In Wired, Jason Tanz tells the bizarre, incredible tale of how Ian Bogost's satirical Facebook game "Cow Clicker" became an actual, successful game, despite being designed to show how incredibly stupid and pointless the FarmVille-style Facebook games of the day were. Cow Clicker stripped the FarmVille model to its barest bones: it presented you with a picture of a cow that you could click at fixed intervals. Your friends could also click the cow. You could buy fake money ("moola") and spend it to get extra clicks. Every click generated a Facebook update: "I'm clicking a cow." Those with the most-clicked cows appeared on a leaderboard.
Cow Clicker became a top-rated Facebook game, with tens of thousands of players.
The Cow Clicker description appears in a longer article about Bogost's provocative and curious career as a games academic and designer, which has seen him design games intended to simulate the boredom of staffing TSA checkpoints; sticking to a diet; working a hateful counter-service job at Kinko's, and growing produce faster than e. coli can contaminate it.
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 Curse of Cow Clicker: How a Cheeky Satire Became a Videogame Hit