Also read Wired Magazine's January 2012 feature on Cow Clicker
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I made a Facebook game about Facebook games, called Cow Clicker. You can go play it on Facebook now, or you can see some screenshots on on this site. Here’s the short description, from the page just linked:

Cow Clicker is a Facebook game about Facebook games. It’s partly a satire, and partly a playable theory of today’s social games, and partly an earnest example of that genre.

You get a cow. You can click on it. In six hours, you can click it again. Clicking earns you clicks. You can buy custom “premium” cows through micropayments (the Cow Clicker currency is called “mooney”), and you can buy your way out of the time delay by spending it. You can publish feed stories about clicking your cow, and you can click friends’ cow clicks in their feed stories. Cow Clicker is Facebook games distilled to their essence.

The way the game came into being is somewhat convoluted, and I want to try to explain it.

At the 2010 Game Developers Conference, a schism seemed to erupt between “traditional” game developers, who make the sorts of console and casual games we’ve come to know well, and “social” game developers, who make games for Facebook and other networks. It was a storm that had been brewing for a few years, but the massive success of Zynga’s FarmVille along with the company’s publicly malicious attitude (as David Hayward calls it, a Fuck the Users design philosophy) had made even the most apathetic of game developers suddenly keen to defend their craft as art. An unfortunate award acceptance speech from the firm (cf “that Farmville asshole”) hammered the last nail in the coffin, making this the year the year to hate social games.

The ire isn’t without rationale: these challenge-free games demand little more than clicking on farms and restaurants and cities and things at regular intervals. As I listened to some of the talks and the talk about them, a shorthand entered my brain, and I suggested the name “cow clickers” for them. It seemed like little more than a provocation, a concept that need not be further elaborated. A nod and a chuckle would do.

Most will consider Cow Clicker to be satire, and that’s true in part at least. But satire these days risks becoming mere conceptual art. The idea of the “cow clicker” arose almost involuntarily, as a playfully deprecatory name that seemed plausible enough that it might be real. The name was almost enough; surely it didn’t need to be made, I reasoned.

Then earlier this month, Jesper Juul invited me to take part in a game theory seminar he runs at NYU, which he provocatively titled Social Games on Trial. Researcher and social game developer Aki Järvinen would defend social games, and I was to speak against them.

As I prepared for the NYU seminar, I realized that theory alone might not help clarify social games—for me or for anyone in attendance. It’s nice to think that “theorist/practitioners” like myself and Aki can translate lessons from research to design and back like adept jugglers, but things are far messier, as usual. The dialectic between theory and practice often collapses into a call and response panegyric. This in mind, I thought it might be productive to make an example that would act as its own theory. It’s a strategy I’ve been calling carpentry, and which I’ll be discussing in more detail in my forthcoming book Alien Phenomenology (including this example). In the case of social games, I reasoned that enacting the principles of my concerns might help me clarify them and, furthermore, to question them. So I decided to make a game that would attempt to distill the social game genre down to its essence. Cow Clicker is the result.

After the GDC, I found myself talking frequently with the press about why everyone seemed to hate Zynga and social games (most visibly in Dan Terdiman’s April CNet article, Why Zynga ticks off the games industry). It’s easy to get publicity for being a naysayer, and admittedly I have a tendency to fill that role.

I had formulated some thoughts about why these games bothered me. Whether or not they were “really games” wasn’t the issue; I have a long history of defending all sorts of edge cases against that accusation. Nor was it the platform on which they are played; games that use friend networks as infrastructure for asynchronous, social play has long seemed promising to me. I even wrote a scholarly paper about asynchronous multiplay back in 2004 (that’s the year Facebook launched, incidentally. Some might say I was a fool not to heed my own advice when the Facebook platform was released, and perhaps they were right).

Rather, I found myself troubled by the way in which these games were games, the manner by which they seemed to magnify the dangerous aspects of games, making those aspects the only ones visible.

At NYU, I offered four ways in which social games of this ilk disturbed me:

1. Enframing
In his famous, mildly inscrutable essay on technology, Martin Heidegger defines technology not as equipment—the gadgets and machinery we usually think of when we use that word—but as the very essence of the current era. That essence, argues Heidegger, is one in which things are mere resources to be optimized. He doesn’t just have fossil fuel deposits and hedge funds in mind, but anything whatsoever that embraces the logic of “standing reserve,” of putting things to use.

Social networks in general tend to be enframing apparatuses. It’s something I wrote about near the end of Unit Operations, in fact, in the context of corporate services like LinkedIn. That service formalizes and standardizes the old idea of “business networking”—the concept that people are just the things they might do for you when you need them.

In that respect, Facebook in general and social games in particular are certainly not alone. But there’s something particularly insidious about enframing in games—taking even the contexts of interaction that don’t have to do with work, stripping them of enjoyment, and imbuing them once more with the spirit of potential use. In social games, friends aren’t really friends; they are mere resources. And not just resources for the player, but also for the game developer, who relies on insipid, “viral” aspects of a design to make a system replicate.

2. Compulsion
Today, much of digital life is compulsive. Checking email to see if something—anything—new has arrived. Refreshing blog posts to see if new comments have appeared. Consulting web traffic logs. Reloading Twitter feeds in hopes of a new mention. We’re increasingly obsessed with more and more obsessions.

Many games involve compulsion, and studies that compare the partial reinforcement techniques of slot machines and psychological manipulations to videogames stretch back to the mid-1980s. In recent years, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) frequently have been accused of doing little more than compelling players to keep playing; amounting to “brain hacks that exploit human psychology in order to make money” to use Juul’s words from the NYU event announcement. And certainly one could make a convincing case that many other sorts of games build compulsion into their design.

But, as Jesse Fuchs pointed out during the seminar, most games (even MMOs) aren’t just brain hacks that exploit human psychology in order to make money. And in the case of social games, it often seems that they exist solely for that purpose. This is a logic that dovetails well with Zynga CEO Mark Pincus’s infamous declaration, “I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away.”

3. Optionalism
Most games require some non-trivial effort to play. Challenge and effort are often cited in definitions of games, as is a tendency toward meaningful interactivity. In these cases, a game’s meaning emerges largely from the choices a player makes within a complex system of many interlocking and contingent outcomes, both user- and system-generated.

Of course, there are also games that one plays for relaxation instead of for challenge—zoning out with Solitaire or Bejeweled, for example. In both these cases, the gameplay may not entail the complexity of Go or Civilization, but the results are earnest and, at times, profound.

By contrast, the gameplay in social games is almost entirely optional. The play acts themselves are rote, usually mere actuations of operations on expired timers. And then more so, even the enacting of those rote maneuvers can be skipped, through delegation or (more often) by spending cash money on objects or actions. Social games are games you don’t have to play.

4. Destroyed Time
Many of today’s console games exert a time crush. They demand tens or even hundreds of hours of attention to complete, some or most of which often feels empty. In that respect, one could argue that many games seem to destroy time. But social games do something even more violent—they also destroy the time we spend away from them.

Compulsion explains the feeling of struggling to return to something in spite of ourselves. Its flipside involves the disrespect of time that we might otherwise spend doing more valuable things—or even just pondering the thoughtful and unexpected ideas that an asynchronous game might raise. Social games so covet our time that they abuse us while we are away from them, through obligation, worry, and dread over missed opportunities.

The compulsive destruction of time in social games does not merely affect players, but also developers. As we are so often reminded, these games are “not products but services.” They are ongoing, never-ending affairs that must extract time and money from players in the most efficient way possible. Developers are told to “listen to their players” and to enact quantitative design regimens to insure that players get exactly what they want—even if they do not know they want it. Just like playing one, running a game as a service is a prison one may never escape.

It’s one thing to express a distaste for social games, to consider them bad art and to opt out of them. But one also cannot ignore their popularity entirely, nor leave it to the mere whims of personal taste. In addition to being bad art, social games are also troubling specimens of human tragedy. For one part, they threaten us with the negative future of games. But for another part, they also act as a talisman that might help us see our future perceptions of the present. What will we have thought of ourselves?

In cinema and theater, we often hear about method acting, a technique by which actors try to create the situations, emotions, and thoughts of their characters in themselves in order to better portray them. In creating Cow Clicker, I rather felt that I was partaking of method design, embracing the spirit and values and ideals of the social game developer as I toed the lines between theory, satire, and earnestness. The Internet is paralyzing because it contains so much potential information. Even over the few days I spent developing Cow Clicker, I found myself watching people play, listening to feedback, and imagining changes. I “listened to my players” and made enhancements far beyond what was reasonable for a work of carpentry or a simple parody. It’s hard for me to express the compulsion and self-loathing that have accompanied the apparently trivial creation of this little theory-cum-parody game. Have I fully represented the distillation I hoped to accomplish? Or is some feature missing? And ought I not to add it if so? Where’s the vampire cow or the werewolf cow or the cthulhu cow? Ought I not to make them? Perhaps I became consumed myself. Such is the spirit of the day, it would seem: mundane, outward obsession whose worst trick is to disguise itself as fruitfulness.

published July 21, 2010

Comments

  1. Jonathan Whiting

    There is so much to ‘Like!’ here, but I think my favorite bit is that by playing it you become a part of the satire, but also a victim of it.

