What is Cow Clicker? Is it a satire? Yes, but it’s more complicated than that: it’s also a real game that people can (and as it would seem, many thousands do) play “in earnest.” That’s caused a number of people to ask if it ought to be taken seriously as satire.

We tend to throw around words like “satire” and “parody,” and it’s worth remembering that these words have somewhat more specific meanings; they’re not just synonyms, even though their uses have changed over time.

Satire is a general name for a work that intends to ridicule, and in that respect Cow Clicker certainly qualifies. But satire also carries a moral tenor that parody doesn’t. Parodists often mock what they know well and even love, whereas satirists often perpetrate their work with an eye toward reform of some kind, characterizing the object of the satire as morally inferior. In this sense, a Facebook game like Pot Farm is more parody, while Cow Clicker is more satire.

But there are two other, less frequently discussed types of satire that might also apply.

The first is burlesque. We usually think of burlesque as a kind of variety show often associated with the striptease, but the term has a more general meaning too: a work, usually of musical theater, in which both serious and comic elements are juxtaposed or swapped for one another. In its more modern sense, burlesque derives its lewdness from a desire to turn flip social norms on their heads.

Cow Clicker could be seen to have some burlesque features, particularly through its clear deployment of irony (by making the act of clicking a cow, the fundamental unit of gameplay in these awful cow clicker games, an absurdist act instead of an earnest one). Still, the amount of exaggeration in burlesque is typically far greater than the (relatively subtle) embellishment of Cow Clicker. On top of that, burlesque often mocks the aristocracy (or high culture in general), and in that respect FarmVille might not be a legitimate candidate.

The second is travesty. This is a term whose depths most have forgotten. People often use the term as a synonym for “distortion” or “perversion” (e.g., “The lenient treatment of incarcerated celebrities is a travesty of the judicial system”), but the word also refers to a representation of such perversion. It is a name for a treatment of a dignified subject in a trivial, grotesque, or absurd way. In travesty, the original format and subject isn’t changed much, but is turned into ridicule through incongruity. The commonest example of travesty is the comic retelling of the Pyramus and Thisbe myth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and many other theatrical examples exist.

Now, it’s true that the subject Cow Clicker mocks (Facebook games of the FarmVille ilk) isn’t usually described as “dignified.” Certainly FarmVille isn’t dignified in the sense that, say, Virgil is. But games of that nature have been treated with dignity almost exclusively in popular press accounts of the “rise of social games,” through citations of revenue or player numbers in particular. In that respect, Cow Clicker might best be described as a travesty of Facebook games, rather than a mere satire of them.

published August 14, 2010


  1. Mark Sample

    The OED likens “travesty” to caricature, and I can see elements of this with Cow Clicker. But one essential aspect of caricatures is that they are so obviously caricatures, even to people who don’t know the source material. I’m not sure there are enough winks and nods in Cow Clicker to make it an obvious caricature to some of the more, um, forgiving gamers. Especially if they didn’t come to Cow Clicker through any of the paratextual framing material (your own blog, TechCruch, GamaSutra, Twitter, etc.).

    Satire, on the other hand, isn’t always obvious, especially if it uses a Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse. The best satire works because it could in fact almost be true. I’m thinking about how often students don’t “get” Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” Why wouldn’t it be likely, in this post-Auschwitz world, that such a proposal be made, and be taken seriously?

    Likewise, once you’ve got Farmville, it really isn’t all that crazy to have a game just about clicking cows.

    Hey, did I just liken Farmville to Auschwitz?

  2. Ryan Terrell


    Someone heard that one of my goals was to help formulate some alternative (objective, criticism or otherwise) video game journalism, and suggested your name.

    Glad I’ve found one voice of reason.



  3. Mark Sample

    I’m still thinking about the travesty argument for Cow Clicker. In etymological terms, travesty literally cross-dress (the word is a sibling to transvestite). So, for Cow Clicker to truly be a travesty, you’ll need a cross-dressing cow. Might I suggest Moolan, based on the famous 6th Century Chinese cross-dressing warrior woman?

  4. doctorzamalek

    “Certainly FarmVille isn’t dignified in the sense that, say, Virgil is.”