In 2010 a satirical video “game” called Cow Clicker accidentally became a viral sensation, despite being one of the most deliberately tedious games ever invented.
Do you remember FarmVille? Released in 2009, its popularity peaked on Facebook in 2010 with more than 83 million monthly users. I say “users” rather than “players” because its primary modes of engagement were threefold:
- Constant clicking without much tactical thought or playful engagement
- Roping your friends into playing the game so that you earn points
- Playing is free but to get anywhere you had to spend real money
Can you tell that I’m not a fan? Neither was Ian Bogost, an academic and researcher, so he created a satire of games like FarmVille called Cow Clicker. Cow Clicker was designed to take all of the problems of social games and, like any good satire, magnify them to the point of absurdity.
The core of the game was this: you have a cartoon cow; every six hours you click on the cow and get a point. You can invite friends’ cows into your virtual pasture to earn more points. And you can pay for exciting cow patterns and designs. It was purposely minimal and pointless… and of course it was a hit. Not a FarmVille-level hit, but in September 2010 it had 50,000 users and while some of them were playing ironically some appeared to be playing it sincerely. Bogost added a bunch of new satirical features like a pseudo-educational app, awards for pointless milestones, and a cow facing the other way (which cost US$20 to unlock).
What do you do when your satire becomes too popular? Well, in September 2011 the “cowpocalypse” happened. All of the cows disappeared. The game was otherwise unchanged: you could play just like always, except you were clicking on an empty spot rather than a cow. Some people complained anyway, saying that the game was no longer fun:
A typical complaint, which Leigh Alexander, the videogame journalist, published, read that after the rapture, Cow Clicker was quote, “not a very fun game” any longer. Bogost answered: It wasn’t very fun before.