The past year has been one of the strangest ever in the life of game designer, lecturer and author Ian Bogost. It started with the launch of the most successful game he's ever developed, and ended with him bringing it to a strange, cathartic end.
That game was Facebook title Cow Clicker, a now-infamous satire against social games. For its creator, though, it's been more complicated than that. As his friend, I confess to being a little relieved it's over with.
Cow Clicker was never supposed to be fun. It was supposed to be silly, insultingly simple, a vacuous waste of time, and a manipulative joke at the expense of its players-–in other words, everything Bogost thought that Facebook games like the Zynga-made hit FarmVille are. In Cow Clicker, players get a cow, they click it, and then they must either pay to click it again or wait six hours; an embarrassing, joyless labor that to him represented the quintessential aspects of the games that were flourishing all over the social network.
Then Ian began playing pranks on the users: He found it hilarious to offer ridiculously-priced premium cows; in one case, he offered one that was the same as the free default cow, simply facing the other direction. It cost 2,500 Mooney, or about $20 in real money (the game's currency is called "Mooney"-–Bogost says its commonality with the Zynga exec's last name is sheer coincidence).
As a final insult, Cow Clicker is still active on Facebook, showing empty pastures. The countdown clock reached its end, and the cows all have been "raptured." Bogost even produced a new Cow Clicker T-shirt that shows the grass plot, the ominous hovering clicker-arrow-–and no cow.
Yet the protestations of users still pour in; Bogost has received countless messages from people who don't seem to understand that the experiment is over. They want to know when they can click their cows again, if there's anything they can do. They miss the game.
"I never expected that would happen," reflects Bogost. "A lot of the serious players… just like clicking a cow sometimes. It's very innocent; they just like clicking a cow."