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Interview:  Cow Clicker  Yields Ruminations On Social Gaming's Tense Battle Lines
Interview: Cow Clicker Yields Ruminations On Social Gaming's Tense Battle Lines Exclusive
July 30, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

July 30, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design



Academic, author and game designer Ian Bogost is a little bit worried that his latest game, Cow Clicker -- a simple Facebook title simply about clicking on cows -- might receive more attention than anything he's done to date.

If that turns out to be the case, it'll be an interesting turn of irony, the sort that motivates the sometimes-controversial designer: this is because Cow Clicker is a satire that asks players and developers alike to examine the explosive popularity of Facebook games.

The game, Bogost tells Gamasutra, was initially conceived as an alternative to a straight lecture presentation he was asked to give at an NYU event; with only ten minutes to speak, and (as usual for Bogost) "a lot to say", why not show instead of tell?

Cow Clicker was intended to present the four issues that Bogost says "concern" him most about Facebook games: "enframing, compulsion, optionalism, and destroyed time," described in detail on his blog post about the title.

Gameplay in Cow Clicker is insultingly simple -- Bogost has described it as "Facebook games distilled to their essence." Users obtain a cow on which they can click every six hours, and every time they click, they earn more opportunities to click their cow or their friends' cows. Users can buy custom "premium" cows or buy their way out of the six-hour delay with the game's currency, "Mooney" (Bogost claims that the coincidence with the last name of Zynga's vice president is nothing more than sheer accident).

"It's particularly easy to be a negative critic, to talk down about something from on high," he says. "By making a game to deliver that message, I hoped it would be taken more seriously." So while Cow Clicker is, in a nutshell, a criticism of the social game industry, "that's not all it is," he adds. "It's also a social game! Which is counterintuitive, isn't it?"

Going Beyond Concept To Practice

Counterintuitive or not, Bogost says that when using a medium to generate discussion on that medium itself, it was important to go beyond the conceptual into something that fully operates in practice: "If I had just made a Facebook game in which you clicked a button every six hours and it spammed all your friends, it just wouldn't have been interesting as art, as critique, as satire," he says. "By making a distillation of a social game that actually (if perversely) functions as a social game, I feel the stakes on video game satire are raised."

"I wanted to see what would happen, and to learn if, perhaps, I was right or wrong (or neither) about this variety of social games," he continues. "So if I had to sum it up in a sentence, I'd say that the purpose of the game is to test a theory about social games."

Since then, Bogost has watched Cow Clicker's players from afar in endless fascination, surprised to see both the volume of users willingly engaging with the satire -- alongside plenty of actual players who appear to be enjoying Cow Clicker the way they would FrontierVille or Sorority Life. He's fielded calls from National Public Radio and engaged in heated public debates with the development community.

All in all, he says, it's been a surprising experience, but one with several major takeaways: "For one, clearly there was a tremendous amount of anxiety about social games among the general public," he says. Despite the current major trend that sees millions of users flocking to Facebook games and adoring them, he says player reactions to Cow Clicker have included a large amount of "performative snarkiness."

Player Engagement Lessons

"I think people really aren't sure what they think about Facebook games, about spending their time on them, about what they're being sold and what it means for life and culture and time and so forth," he suggests. "Cow Clicker offers a little release valve, a safe place to question those ideas."

Bogost also says reactions to the game have taught him more about the willingness of players to engage with video game satire, whereas common attempts at video game humor feel insincere or fall flat -- unless, as the adage goes, you're Tim Schafer or Ron Gilbert, a theme aptly addressed by game critic Michael Abbott in a recent column.

"Video games in general just aren't funny, and when they are funny it's usually one-off gag humor," says Bogost. "Yet satire and humor are a very old form of expression, and they're enjoying a great deal of popularity right now. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert and The Onion and so forth—these are major players in media and culture these days." Going full-fledged and creating a working game helps Bogost in milking game satire for all it's worth, so to speak.

But there is undeniably controversy around this latest salvo from a developer reputed for his tendency to question, often acerbically, the industry's favorite trends. And most of those most harshly on the side of Cow Clicker's detractors are Bogost's own colleagues -- game developers, many of them from a community of storied design veterans who have recently moved to the social gaming space, excited by new design possibilities therein.

Many of them are missing the irony in Cow Clicker, says Bogost, and that scares him; instead, they "peacock about what features I might add or how I've missed opportunities for virality," he says. "Those reactions fill me with sorrow and dread."

The Developer Backlash

Bogost sees an enormous climate of anxiety surrounding social game developers, despite the mass proliferation of their success stories in the financial headlines. Many of them, he suggests "are full of loathing or guilt or other sensations" about the growing divide between their territory and that of the traditional audience -- much of which frequently vents its own sense of being threatened by the new market amid absolutist venture capitalist and CEO-driven talk of the death of video games as they've known them. The often-aggressive, contentious discussions in the comments on Bogost's blog are something to behold.

"I think a lot of them are defensive. I think there's a huge amount of personal conflict and self-doubt in social game development these days," he suggests. "On the one hand, many developers know they despise many Facebook games, even if they can't put their finger on why. But on the other hand, many developers are jealous of their success."

"And those who are in the social games scene, they feel like they're a part of some great new age of game development, finally bringing games to the masses, and they're bitter when called out for 'not making real games' by creators who, in their eyes, are just shoveling first person shooter power fantasies into the eyeballs of adolescents," he adds. "So all around, there's a lot of anxiety and doubt. And when people have doubt, they tend to lash out defensively."

