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 JÃ¤rvinen 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:
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.
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.”
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.