    Six hours to go…

    Reply
  2. Robert Jackson

    Ian,

    Out of your four main criticisms, I’d argue that compulsion resonates more within contributing to the success of social games. In many ways, it seems to me that compulsion bolsters your other 3 criticisms.

    Your general concern reminds me of Jodi Dean’s recent essay The Real Internet. Using all manner of ‘cutting edge’ Zizekian/Lacanian/Marxism, she comes to (almost) the same conclusion as you, but links it to the psychoanalytical (human or unhuman, not sure) ‘drive’ of compulsion. Humans gain purposeful enjoyment from endlessly posting, clicking, checking and updating everything at every conceivable moment, searching for (and repeatedly missing) the non-existent object. “Old media delivers, new media circulates”. Kittlers in there, Hansens in there, every sentence is constructed to keep human subjectivity in focus.

    Like most Zizekian-scholar’s commentary on media, Dean attempts to find subjectivity within the closed loop of communicative capitalism exchange; but it’s interested to see the same results from totally different contexts here. “Troubling specimens of human tragedy” on one side and “the unbearable truth of subjectivity” on the other.

    Mild rant aside, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the alternatives to compulsion in social networking.

    Reply
  3. Ian Bogost

    @Robert

    Thanks for the link. The article was pretty good, even if it seemed a long way around (as is usually the case when Lacan is involved). Her critique of Hansen makes a lot of sense to me, but it’s also a little unfair: much of these new trends are very new, even if they had their roots back in the era when he wrote his book.

    As for alternatives to compulsion, I suppose Heidegger would say that the problem is not social networking but enframing as such. He might recommend reflection and patience, but how do we break free enough even to attempt those things? I don’t know. I find myself just as trapped in them as anyone.

    Reply
  4. Robert Jackson

    Ian,

    It’s very interesting you bring Heidegger’s criticism of technology up, as my next paper attempts to (sort of) align a contemporary “reframing” of it in relation to Wolfgang Sutzl’s work on media and security (which is heavily reliant on enframing).

    I should have called it the “reframing of enframing”. I’ll bank that one.

    I won’t clog your blog up with a detailed summary; needless to say, its based on Harman’s reading that Heidegger fundamentally misunderstood the connections between absence / presence and non-relation/ relation. Whilst this leads to Harman’s conclusions of independent objects, this also has an impact on the work that follows Heidegger’s views on metaphysics and technology.

    Reply
  5. Ian Bogost

    Sounds like a promising approach, Robert. I know it’s not productive to get bogged down in words, but I’ve always thought that the inscrutability of “enframing” (among so many others, but this essay must be among his most widely read works) has really made Heidegger hard to swallow for folks. So a reframing is clearly in order. Although, I guess, Heidegger would have considered Lakoff’s idea of reframing to be enframing wouldn’t he have?

    Reply
  6. Mark N.

    The idea of “breaking free” seems to require some notion of what we’re breaking free of and into. I wouldn’t say I’m any sort of Heidegger expert, but what I’ve read of and about him seems to suggest he had a pretty Romantic-nostalgist view of such things, hearkening back to a supposedly more genuine past when eagles soared and Hölderlin’s poems were reality, before modern technology steamrollered everything. But surely you don’t have in mind a “breaking free” as boring/nostalgic as, say, the primitivist anarchists do?

    Reply
  7. Ian Bogost

    @Mark

    Heidegger is often accused of nostalgic agrarianism, true. But I don’t think one has to take that end as a given to still take seriously the idea that careful attention and patience and reflection are probably not bad ideas. It just happens that those activities are easier to do on a walk in a meadow (or a pasture even), which is maybe why the two are so closely aligned. I suppose one approach to a new theory of pondering that doesn’t devolve into nostalgia.

    Reply
  8. Victor Finch

    I’ve never really thought about it before, but the description of the actuations and operations of expired timers as the chief mechanic reminds me of sweating collapsing workmen at the machines in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

    Someone should make a social game based on Metropolis and see if people would play it. No progression, just endless grind to a pitiless schedule.

    If it offered reward points for other games, it could prove alarmingly popular. Maybe this is the way to bring back the work ethic!

    Reply
  9. Alan Au

    Ian, thanks for this. It reminded me of a conversation I had with some friends about “meaningless games” about ten years ago while hanging out at GDC.

    Basically, we came up with a design for a clicking-game, where each click generated a score. A random score. Except that these random scores were posted on an ordered leaderboard. I think one of my buddies even went so far as to implement it, mostly as coding practice. Unsurprisingly, people were happy to click multiple times in pursuit of a number high enough to warrant a spot on the publicly displayed list.

    Reply
  10. Ian Bogost

    @Alan

    Sigh. We people have such strange weaknesses.

    Reply
  11. Nick Overdijk

    I can’t compete with the level of the other comments, but SMBC made a pretty funny movie about the err.. “social gamers” ;-)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cD69PAIqiYo

    Now, I’m to click the COW. Just out of curiosity.

    Reply
  12. Gabriel Murphy

    Hello Ian. That was an interesting read, but you seem to have missed the main reason why social games are popular: It’s the fact that players can be creative when they are playing them. Compulsion only goes so far; what keeps people interested in Farmville (and similar games) is the fact that your farm is a blank canvas where you can “paint” something unique, give your friends a good laugh, and then try something different. Cow Clicker has the mechanics down, but not the essence.

    I will gladly participate in your little experiment however, and make sure that many of my friends do too, mainly because what fascinates me is the fact that the more money you make from this, the more depressed you are going to feel. I like that, I think it’s funny.

    P.S: Game developers who value the “artistic” aspect of their games more than the fun aspect annoy me to no end. I think they pose a much bigger threat to the industry than social game developers.

    Reply
  13. JM

    Hmm, this strikes me as elitist snobbery, and makes me very upset. Let me tell you why in more detail…

    Generally, I think “game developers” don’t like Social games because such games are populist and modestly simple, whereas “game developers” consider themselves to be Artists who are trying to create Very Important Things that the players ought to want if they knew what was good for them. I also think there’s a little grudge against commercial success in there too.

    For years, the Game Industry (I will substitute “you”) has steadily built a dogmatic reverence for the dirt poor indie game developer, that earnest visionary struggling through economic adversity to get his art out. All I can say is, “Blech.” Have you waded through the crap on Kongregate? Dreck and drivel. The dream is not true. Indie’s suck. They didn’t deliver.

    Meanwhile, you deny the evidence that’s right in front of your eyes. You rationalize away Zynga’s MAUs and the free market’s choice of light, fast, simple games as some kind of psychological trickery because, with all the preaching about indie devs and how they’re going to revolutionize gaming, it’s hard to swallow that they didn’t. It’s hard to swallow that, instead of your little proteges and named successors, it was a for-profit commercial enterprise that became instantly successful because it saw what you didn’t see: it’s about the players. It’s about what they want, not what you want to tell them. It’s about their interests, their friends, and the amount of time they want to play. Not your industry, and the little Horatio Alger stories you’d like to see happen amongst yourselves. You bet on indies, and you lost, and now you’re using your entrenched position to try to insist on a different outcome.

    But frankly, it had to happen like this. The little indie guys produce overwrought complex nightmares or mindless masturbatory games. Then they graduate and join the big established guys. And what do the established guys make? What has the industry-proper created for the last 10+ years? Are you really going to hold up Grand Theft Auto and say that it’s better for players than FarmVille? Your products are so bad for civilization that you pay PR firms and lobbyists to defend their existence. I mean, 90% of the shelfspace at your neighborhood GameStop glorifies and revels in the BASEST HUMAN IMPULSES of fear and violence. Puzzle solving, my ass. Challenging effort, bullshit. Those are grandiose rationalizations of your bloody T&A gore fests.

    Thank the gods in all their pantheons that FarmVille came along. As a human, I’d MUCH rather push a happy button for 3 minutes (and then get on with my day), than mash controller buttons in noisy, heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping fear for 3 hours. FarmVille uses psychological tricks to keep me participating in a make believe world. Okay. But I say that’s better than the shell game that AAA titles have been doing for years: occupying the hardcore gamer’s objective logical mind with tiny puzzles and tactical decisions just enough that it doesn’t realize it’s participating in horrific acts of inhumanity that would make your grandmother weep tears of sadness about the kind of person you turned into.

    Don’t you see? You think you’re so smart, you game developers. Do you know what the rest of the world calls you? LOSERS. FAILURES. Stunted, immature, unhealthy, irresponsible rejects from society. Oh, there are plenty of niches open to people like you. You can make video games. You can make rap music. You can pimp people’s rides. You can open a tattoo parlour. You can run a strip club. But you’re just kinda… you know… ALL LOSERS. You’re all in the same category. You’re not helping us. Normal, sane, responsible people just… look the other way and try not to notice you. You’re all lumped together as peddlars of evil, best to be avoided. I mean, I’m one of the least religious people around, but I have to cringe when I see what my industry makes. I have to agree with the grandmas out there.

