facebook games, it rapidly accelerated. The normal meme cycle of popular culture, by which something undergoes mad buzz until it reaches a certain critical mass and the audience becomes habituated to it, is highly accelerated on the internet [see the hype cycle of your average buzzband for a parallel example].
Generally lacking in depth beyond an initial rush, a Facebook game enjoys its peak popularity only for a few months before its audience becomes desensitized to its dopamine-rooted viral engineering and gets bored of playing it/begins to ignore the notifications from the game. Similarly, Cow Clicker has begun to see user attrition. Seems like the meme is starting to die off, but even then, it can’t manage to stop imitating the trajectory of the games it aims whose validity it aims to disprove.
In that regard, Cow Clicker might be the first ‘web 2.0 meta-game’ ever to attain widespread success, or to actualize its goals too well. It became a satire of a satire, or a challenge that was self-fulfilling, or a question that answered itself, or something super-meta like that.