Cow Clicker Founder: If You Can't Ruin It, Destroy It

Zynga, the company behind popular Facebook games such as Farmville and Cityville, is expected to have its initial public offering before the end of the year. Zynga is a phenomenon. More than 200 million people play its games each month. One person who doesn't feel Zynga's success is cause for celebration is video game designer Ian Bogost. Bogost thinks Zynga's games are mindless, designed to suck money out of players' pockets. To make his point he created a parody game of his own. As On the Media's P.J. Vogt reports, what Bogost didn't expect is that his satire would become one of the most popular games he's ever made.

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Zynga is the company behind popular Facebook games like Farmville and Cityville. Over 200 million people play Zynga games each month. And before the end of the year, the company is expected to have its initial public offering. Industry analysts have valued it at 15 to $20 billion.

RAZ: Not every person is a fan, though. One videogame designer recently set out to parody Zynga's games by feel creating an absurd version of his own.

P.J. Vogt from WNYC's On The Media has the story of an attempt at satire that didn't exactly go to plan.

P.J. VOGT, BYLINE: Last summer, Cindy Barrett got hooked on this Facebook game. The way the game works, you get a point every time you click. Cindy was battling her brother, Eric, who was routinely beating her.

CINDY BARRETT: At that point I maybe had 10 clicks a week. My brother would always have 12 clicks and it would make me frustrated. So I befriended the top clickers. They taught me how to get more clicks. Literally, within a day, I had something like 200 clicks. And I was like, hey, Eric is there any way you can compete with me? 'Cause I think at that point he had six. And it just went downhill from there.

VOGT: The game is called Cow Clicker, it's the work of a game designer named Ian Bogost. Bogost's creations are usually more like art than entertainment, people don't typically get hooked on them. Take his most recent work, a game poem called "A Slow Year." The point of the game is to experience the seasons.

IAN BOGOST: The winter game, the sun is rising. It's dawn and you've got a cup of coffee which is slowly getting cold. And you want to kind of time your enjoyment of the cup of coffee with the amount of time that it's going to take the sun to rise. It's a first-person drinking game for the Atari.

VOGT: Bogost hates popular social networking video games – games like Farmville that clog your Facebook newsfeed with notifications about how your aunt just harvested her virtual crops or your dad put out a hit on mob boss. He decided the best way to criticize those games would be to make the dumbest one he could imagine. That was Cow Clicker, the game Cindy found. The reductio ad absurdum of Facebook games.

BOGOST: You know, a game in which all you do is click on a cow and that's it. Maybe you pay for the privilege to click on a cow.

VOGT: You click your cow. It moos. Wait six hours and you can click it again. Or, you can get virtual money, either through clicks or by spending real cash that you spend to reset the timer and immediately click again.

LEIGH ALEXANDER: People took notice. The media took notice.

VOGT: Leigh Alexander is a game journalist who's also friends with Bogost. She wrote about Cow Clicker for the website Kotaku.

ALEXANDER: He was in every gaming magazine and some non-gaming magazines regarding Cow Clicker. It was much more popular than I think he had ever predicted it would be.

VOGT: Game journalists liked Cow Clicker because they got the joke. And as more players poured in, Bogost was surprised to find himself feeling pretty proud.

BOGOST: Gleeful. I mean, when people play your game, you can't help but feel pleasure. That's what you want. And I did feel that way for some time, especially when, you know, there was a relatively even distribution of different kinds of reactions.

VOGT: The resulting buzz brought in more players. But most of them weren't in on the joke.

ALEXANDER: Somewhere along the line, his larger user base began to be people who, either they understood it was a joke and they still enjoyed it or they just didn't get it or they just didn't care. Like, people really loved their cows.

VOGT: Fifty thousand people. For many of them, Cow Clicker was just another mindless, addictive Facebook game, indistinguishable from the mindless, addictive games it was meant to parody.

BOGOST: The ironist players dropped off. What I was left with were real players who were making demands, you know, who wanted things that I wasn't giving them in the game. They wanted different cows. They wanted, like, Cowthulu.

VOGT: Wait, Cowthulu?

BOGOST: Yeah they wanted a, you know, Lovecraftian Cthulu cow - Cowthulu.

VOGT: That's the bovine equivalent of a tentacled creature named Cthulu, created by H.P. Lovecraft and beloved by geeks. Still psyched that people were into his game, Bogost gave them what they wanted.

BOGOST: You know, there was a pirate cow, a ninja cow and a cow that costs over $100. When you bought that cow, we sent a real cow to the Third World. You know, I was very eager to put more material into the game to see how people would react.

VOGT: But eventually, he got uneasy.

BOGOST: After a while I realized they're doing exactly what concerned me about these games. They're, you know, becoming compulsively attached to it. There was one point when I realized that I was now attached to in a compulsive way. I was worrying about what the cow clickers thought while I was away from the game. And that was the moment at which I both felt kind of empathy with the players. And also, I began to feel very disturbed by the product.

VOGT: He decided to sabotage the game, to tweak it, to make it more maddening, more dumb.

ALEXANDER: At one point, he just like, he took the default cow, switched it to face the other direction and charged 20 bucks for it. And people bought it.

VOGT: Bogost couldn't diminish people's love for Cow Clicker. The game generated its own fan culture.

BOGOST: Cow Clicker poetry, silkscreen printed T-shirts. There was this woman who did these sort of Cow Clicker portraits of all her Cow Clicker friends.

VOGT: Bogost decided that if he couldn't ruin Cow Clicker, he'd kill it. He got in touch with friends across the world, and had them hide clues in the real world for Cow Clicker diehards to find. Once assembled, the clues spelled out a chilling prophecy.

BOGOST: Cowpocalypse, and then there was this timer that started running. And with the timer ended, then the game would shut down. Or at least that was the implication. I never really said what would happen.

VOGT: In a final twist of perversity, Bogost designed his game-ending countdown clock to speed up whenever anyone played the game and to reset if people paid money.

BOGOST: I wanted the players to feel like they were accelerating their own demise by playing. And then be tempted to maybe purchase their way out of it. And several people, like, extended the clock at the very last minute a few times.

VOGT: When you create something, you don't get to decide how it will be received. Ian Bogost's game wasn't designed to be enjoyable, but it turned out to be possibly the most resonant game he's ever made. His take on what that might mean is actually pretty optimistic.

BOGOST: It shows us how weird and complicated simple things really are. And shows me not that like I'm some sort of brilliant designer who made this thing that was bigger than I thought it was but how resilient and creative people are. I did this thing that was Cow Clicker, and in spite of it, they rose above and sort of made it something more than it really was.

VOGT: That's one way to look at it. Here's another. You remember that countdown clock?

BOGOST: When the clock finally counted down to zero, there was a cow rapture.

VOGT: Here's how the Cowpocalypse actually transpired.

BOGOST: All the cows were whisked away. And all that was left were the little shadows where they had been standing. But the game continued to run. And, in fact, the game continues to run to this day. And there are still people clicking on the spot where a cow used to be.

VOGT: Bogost still gets messages from confused Cow Clickers. 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. For Bogost, Cow Clicker was never about fun. It was a joke. But as it turned out, the joke was on him.

I'm P.J. Vogt.

BLOCK: PJ Vogt reports for WNYC's On the Media.

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