    And what’s with all these hang-ups about “is it a game?” Who cares? That’s just a word. A word that the industry doesn’t get to define anyway: the world does. The world will decide what’s a game and what’s not, and they’re a lot less precise and more forgiving. Pretty much anything you can “play” that calls itself a game is going to count. In the meantime, have you bothered to ask whether Zynga games are fun for anyone? And if so, what might be fun about them? And how are people playing with them? Or does the player’s reaction not matter, as long as your product achieves the epitome of theoretical idea you have defined for yourself?

    I mean, Optionalism? That may get your papers published, but it’s not a golden ticket to making a player happy. You are upset with Mafia Wars because you just click a button to see the next step of progress, and therefore it doesn’t meet with your definition of game. So? Is it fun? Do people get to play it? Do *they* think it’s a game? Maybe you would feel better if we called Mafia Wars a book. Would that offend you less? In books, there’s precedent for just clicking to turn the page and see more of the story. There’s precedent for choose your own ending. There’s precedent for publishing books in a series and letting the reader pick which one is next. That seems safe. Would calling it a book make it a less “troubling specimen of human tragedy”?

    Ok, stop. New tack. Ever watch an old B&W Scandinavian arthouse film? Like Bergman? Man, there’s some good technical expertise in there. And the avant garde thinks it’s just the tops — such brooding, such angst, such tragic portrayal of the human condition. Film students should be sure to study them. But to the rest of us? It’s crap. And that’s what all-games-until-now have been to the rest of the world. Wear your berets and sip your espresso and bemoan the common man’s sensibilities, but the world outnumbers you, and they will have what they want.

    FarmVille is FUN because you get to have a FARM. People — every day normal regular people — actually LIKE the idea of having a farm. It’s part of our agrarian heritage. It’s comforting. It’s heartwarming. It’s a nice little dream. And FarmVille lets you do it. And decorate it. Again and again. With novel items and special events every day. And obvious signs of progress. And they take all the other UNPLEASANT stuff out of the way — you know, all the crap that SERIOUS GAME DESIGNERS always try to add, like a fluctuating economy, tycoon aspirations, weather patterns, diseases, crop rotation, cross breeding, etc. Why do I want that? I just wanted to pretend to have a farm for a little while. Sheesh. If you’re going to make it hard, I’ll just quit. But no, FarmVille doesn’t do that. In fact, FarmVille does something that could actually make an interactive farming screensaver better… They give me neighbors WHOM I KNOW, and who are also farming. Fantastic. I love this game. People love this game. I can only conclude that game developers are not people. They are some kind of degenerate species that fails to appreciate the wholesome, good, happy things around them. Or at least, they’re so caught up in solving brainy obscure virtual dilemmas that they don’t know a good thing when they see it.

    Another tack. Do you think, I mean, do you really really think that the entire world should play the board game Puerto Rico instead of Battleship? That they should play Magic the Gathering instead of Spades? OF COURSE NOT. Regular people with full lives and diverse responsibilities don’t have time for that crap. Similarly, OF COURSE FarmVille is more popular than the obscure, niche, demanding, unappealing crap that “the game industry” keeps pushing out. Even casual games are pushing 10 hours of game play. Who wants to give up 10 hours of their life? Who wants to download and consume such an enormous mouthful? What kind of boa constrictor mentality even attempts such a feat? Losers, dropouts, the unemployed, and gamers.

    FarmVille delivers tiny slices of pleasure. What you think of as an odious compulsion to return, players think of as a respite, a brief retreat from the rest of their day. It’s a chance make a few changes, earn a few coins, make a little progress. It’s welcome. And it’s easy. And it’s short. But perhaps you think the player’s sense of accomplishment is unjustified because it wasn’t hard enough for you. Geez. What are you, the Marquis de Sade?

    I understand that the decisions in FarmVille are of little consequence. Would you feel better if we all agreed to call FarmVille a “toy” instead? Would that make its existence okay? I just think that arguments like yours are choking the medium, bogging it down with arbitrary definitions that do not lead to better products. You’re doing to games what previous generations did to Comics, trying to lock them into some pubescent idealized rigid form. To my mind, Zynga has FINALLY broken through the next-to-last barrier, reaching a larger audience than any computer game before. When was the last time this happened? Pac-man? Tetris? We should be celebrating! The only barrier left is ALL OF HUMANITY playing computer games. But instead, you’re pissed, because it wasn’t the right comic book artist. They didn’t draw it the right way. They didn’t have a serious enough message for you. It was about farm animals instead of gritty superheroes.

    Well, prove that you’re right, and that your theories are more than just talk, by making a BETTER game that’s MORE successful on Facebook. Do something that grabs the attention of the entire world. Because there’s room. FarmVille could certainly be better.

    But just a tip… your cow game isn’t the way to do it. I know this is obvious, but it underscores a point that seems lost on all the haters. Your cow game is dumb because: who wants to click on a cow? I mean, if you were drunk and lonely out on some Nebraskan prairie, I can see cow tipping. But clicking? Why? You got the “make it easy” part right. But only a foolish game designer would make a game about something that no one is interested in doing.

    The best Facebook games today are doing what establishment games (aside from, say, The Sims) have failed to do for years: let people play out the fantasy lives they’ve always longed to experience, unencumbered by hard-to-understand UI, obscure controllers, and ridiculous amounts of simulated detail. Plus, they can do it with their friends.

    Why are you trying to make them do more?

    – Jason

    Reply
  14. william

    You’re so creative,

    with your reviews,

    of what other people do.

    How satisfying that must be for you.

    Stop being a game critic and go try to make a game as big as farmville or stfu. Your about section makes it obvious that you have this condescending attitude toward the rest of the world. People love farmville but could give a shit about any game you’ve ever made. I know that hurts you and it helps to vent in a blog post like this but you should really consider doing something with your life instead of putting down others.

    Reply
  15. Kathleen

    I like Farmville because I get to build stuff instead of competing with everyone or killing people/things. Farmville is not perfect. Neither am I. I have taken a break from Farmville now and then. I come back to it, tho, because the design and build opportunities appeal to me.

    What I would like to see is more constructive and cooperative games. Games where people work together to do things. This planet of ours, for example is not gonna get better without people doing that. I would love to see a game inspire people to do constructive things with the rest of their lives. And yes, it should be fun, too!

    Reply
  16. WP

    Your argument might be a lot more convincing if more than a few dozen people played Cow Clicker. It actually kind of works against you if you think about it – Cow Clicker is a shitty game. And people just don’t play shitty games, no matter how many clever psychological tricks you might ironically parody.

    Reply
  17. Twilight

    To Ian: You may be interested in looking at this vaguely satirical game made on another site as well.

    http://www.walfas.org/?p=1133

    From what I can recall, he wasn’t aiming at creating something as introspective as yours, but I feel there’s a parallel between your work and his. The sections on Compulsion, Optionalism, and even Destroyed Time really brought to mind this “game” which lacks any significant game component.

    It does lack the social aspect, but the idea of (largely) self-playing games is reflected in here with just enough interaction and a seemingly achievable goal to draw people in for the long term. In that same way, social games have highly predictable timers (6 hour cow clicks) with enough visible “progression” as to allow you to fool yourself into thinking you’re doing something. Combined with the fact you could tell how much time you’ve spent on it, you’d feel you didn’t want to quit it. Unfortunately, with games with set timers, people’s ideas of time spent becomes warped. If I’d spent 1 second to click a cow, and I’ve clicked it 10 times, I’ve, in fact, only wasted 10 seconds. But if you factor in the 6 hours timer, Oh no! I’ve spent 60 hours! Why would I possibly quit this with that much time spent!?

    The idea of time invested gets really really strange here.

    On the more extreme end of the non-game game spectrum is the game Progress Quest. ( http://progressquest.com/ ) Personally I found that game to have the potential to draw me in, but I abandoned it before I hit the point where I’d be opening it up on startup. If there had been something to press to feel as if I’d actually put something into this,

    Reply
  18. Montgomery Rodriguez-Smythe III

    You sir have made some very valid and accurate observations about the wasteland of games in the social-networking arena… I would send you a “friend request” but I believe I got the point of your article.

    Reply
  19. Mary

    Nicely done! How long did this take you to make, out of curiosity? I have been curious about what goes into making Facebook games…

    Reply
  20. Robert Jackson

    @JM

    Ian’s argument is not about elitism vs. populism or indie vs. mainstream, this is about the importance of expression in gaming. According to pigeon-holers (I will substitute “you” here, because I can be as rhetorically childish as you are), games are either a childish escape from the mundane; i.e. they are insular, technical and appeal to no-hopers, or failing this games can offer free, tiny slices of social pleasure in our day to day lives. If you’ve lumped Ian in with the first then you know nothing. Oh.. and if you think games aren’t capable of expressing a serious message, go on XBLA and download ‘Limbo’, which was released yesterday, you’ll be astounded.

    No ones asking for Farmville to be banned or anything, Ian’s just asking questions and criticising about what kind of experience popular social games offer, he’s entitled to do so (its his blog!). Some social games are extremely capable of expression (enter Jason Rohrer) According to you games shouldn’t provide ideas or arguments, nor should they difficult, unluckily for you this argument will dead in the water faster than you can earn your incentivised achievements.

    @william

    A successful game does mean its good one. Learn from the film industry

    @Kathleen

    I agree, games should get people to work together and do constructive things for the rest of their lives. But you really think this is satisfied by spending time, money and effort on farms that delivers zero incentive other than mandatory achievements?

    @WP

    “It actually kind of works against you if you think about it – Cow Clicker is a shitty game” Well done, you are knocking on an open door.

    Reply
  21. Robert Jackson

    Typo alert!

    @william

    A successful game does NOT mean its good one. Learn from the film industry

    Sorry my bad.

    Reply
  22. Cellar

    I like this. Not because I like social games, or the whole “social” thing, or because I particularly like satire. It shows something about ourselves that many of us already knew on some level –the business of compulsion is called marketing– but perhaps we’re now able to make a science of it, not just how to compel more, but also how to figure out how it works, and so to give ourselves ways to not be manipulated that easily. And maybe even, as humans, grow.

    Reply
  23. Ben

    OK the reason I play Mafia Wars

    - I haven’t spent any money on it

    - I can still acheive the same outcomes as people who have spent money on it.

    This gives me some value for free + it only takes 10 mins to do everything then leave it for another day.

    Reply
  24. Richard

    How do you earn mooney? Or do I have to play it to find out?

    Reply
  25. jeff kaiser

    Could somebody click on my cow??? I want a holstine but it’s to expensive.. thanks!

    Reply
  26. Morfar

    Thats just a tad beyond awesome, I hope there is a way to hide its messages like I can with the other “games”.

    Reply
  27. Zeke Zeker

    Brian Reynolds at the DICE conference specifically stated that the reason you have to click 600 times to play a session of Farmville – when the game could instead respect my time by having me click 2 times, with a “Harvest All” and “Replant All” button – is that, just as with slot machines, players gain a false sense of investment by clicking 600 times. If they stop playing the next day, there is a sense they’ve thrown away the time they spent clicking 600 times the previous day, and humans are averse to this.

    By the way, the app seems down for me right now. Has Facebook removed it?

    Reply
  28. k

    @Robert, you missed the point of JM’s delicious screed.

    People do games because they enjoy themselves using them. FarmVille found a way for a shockingly, mountainously large group of people to enjoy themselves. You and Ian have found the ability to do that for only a (comparative) anthill of people.

    On the one hand, I have never enjoyed console(-style) games. I’ve tried bunches of them. I’ve been cajoled and pressured into playing them. But I am one of those who never walks away from one with the sense that it is something I ought to do again (and again and again).

    On the other hand… Well, the other hand is complicated, because it’s got 2 sides of its own. The 1st is: I don’t like FarmVille, either, even though there are people in my own household pressuring me to start taking part in it. I won’t, because it’s another type of game I don’t enjoy. But the 2nd-of-2nd sides is: I *UNDERSTAND* why FarmVille is popular. Not in the crude and calculated psychoanalytical sense that Ian displays by deconstructing compulsion, but in the semantic sense, that I can look at FarmVille and *I can see why people play it* even though I am not one of those people.

    I look at Grand Theft Auto, and at the people who play it, and I wonder what happened to civilization. Grandma is exactly right, and JM is exactly right in pointing out Grandma’s perspective. What kind of people ARE such players? Would I want them to visit my home? Would I want them to patronize my small business? Probably not, on both counts. Oh, I’ll take their money, but as soon as I find out they’re GTA fans, the relationship will bump into the wall of a pure business attitude, they want my product and I want their money, but they will never be invited out for a beer after closing.

    No, it isn’t true that hard equals commercial failure, nor that easy equals commercial success. You have again missed the mark by trying to critique JM in that way. That you try and fail to do so is indicative of the fact that you managed to miss his point, which was obvious to people like me. The point is that you couldn’t go a whole paragraph without walking up to the edge of ranting about the ability to “express a serious message”…which is right back to the artsy fartsy Bergmann-esque perspective that JM correctly realizes is not what makes a film (or a game) fun. Of course you began your miscegenated critique of JM by claiming (correctly) that Ian’s whole point is about expression, thus putting you firmly in the largely failed camp of Ian anyway, so none of us should be especially surprised. PLEASE get a clue: Your ever-so-serious “message” that you are trying to encapsulate (dare I say it? aww, sure I do: “enframe”) in your games is of precisely and exactly zero interest to us.

    Was Monopoly ever intended to express a serious message? No. Its ground rules are too far removed from reality, having only passing, surface-level resemblance to real commerce. Does Sorry have a message? Not unless you’re trying to interpolate the moral decay of society into a yellow character hitting a slide…which would actually be funny, but still wrong. Is even Chess giving us a serious message? A lot of people might think so, but they’re wrong. Chess is about training your mind for strategy, but it sends no appreciable message, social or otherwise.

    Whether there’s psychological trickery involved in getting people to play FarmVille and Mafia Wars — and there surely is — the important point is that huge numbers of people play it just because it is [a] accessible and [b] fun. Nothing more. Most game players need nothing more, unless they’re game-coder wannabes intent on their own “message.” Being a dick in your repeated insistence on “message” shines a huge glaring light on your sense of self-importance. I’m sorry to break the news, but neither you nor your medium are important to the players.

    Reply
  29. Eric

    I think what you learned here is that the brain is psychologically wired to perform for rewards, and theory, encapsulation, sarcasm, and parody don’t matter at the end of the day.

    All that matters is that you completed a goal.

    So good job, I would note now that poe’s law has an insidious inverse to perception.

    Not only can we not, at extremes, tell the difference between parody and earnestness; We cannot stop our brains from perceiving and being affected towards behaviors that stem from parody and earnestness.

    In other words, the sky is blue because it is and we say it is, and we hear others speak of it as such.

    Reply
  30. brian

    this was a great read; someone sent it on to me and i was expecting something else but was pleasantly surprised at the contents w/in.

    i’m working w/ a team of people to create social games that will mitigate/avoid the 4 problems therein; in fact that’s the entire reason the company was created. game design as it rises in prominence and becomes its own discipline (akin to graphic design or fashion design) needs to be steered in the right direction, and must be socially responsible (and not just psychological traps).

    well done and kudos to your experiment. we’ll see how everything plays out in a few years in the social game industry..

    Reply
  31. Robert Jackson

    @k – (thanks for commenting by signing yourself off with a consonant, like an expert archetypal troll)

    1.) Just because Farmville has lots of gamers enjoying themselves by playing it does not make it instantly “non-critiquable”. I also quote *UNDERSTAND* why it is popular, I just think there are other ways of creating games which don’t pander to the continued themes of ‘achievement’ / buy stuff to skip achievements / get more socially respected achievements.

    2.) I never mentioned easy/hard games in relation to commercial success, I didn’t even allude to accessibility/insular games in relation to commercial success, I (and Ian) merely questioned the value of enjoyment in games. If all other media defined itself by the markers ‘accessible’ and ‘fun’, like you think games should be, then we’d have a sorry state of affairs.

    3.) Your continued ignorance of Ian using philosophical ‘arts fartsy’ theory to explain his arguments harbours no justification, other than as some odd anti-elitist strategy; which it isn’t. No ones asking you to read philosophical disclaimers before you comment; no ones even asking you to comment. If I’m in the largely failed camp of Ian, which is of “zero interest to you” then don’t troll on his blog.

    4) Does it even matter if Monopoly, Sorry and Chess express a serious message? Just because its history says otherwise does not stop us from speculating. In fact this one point highlights the whole argument; we think there is a message in social games like Farmville and its a particularly insidious one, you on the other hand think not. ( and no we’re not expecting you to be enlightened by it, just accept that we have difference of opinion).

    Reply
  32. Leigh

    JM: “Indie’s suck” has to be pretty much the most blanket-ignorant thing I’ve ever heard anyone say.

    Yeah, because the game industry doesn’t need Braid or Limbo or World of Goo or PixelJunk or anything like that. Those have totally failed. It should be absolutely obvious that the fact hobbyist flash titles on Kongregate don’t make money or you don’t enjoy them does not equate to a failure of independent game development or the absence of a significant and important ecosystem alongside the traditional commercial industry.

    Nor does it indicate that a rejection of commercialism in favor of the development of new ideas is worthless because there are areas that lack economic support.

    What kind of “change” do you need to see for “indie’s” not to “suck?” Why is it “snobbery” to focus on unexplored areas of design rather than to hand people the same lazy shit over and over again? Why is it “elitist” to question why “mass market” seems to equal “utterly lacking in depth?” The goal to bring better and more inventive things to more people is actually pretty populist, if you ask me

    Anyway, it’s all a moot point because Cow Clicker isn’t an indictment of mass entertainment or even commercialism. It’s an examination of what people are making to serve these new audiences, and it raises interesting questions about entertainment that is metrics-driven and not user driven.

    Stats prove it — your average FarmVille player gets sick of it and stops playing in about 2 months. All but the top FB games are seeing enormous attrition. You’ve got enough data to entice venture capitalists and to spend a year on the conference lecture circuit, but you haven’t got enough content to continue challenging, entertaining and engaging your audience. What are you going to do when that bubble bursts? Or do you not care, because you’re just gonna strap on your Silicon Valley man-sandals and crank up a new start-up in whatever field is The Next Big Thing?

    All those who have precious investment on the line from the latest forty and fifty-somethings they were able to fool into thinking they are The Next Big Thing fly into an inexplicable rage whenever anybody so much suggests that social gaming in its current incarnation is anything other than the ultimate be-all and end-all that will cannibalize independent design and the traditional console industry alike, leaving nothing behind. It’s really very bizarre — it’s almost like these people know they’re completely full of shit or something.

    Reply
  33. Baxil

    What I find most interesting about JM’s extended rant against gamers of all stripes is his very telling Freudian slip in the middle:

    > I’m one of the least religious people around, but I have to cringe when I see what my industry makes.

    So – thanks for popping out from your Zynga corner office to deliver your words of wisdom, JM. (By the way, you might want to buy some more straw men while you’re out here enjoying the sunlight. You seem to have used most of your backstock.)

    Reply
  34. 300baud

    I loved both the original post and JM’s screed. Hooray for serious discussion! However, I’m suspicious of one of JM’s central assumptions: that Farmville is fun. Is it?

    Sure, people play it. But that doesn’t tell you anything. Go to any second-rate casino and watch the retirees play the one-armed bandits. As they sit with their cigarettes and/or oxygen tanks, watch them. Watch them as they consume their dwindling supply of hours burning a diminishing supply of quarters. Are they having fun?

    I’d say no. They exhibit none of the human signals of fun. They are not smiling and laughing. They don’t have a twinkle in their eye. They don’t say, “Hey, this is great! You should try it!” You can only call that fun by definitional tricks, where you note that nobody has a gun to their head, and it’s not work, ergo it’s leisure, ergo it must be fun. But it’s not fun. it’s compulsive gambling. It’s an addiction.

    Some will object, “Just ask them!” And yes, when you say, “Why are you spending so much time and money on this thing, money you might not even have?”, gamblers might say, “Well, it’s fun.” That also doesn’t tell you much. If you ask an alcoholic why they’re headed out drinking, they might tell you that’s fun, too. And surely it started that way. Ask a recovering alcoholic, though, and they’ll tell you that’s the addiction talking. Addicted people justify their addictions, and “for the fun of it” is a perfectly fine justification.

    So can anybody demonstrate that these games are fun? Not just initially, but over the long term?

    Reply
  35. anon

    Two points:

    1) If FarmVille were fun I would be very happy with their success. I love Bejewelled, Peggle, etc, as well as iPhone hits like Pocket God, Flight Control and Doodle Jump. Fun, accessible games are something to be proud of.

    However, when I ask FarmVille players why they keep playing, it’s always something along the lines of, “it’s just there, it’s not interesting or fun, but it kills time.” That makes me sad. Worse still is the old MMO explanation: “I’ve put so much time into FarmVille that I can’t stop playing now.”

    All games involve a bit of “psychological trickery.” My issue with FarmVille is it’s just psychological trickery and nothing more.

    Look up Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon to see what FarmVille done right is. Compulsive, yes, but also fun.

    2) This is incredibly narrow-minded:

    > but as soon as I find

    > out they’re GTA fans, the relationship will bump

    > into the wall of a pure business attitude, they

    > want my product and I want their money, but they

    > will never be invited out for a beer after

    > closing.

    What about people who watch those awful reality TV shows? You know, the ones where the audiences entertainment is at the expense of REAL peoples misery? Isn’t that a worse offense than playing some fantasy game?

    Reply
  36. Jesse Fuchs

    My chief complaint against Farmville and the LCD social games is simple, and has little to do with aesthetics: their entire business model is predicated on fishing for that tiny sliver of a demographic sweet spot between “not enough OCD to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on an intentionally interminable system of rewards” and “too much OCD to be legally allowed near an Internet terminal.” As far as Zynga’s concerned, 99.9% of their players are (excluding their viral instrumentalization of their friends, of course), pure free-riding, loss-leading cruft, there for essentially the same reason that the other 31,500 people receive letters in this equally clever, and equally ethical, fishing expedition:

    http://www.math.temple.edu/~paulos/scam.html

    This is not to say that plenty of people aren’t having quote unquote real fun with these games–a meaningless game mechanic hook is no less a valid source of pleasure that a meaningless pop chorus hook, and I’ve had my reptile brain stroked by far too many of those–some even composed by Jim Steinman– to stand in aesthetic judgment of anyone.

    It’s also important to remember that somebody playing Farmville (or whatnot) isn’t necessarily _only_ playing Farmville–I have a few iPhone games that I pretty much only play while I’m listening to a podcast on the subway and need some virtual worry beads. And at this point, their “secondhand smoke” factor has been greatly reduced by Facebook’s adding of ability to block particular apps, so if people want to play a game that I think is bad, well, de gustas and all that. And certainly there’s enormous potential for these sorts of game mechanics to be used in interesting and ethically coherent ways: I have various beefs with Area Code’s new social game Power Planets, but what it gets right it gets really right, and certainly it demonstrates the potential of these games to do something more than genetically engineer sleeker, more addictive Candyland/dollhouse hybrids. But social game developers should not kid themselves: if your business model would be destroyed by a breakthrough in SSRIs, you are probably not in a line of work you want to brag about to Mom.

    Reply
  37. Kiri

    Farmville is fun? Oh really? Then why do I feel put-upon and annoyed and like all anyone wants is for me to clean up their shit when I see all the Farmville crap on my News Feed. People on my friendslist have learned that if they pester me to adopt their stupid sheep, clean up their dirty green patch or join their sorority I will remove them from my list, because even though you can block fucking Farmville, you can’t block them all–as soon as you have six of these disgusting Zynga games blocked, sixteen more pop up, and you’re beset with requests to go work on the farms of people you friended because you wanted to keep in touch with their lives and talk to them once in a while.

    I work all day for other people. The last thing I want is to get on facebook and have to go hoe your little green patch. These games are annoying as shit. And Jason…go cry moar.

    Reply
  38. Ryan

    Very interesting observations.

    Is the making of a social game a social game in itself? The last few parts of your discussion, about how you were “listening to the users” suggests that it’s as much a game for the developer as it is for the players. Really, Cow Clicker seems to be a game about the developer playing with the users.

    Reply
  39. Robert Jackson

    @Ryan

    “Really, Cow Clicker seems to be a game about the developer playing with the users.”

    I agree completely. So much for the promised ‘Prosumer’ Web 2.0 model of pure distribution.

    Reply
  40. Zodi

    Brilliant article. I needed a little break from the Facebook games that have sucked me in.

    I play most of the games for research so that I can provide tips for my site visitors but must admit that some of them caught me.

    Now, should I add cow licking to my daily list of must do’s?

    Reply
  41. Aspelund

    I definitely agree with you that todays social games is highly addictive and makes use of “human exploits”. But I still want to defend Farmville to a certain degree.

    I find that games like it is the MacDonald of games, least denominator, and I have actually played it “with” both siblings and colleagues that I like but with whom I don’t have very much in common, and seen a stronger bond to them as a result.

    Also, I think that games like Farmville are great examples of how interfaces for less interesting professional tasks should be created – we know the exploits, so why not just use them for good causes?

    Anyway, great post. I like it that you talk about both slot machines and civilization, since that is similarities that I’ve been thinking about too.

    Reply
  42. David Carlton

    Interesting experiment; your doing this puts you head and shoulders above most Facebook game critics.

    If you want to carry the experiment further, I think the next step would be to add a few new features with A/B tests in place, and to either remove each feature or push it to 100% depending on whether the test group did better or worse on the metrics that you’re interested in. (C.f. Brenda Brathwaite’s comment on a GDC panel that A/B testing in social games turns game development itself into a game.)

    Reply
  43. kelargo

    “As for alternatives to compulsion, I suppose Heidegger would say that the problem is not social networking but enframing as such. He might recommend reflection and patience, but how do we break free enough even to attempt those things? I don’t know. I find myself just as trapped in them as anyone.”

    We hypostasize information into objects. Rearrangement of objects is change in the content of the information; the message has changed. This is a language which we have lost the ability to read. We ourselves are a part of this language; changes in us are changes in the content of the information. We ourselves are information-rich; information enters us, is processed and is then projected outwards once more, now in an altered form. We are not aware that we are doing this, that in fact this is all we are doing.

    Philip_K._Dick

    Reply
  44. kelargo

    somehow this fits in… from my observing people playing these “social games”..

    http://www.urbanmonk.net/562/break-your-rewards-for-suffering/

    Reply
  45. David Rylance

    Ian:

    The cow clicker has been really remarkable in two ways: not only in illustrating the kind of tricky and irking apparatus of social games, but also at elaborating exactly what you mean about the need to make things not just diagrammatic (i.e. scientistic experimentation) but as objects of elucidation, even, that kind of exude theory, rather than simply explain it. It suddenly struck me how useful a method like this might be for treating real bio-psychological problems like alcoholism or gambling, if you could find the right method design, because the force of the result is profound. In effect, it destandardizes interest: you’re left disinterested in social gaming, sort of, or maybe better more interested in what the analysis of it has shown you than the practice itself. In that regard, I was thinking: in terms of prose, carpentry might actually be a good way to describe Harman’s interest in philosophical parody, too. But what I found especially fascinating is your final remarks as to the compulsive qualities of finessing a thing like this, perfecting it, one-upping it and so on, meaning that carpentry itself could have an unusual anti-fruitful busyness about it. Like, the cthulu cow was a really excellent example – as I’m a Lovecraft geek and it almost automatically made me wish you would. And, strangely, deflating that expectation for further ‘prosumption’ on the deviser’s part as well is also somehow a part of an interrogation toward something like this, as well. For instance, the disciplinary method in social games where failure to act leads to point loss and letting down your friends might just as well be about teaching you to abandon values like loyalty, friendship when a better deal comes along. What I’ve noticed about social games amongst my Fb friends is how few of them remain with any game for particularly long overall: it wears thin and when it does, the call of other social games – even though they proceed by the same basic principles – leads them to basically just drop the one they’re playing, leading, I assume, to their account gradually running down to zero and their ‘friends’ (assuming they’re still around) being comprehensively ‘let down’. In that regard, the slavery of it, if you will, is less in the manipulativeness of guilt than in what it allows you to become bored with and only to re-embrace the same ‘boring’ values in a new platform that is more aesthetically pleasing at that moment to you personally. To me, the real addicts – say, the ones who stick with one game – are less concerning (although you can be sure they may be suffering far more ‘addictive’ symptoms in the conventional sense – are less the target of these games than the fickle. I assume, too, this is precisely why there’s constant need to amplify features and expand and update: to hold interest, you need to keep novelty, not only to prevent switching from one game to another but also to insist that novelty is the rationale for commitment. In that sense, adding more features to cow clicker raises an interesting question about what happens when too much perfectionism enters a parody. In this sense, social games themselves are almost self-consciously parodies of games (though I absolutely agree they are games). I mean, what is Farmville really but a kind of wry nethead’s ironic nod at ‘material production’ presented here in the form of schoolyard pastoralism and cute, bucolic nature with your goal being ‘maturation’ into super-agriculturalism and the triumphal construction of your own private megafarm? So the related question is this: When does the parody object become a trap in itself? And what means might there be to subject that process itself to method design?

    Reply
  46. Ian Bogost

    Just a quick note to thank everyone for these comments. I’ve read them all now, and although I’m not sure when I’ll be able to reply in detail, they’ve certainly been edifying to read.

    Reply
  47. eddie

    JM, you rock.

    Ian, you should give JM’s points serious consideration. You’re not wrong, but he’s not wrong either.

    You should also overhaul your writing style – it’s pretentious, imprecise, and uninformative. “Enframing”? Heidegger? Method design? Write like a human being, not an art school / lit crit grad student.

    Reply
  48. Eric

    Eddie – perhaps if Ian wrote “I don’t like social games because that stuff is no fun” you might feel he was more precise and informative?

    Reply
  49. evanh

    I’d replace the term compulsion with obsession. One obsesses over keeping up to date, keeping clean, keeping order, … doing the job to ones best. Completing the job is an enabler for others. It’s socially beneficial. We’re born to obsess.

    What one chooses to obsess over …

    Reply
  50. Steve Witham

    Maybe the process by which social games treat friend networks as means of self-propagation, as landscapes to be exploited, should be called “enfarming.”

    Reply
  51. Andrew Hickey

    Fascinating article, but am just commenting to correct one of the above posters, who said Monopoly wasn’t created to have a message. That couldn’t be more wrong:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_board_game_Monopoly

    “In 1903, the Georgist Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game called The Landlord’s Game with the object of showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. She knew that some people would find it hard to understand the logic behind the idea, and she thought that if the rent problem and the Georgist solution to it were put into the concrete form of a game, it might be easier to demonstrate.”

    Reply
  52. Malcolm Ryan

    Cow clicker may have been intended as satire, but personally I quite enjoy it. For me it is kind of like a collaborative writing exercise. My friends and I routinely share our clicks and attach a cow-related semi-philosophical quote or other twist on a popular meme.

    I enjoy the socialising and creativity. Clicking on the cow itself is just the impetus for it. It’s like committing to a daily writing task – having to post every 6 hours is a kind of enforced creative expression. I enjoy spending my idle time in between imagining what I am going to post next. I also like seeing what pearls of cow-related wisdom my co-authors produce.

    Maybe this is an act of subversion. You could say that we have invented our own meta-game around Cow Clicker (although seeing Ian’s own clicks, I don’t think it was ever far from his mind). Does that lesson the value of the game or increase it?

    Reply
  53. Ross Woodcock

    Ian,

    Thanks, this article fascinated me. In addition to your four “objections” to Social Network Games, I would propose a fifth; the “Investment Trap”.

    We start playing the MMO games, perhaps in a genuine idle moment. It is engaging to try to understand the mechanics of the game, and hence formulate a strategy to fast-track an account. By the time you have fully reverse-engineered the game algorithms, you have an investment to protect. The more you keep playing, to protect that investment, the more time you would be “wasting” if you stopped.

    Whether you would argue that this is really just a specialisation of the “Compulsion” argument, is up to you. However, I feel it is such a powerful, and destructive force, it deserves special mention.

    Reply
  54. Atrawog

    This app is absolutely lovely. It isn’t as time consuming as other apps and you can still engage your friend into doing something silly together.

    The next thing to total world domination should be an easy way to answer every Farmville invite with a Cow clicker invite and make spamming your friends with invites easier in general (and I’m serious about that).

    Reply
  55. Dennis

    Great article.

    @Ross,

    That’s a really good point.

    Reply
  56. Ian Bogost

    @Ross

    Yes, good point, worthy of further consideration.

    Reply
  57. Jeremy

    JM is a shiftless troll, no doubt dredged up from Zynga itself, shuffling out from under the bridge to gobble us up. He revealed himself to be such by the amateurish trick of agreeing with himself under the obvious alias of “k.”

    As others have pointed out, Farmville is not “fun.” It is a chore.

    Zynga is the game developer equivalent of Monsanto.

    Reply
  58. Mark N.

    There’s a bit of discussion in the videogame addiction literature on that time-invested-means-I-have-to-keep-playing angle, usually labeled as a kind of sunk-cost issue. (No citations handy off the top of my head, sorry.)

    Reply
  59. Jonathan Hayward

    My piece Technonomicon, linked to my name, is an attempt to look at the same issue. But I would suggest that social games/chores are not a fundamental innovation or a radical reversal; rather, they are the next installment of a continuing series that started long ago and far away.

    Reply
  60. That Fuzzy Bastarrd

    The most blatant part of k’s trolling is his specificity about “my small business”. Pleasant business-owning people just refer to “my business”, “my company”, or more often “my taco stand/barbershop/fishing store.” The only people who use the term “my small business” are wingnuts who want to make a point.

    Reply
  61. Alexandra Holloway

    Dear Ian,

    I took the liberty of running a heuristic evaluation on Cow Clicker. The set of heuristics I am using is from Spyridon Papaloukas’ paper, Usability Assessment Heuristics in New Genre Videogames. Descriptions of heuristics are taken verbatim from the text of the article.

    The rating is Nielsen style, 0 to 4, where

    * 0: no problems,

    * 1: minor or cosmetic violation,

    * 2: moderate violation.

    * 3: severe violation, and

    * 4: show-stopping terrible stuff.

    1. Customize game, network and environment settings: The videogame should allow players to customize the settings so that the game accommodates their individual needs.

    My score: 0

    My comment: You can customize cows!

    2. Information about game, players and online friends status: Users should be provided with enough information about game (status character, level, health, etc) but also about other players and online friends in order to play in a cooperative manner as in real life.

    My score: 0

    My comment: I can click my friends’ clicks! If only I had friends!

    3. Training, help and suggestions: The videogame should provide interactive training and recommended choices, i.e. regarding new genre videogames should advice players the most appropriate clothing or the most suitable space arrangement for a more efficient or enjoyable game.

    My score: 1

    My comment: I’m not quite sure where to place my friends’ cows in my pasture. Is there an optimal placement? Does the cow facing the tail of my cow fare poorly due to out-gassing? Does my cow enjoy facing colorful cows?

    4. Control of actions: The game should respond to input devices in a way that mirrors the real world. Computer controlled units should respond in an ordinary manner.

    My score: 2

    My comment: Clicks are clicks. However, why does the page reload post-click?

    5. Challenge, fun, pleasure, fantasy: The game should provide fun and challenge. The players should be able to live their desired “reality” in the fantasy world of a videogame. Pleasure should be one of the most important elements of game.

    My score: 0

    My comment: The challenge is in convincing my friends not to hate me. And in finding all the back-issues of my friends’ click feeds.

    6. Minimize memory requirements: Abbreviations should not be used. The players should not be asked to count resources like bullets and life and they should not have to memorize the level’s design. Area maps should be easy to learn and should be intuitive to use.

    My score: 1

    My comment: It was difficult to ascertain the significance of mooney at first.

    7. Clear goal, conditions: New genre games need special equipment and in some cases suggestions are required on how to use it more efficiently. The goal of the game must be clear, so the player do not feel confused.

    My score: 0

    My comment: The goal is overwhelmingly clear. Its simplicity is what makes the game efficient.

    8. Visual representations: Visual representations, such as maps, icons, and avatars, are frequently used to convey information about the status of the game. Visual representations should be designed in an easy to interpret way, and so that users can differentiate important elements from irrelevant elements.

    My score: 0

    My comment: The cow looks like a cow (except for Cobra Cow; what’s up with that?); the pasture looks like a pasture.

    9. Social networking, socializing and gaming: A game in a social network should support all the tasks, which facilitate the communication and socializing of players. The game should have “shared” versions or “shared” applications in order to direct “social networking friends” to tasks that enhance socializing.

    My score: 0

    My comment: Hard to say if I’ll have friends after playing this game, but that’s another issue…

    10. Health, day-to-day life and gaming: New genre games should help on player’s mental and physical health, using specific equipment and applications.

    My score: 4

    My comment: Playing Cow Clicker reminds me of how large and bovine I am becoming, sitting at the computer — yet the game compels me to keep at it! It sends the wrong message, Ian, the wrong message!

    Moo!

    Reply
  62. Tdog

    Jason wrote: “Generally, I think “game developers” don’t like Social games because such games are populist and modestly simple, whereas “game developers” consider themselves to be Artists who are trying to create Very Important Things that the players ought to want if they knew what was good for them. I also think there’s a little grudge against commercial success in there too.”

    I think they dislike them because they are, at their worst, intellectually bankrupt and devote most of their resources into hiding their lack of depth or engaging mechanics. They have the look and feel of a game on the surface but at their core they have more in common with multi level marketing. Cow Clicker eschews the window dressing and lays out the bare skeleton for all to see.

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  63. JM

    Everyone mentions Zynga, but they’re hardly the worst offender. You know who you need to watch out for? Lemme tell you… it’ll make your blood boil. I mean, these guys use every brain hack in the book to make their insipid product appealing.

    They use repetition and reinforcement to lull consumers into almost hypnotic states, where they’re subject to all sorts of suggestion. There’s barely any content, like maybe 3 minutes worth of originality. They use the same 7 to 12 mechanics over and over, and although you can tell one product from another, they still all kinda seem the same. They only pick the most pandering of topics, and they use emotional triggers that humans are especially vulnerable to. They even rely on a cult of personality to vault their products to the top of the boards. I mean, the brain hacking is so bad that, even when you’re not using the product, you often can’t help but think about it.

    That’s right, you know who I’m talking about: musicians, man. Fucking mind-controlling musicians, forcing people to buy their products even though they should know better, even though pop songs are pointless and require almost no brainpower and have no tangible effect on anything else. Musicians have been a parasite of humanity for thousands of years. With their rhythm and rhyme, and purely-emotional content, they’re just tricking you into listening. Can’t you see that? I mean, how many ways can one possibly rehash the same handful of notes? Oh, they dress it up with different instruments, but really, if you boil it down to its core mechanics, it’s just A to G with some sharps and flats. Practically all the songs are about love, sex, parties, heartbreak, and other emotional nonsense. Just wait, I’m going to release a parody of music. It’s called “sexy scales” and it lays out bare the skeleton of music for all to see. Then you’ll understand. Then you’ll appreciate what I’ve done for humanity.

    Seriously?

    Get over it gamers. The characteristics of social games that you keep calling out aren’t what’s making them successful and fun. And the things that you think are important to the definition of a “game” … aren’t. You got the answer wrong. Now catch up.

    Because, I repeat, you don’t get a choice in the matter. You don’t get to decide what is and isn’t a game, or what makes a game good. You can keep talking about it, sure, but the world gets to decide. And so far, they’re picking Zynga, more than anything else you have made in the last 25 years. And now you spend your time looking for reasons to dismiss it?

    Maybe instead of decrying its success and explaining why you hate them so much, you should be trying to understand why social games resonate so strongly with players. I know you and your gamer friends aren’t enjoying them. But 70 million people a month will report to you that they ARE enjoying them.

    But maybe you can’t. Given your degenerate nature (and all the porn and violence you have consumed for so many years) it’s possible that you are unable to make a product that appeals as broadly as FarmVille. It’s possible you’re so psychologically maladjusted and out of touch with things that resonate on a human level that you can’t imagine why someone might want to play a happy simulation of farming, with rewards and personal expression and a community of friends, but no challenge. It’s possible that the gamer lifestyle that you’ve adopted makes it hard for you to even comprehend an enjoyable activity that takes so little time, and so little mental load, and so little dexterity.

    Too bad for you.

    Because FarmVille is great, but is also full of flaws, and someone needs to make its replacement. Coulda been you. I guess it’ll be me instead.

    – Jason

    Reply
  64. DJS

    I as a designer of a social game slightly disagree you. Yes, there are an awful lot of stupid social games, and they are usually aimed for the youth, which I feel even more terrifying.

    But, and there is a but. You wrote: “In that respect, one could argue that many games seem to destroy time. But social games do something even more violent—they also destroy the time we spend away from them.” You could say that about every game. And I don’t think that giving up something for money (like every game designer do) and giving up everything fishy for money (as Zynga did) are so much different. I understand that you want to see game design as an art, but you cannot deny that there is a game market, which just want profit. Social games are just the worst outcomes of it, but there are thousand others.

    Finally, and mainly, you can design a GOOD social game, too. For example, it must be almost or completely free, so without the danger of children giving out money for nothing. And it must be less strict than a common social game. If the time unit is not 1 hour (like in strategy games) or 6 hours (like in youre Cow clicker), but one day or “three times a week”, the game is much less addictive. If the game is less real, you can just forget it for weeks, and when you login again, none of your previous achievements will be devastated. If it is a fighting game, the fighting part should be limited (“do you want to play battles next week?”), so you could play without the constant fear of an attack. If there are smart buttons and macros, you don’t have to manually manage everything, you can just order to do “as usually”.

    With these three design principles, you can discover that a social game can be very good. Every social game is educational, as it shows you that you have to work hard and study a lot to be more successful than others. And it is easy to design a really educational game, too.

    Reply
  65. Ron Newcomb

    “Such is the spirit of the day, it would seem: mundane, outward obsession whose worst trick is to disguise itself as fruitfulness.”

    Chilling words, considering how many of us have unfinished projects on our hard drives.

    We want some sort of entertainment after doing our chores and getting our exercise. Someone’s gotta make that entertainment, which means a lot more someones have to fail trying.

    So I briefly blogged about you. Because it felt fruitful.

    Reply
  66. Andrew

    Fascinating stuff, and I think I’ll be giving Cow Clicker a try. I wonder what you think of something like The Nethernet. Formerly known as PMOG (Passively Multiplayer Online Game), optionalism becomes its main point, it seems.

    Reply
  67. Felipe

    Dear Ian

    I had to lol when i read all the hate comments. Those kids always get mad when someone say that don’t like what they do.

    As far as I’m into games, as a player and not a developer (even atempeted to be one at an early age, now just small projects) I agree with your view of social games, specially Zynga’s farmville. For a “traditional” hardcore player as me, a game without anything besides clicking 21987394 zillion times on icons without something like a puzzle to “think outside the box” or a hard goal to get isn’t worth of the time and effort.

    I see social games as a bright future for the game industry and to fetch new players/gamers, just like nintendo’s Wii did, to expanded the market and revenue. But the feeling that something is missing keep me one step back. It’s missing more the way we interact with the game, rather than it’s content. I hope that future games focus more on the game-in-itself rather than in the profit and addiction they may achieve. Money is important, every GD need to eat and live, but it’s not the essence. These games reflect the post-modern (or liquid age) era we are living.

    Basicaly swallow games for swallow people.

    When a true social game that you can actually PLAY, i would be more than happy to try it. Now excuse me, I will go back to play my NES.

    Cheers!

    Reply
  68. Social reprabate

    have you made a parody of social games or have social games made a paradoy of actual games? Cow clicker forms the basis of your breakdown of what you think social games are, but social games break down the very basics of what hardcore games are, into thier primitaves. Risk reward, games of chance, games of skill have they just taken Modern Combat and broke it down into its basic form something to beat and to brag about to your friends with The feeling of progression. Just broke it down into its simplest form and touched the basic emotions, spared the million dollar production and made it availiable to a wider less critical “new” audience they are competing with Bingo and scratchcards and it works! why worry about the hardcore gamer?

    its not the games that make money its the consumers they attract and the direct link and trust they have in theier payment reciever thats the saleable thing, and creating these easy to understand but rewarding interactions are the key to success in thier market.

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  69. game dev

    Most social games are garbage but are also profitable.

    The world can be an ugly place.

    Reply
  70. AnotherJason

    Those of you attempting to make comparisons between “mainstream” and certain social games on the basis that the latter games are simply distilled, more efficient variations of the former are either missing or willfully ignoring the fact that these games are monetized in extremely different ways.

    In that respect, Ian has somewhat failed in his mission, allowing players to invent their own meta-games which they actually enjoy, at no profit to himself.

    (That said, I’m sure there are some of you out there trying to, or running, social games which profit on players actually enjoying themselves instead of relieving them of a carefully crafted burden mislabeled as gameplay… to you, I wish great success!)

    Reply
  71. Andy

    Great article :)

    I’ve made a ‘satire game’ myself, very similar to your cow clicker but not a facebook game unfortunately. I think it would do great on the facebook platform though.

    If you’ve got some spare time, you should check it out: http://www.boringrpg.com

    Reply
  72. Ian Bogost

    In that respect, Ian has somewhat failed in his mission, allowing players to invent their own meta-games which they actually enjoy, at no profit to himself.

    This is true.

    Reply
  73. Aidan Karley

    I find @WP’s snide little comment hilariously inappropriate, and the best reply to it would be to make CooClicker the Next Big Thing on FaceBook. Sadly, I think Ian has done too good a job of extracting the urine from other such games. The parody is too unavoidable, and too many possible players might think that the parody is aimed at them, instead of at the psychology of their species.

    But … click-click-clicking away into oblivion. World Domination will be oooor’s, one click at a time.

    The game should be banned. Nothing generates free publicity like getting banned. Maybe putting about rumours of a CowClicker pornography genre would do the trick?

    Reply
  74. Ernest Adams

    “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the record for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”

    – H.L. Mencken, The Chicago Tribune, Sept. 19, 1926

    This is often misquoted as “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” and misattributed to P.T. Barnum. Sometimes “taste” is substituted for “intelligence.”

    Is that elitist? You’re damn right it is. If nobody upholds standards, we might as well go back to throwing Christians to the lions in the arena for our fun.

    Reply
  75. Jon

    Fascinating stuff… I’ve been reading your “Persuasive Games” for my thesis but now I have a bit of a moral conundrum. I’m trying to create precisely one of these viral games to study its spread and interaction within a social network – for a good cause, the game is promoting an energy saving website, which gives you tips and feedback on your energy saving progress.

    Now I could try to make a “rich” game that attempts to avoid the Sins Of Farmville. But doing so would be a) much harder and b) introduce much more complexity that’s likely the muck up my results.

    So the question is, what do I do?

    According to my network model, you NEED this kind of obsessive time-based clicking in order for a game to go viral. If people don’t keep feeding into each-others’ addiction they all individually give up. What keeps them going is that if they stop for even a while they quickly see reports of their friends playing, which motivates them to start again, which in turn motivates any of their other friends who might otherwise unhook.

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  76. elgomes

    installed this game, i usually receive docens of requests from every popular game in facebook and barely play 10 seconds a week. hope i can send a message through this one :)

    Reply
  77. Bruno

    I saw your talk on GDC about social games.

    It was really good and it interested me that you didn’t quite know how to feel about his game and thought about shutting it down.

    I think it would be really interesting if you engaged your “clients” as a real individual instead of a shadowy developer or company. You could shut down the game and send a communique to the users explaining the project as seen by you, what were your goals and expectations, and how you feel about it now, etc. Maybe even say to them why you think they shouldn’t be playing cowclicker.

    That would be a really good way of overcoming the alienation that systems as cowclicker grow off. and communicating truth in a place made only of lies.

    You might be interested in reasearching abot Guy Debord, I can’t really explain to you who he is in a small blog post but you can read his work and about him at bopsecrets(dot)com, and I recommend you one of his movies called “Critique of Separation” which comments on art and society in general, it’s really hard to find so if you are interested, send me an e-mail and I will send it to you.

    Reply
  78. Ramona21KIM

    Some time before, I did need to buy a house for my corporation but I did not earn enough money and couldn’t purchase something. Thank goodness my brother adviced to try to take the personal loans from banks. So, I did that and used to be satisfied with my college loan.

    Reply
  79. Jean Arp

    . . . and his inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.

    Reply
  80. Moo

    Is this the bus to the civic center?

    Reply
  81. Fredrik

    Somewhat OT:

    Robert, Mark and Ian,

    I found your discussion on Heidegger and “breaking free” interesting. I’m about to take a break from work for a couple of months. The plan is to travel (not as a tourist but as a traveller), work on personal projects, and – and this is important – take a break from internet/mobile technology. Sure, I will visit internet cafés (to book tickets, etc.), and I will carry a cheap mobile (a “burner”). But only my family will have the number and it will stay in my backpack until I really need to make a call.

    I don’t think taking a break IS the solution. But I anticipate being on a break from the plethora of always on “social” devices will help me reevaluate my relationship to technology, as much as I love it, and the balance that I want it to have in my life.

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  82. Claude

    I thought it was a great idea for a parody, with some interesting insights. It must be nice to know how to make those things.

    I had my own idea for a parody. A cute little village and cute forest creatures, where the player controls a pair of cute little girls. And you get to choose whether to join the critters or the villagers when the war starts. It would be adorable.

    And when your character is killed a tiny pixie flutters out, circles the body, then coughs up blood and explodes in a shower of pink sparkles that restores the character.

    There are so many conventions that need to be poked at.

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  83. Annette K.

    I think your experiment was interesting. I agree with many of the points listed above, although I’d hope that you see a difference between a game like World of Warcraft and a time-killer like Farmville. Personally I don’t care for Farmville, and I don’t play WoW because it costs money, but they are two entirely different types of games. I suppose there’s something satisfying about decorating a farm, but my opinion is that it’s not realistic enough. I appreciate when there is “fluctuating economy, tycoon aspirations, weather patterns, diseases, crop rotation, cross breeding, etc” because you get a better idea of how difficult it is to run a farm in real life. Half of the people who play Farmville will not understand what it’s really like for years.

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  84. Arc

    I was about to build a game very much like this, but you have beaten me to it. My game would have been one red button, that when pressed, would have given the player every item in the game, all possible money in the game, and the maximum level obtainable. Clicking the red button even more times would have given even more items and even more “expansion” levels. I don’t mind if someone steals the idea for this game, since I don’t have the time for such an undertaking.

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  85. Business Networking

    What a great experiment. click to earn clicks.. Too funny.

    I disagree with one of the comments above, I think many of these social gamers are soley based on compulsion and if you feed that need… then success is what you’ll have. (and you’ve proven it)

    It never ceases to amaze me how people get stuck in the world of social gaming and spend hours and hours of their life wasted in a game (in this case earning clicks). Yet when it comes to making money in the real world (clicks) and focusing on the game of life… they struggle or dont wan’t to put any effort into it.

    Just my two cents, sorry if I rambled. :)

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  86. DD

    I like Zynga’s games. I would rather construct something than blow things up.

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  87. Brin

    Cow Clicker is a great piece of satire, but this article stepped over into the realm of sophomoric moralization. It would be have been more interesting to see a histogram of the money and time spent each month for an individual player. Perhaps this data is published elsewhere. In any case, you throw a lot of dirt on treadmill games. Maybe this is good; I can’t say I’m fond of them. But this article is pretty flimsy intellectually. Esoteric references and speculation on the merit of various activities don’t make an argument. Crtieria like compulsion are useless; a good book compels you to go on. Only media that is boring or actively unpleasant to consume can claim to rise above compulsion.

    As usual, the oldest knowledge is the clearest and most applicable (and most ignored). The problem here is simple excess. It doesn’t matter one whit that someone chooses to waste a bit of their day messing around on FarmVille. It only matters if someone takes it to excess. So the question is only: how much time and money do people spend playing these games? Again, I would like to see a histogram showing the distribution of time/money spent on this (and other games). Only then can we start talking about what (if anything) needs to be done about this.

    Reply

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