Cow Clicker drives directly into that flashpoint of conflict in an enormous and rapidly-changing game industry (summarized well in a post-GDC roundup written this year by former Civ IV project lead and Spore designer/programmer Soren Johnson). In that respect, the game's greatest success may be that it's exploded the conversation, bringing some of these considerations and private insecurities even more directly into the forum of public dialogue.

"I think a great many social game developers are mistaking the success of their games for positive contributions to humanity," Bogost says. Plenty of social game developers cite the new mass audience as one of the primary merits of their work. When he joined Playdom -- recently picked up in a much-buzzed (and much-questioned) Disney buy for up to $763 million -- well-reputed Infocom veteran Steve Meretzky brought up all the "people in retirement homes playing Wii Sports and everyone's parents and grandparents getting DSes and playing Brain Age."

And it's a common refrain. "If you talk to just about any social game developer, but particularly those who used to work in 'traditional' development, you'll hear them talk about how their niece or mother or uncle or whomever plays their games now. As if that fact justifies the nature of the games themselves," says Bogost. "It's as if there's been this huge vacuum of professional isolation that's finally being released, and some developers are using that release as an excuse to justify the construction of profoundly dastardly works."

Developers and players alike often experience an enormous feeling of resignation when they see headlines about the multi-million users -- and the concurrent multi-million dollars -- in the social gaming space. The high-risk traditional game industry has traditionally operated in virtual slavery to numbers, where earnings equate to opportunities for innovation until they're themselves seen as evidence of, or reward for innovation.

"When I hear so many developers use the market as a primary justification for design choices or professional choices, it makes me feel wretched," says Bogost. "Many people like saturated fats and simple sugars and The View and a great many other things, but that does not automatically make those things righteous or good."

The Battle Lines

It may not be so simple. Plenty of design veterans, like Civilization II and Rise of Nations developer Brian Reynolds (who joined Zynga and launched successful FarmVille-alike FrontierVille) or long-serving Brenda Brathwaite, best known for her work on Wizardry and now creative director at LOLApps, tell us that the Facebook platform allows them to focus on the types of challenges they best enjoy: what Reynolds calls "straight mechanics" in an environment of rapid innovation.

"Designing an award winning RPG took me longer, but it was easier," said Brathwaite in a Twitter conversation with me recently. "We iterate rapidly and distribution is super fast. The majority of games stick to formulas (genres) and innovate within."

Despite her enthusiasm for the new space, Brathwaite also is puzzled by the environment of controversy and conflict on all sides that so often targets the Facebook space: "Many board and card games have simpler dynamics and sell amazingly well, but don't provoke the same bias. It's interesting," she said on Twitter. "This whole social versus hardcore reminds me of console vs. PC, or even hardcore RPGs versus Diablo... and we can see who won that battle." The industry will never see the climate that birthed Ultima and Wizardry again, she points out.

Bogost asserts his respect for these designers, and believes they are "earnestly hopeful." But he's still defiant: "I don't really see what rapid iteration has to do with 'innovation' or breaking out of formulas," he says. "Aren't all these games just as formulaic as any genre, with innovation mostly limited to optimizations meant to squeeze more out of players?...I think these designers are making aspirational claims. Let's hope they live up to them."

The Learnings -- And The Numbers

In the end, Bogost believes he's drawing the most fire for being a critic: "I've heard some developers suggest that as a fairly visible critic and developer, I ought not to say nasty things about games, because doing so will open some mythical floodgate of public resentment," he says. "This is frustrating to me since I've spent many years supporting the uses of games far beyond the blindered view of the traditional industry, so I think I've earned my stripes in this regard."

"But more importantly, supporting video games is not a monolithic affair. Part of being a critic is highlighting the bad along with the good. I know that critique mostly highlights the 'awesome,' so maybe this point is lost on some, but disagreements are productive," he adds. "I find it baffling that some developers might assume the existence of some sort of tacit contract for the universal support of video games. What a juvenile idea."

Of course, we had to ask Bogost about his user numbers. One final key takeaway he says he's gleaned from Cow Clicker is the inherent unreliability of Facebook metrics: "According to the site, I had around 16,000 monthly active users at the start of today," he says. "I count something more like 25,000 users in my own records, but I'm aware that 'user' isn't the same as monthly active user in Facebook terms. That's a tiny number compared to these giant Zynga and Playdom games, of course, so clearly I'm not reaching Colbert or Onion level public invective yet." [The preceding metrics were accurate at the time this interview was conducted; as of press time Bogost says he's up to 25,000 MAUs and 34,000 total users.]

What about the money question? How much is he making? "Currently, very little, enough to cover the hosting costs of running the game," he says. "Ironically, I'd have to engage in the statistics-based design and A/B testing of the big boys to tune cash out of the game, and I don't know if I have the stomach (let alone the time) to take a swing at that."

"But I think it also should remind us of the scale of finances in these sorts of games," he adds. Generally, the percentage of users who spend money in social games is markedly smaller than the number of those playing for free -- "that's a fact that feeds back on the design of social games. You need to get a bajillion users, and the design follows suit."

"I'm not entirely sure what Cow Clicker is," Bogost reflects. "It's an experiment. I'm trying to keep an open mind about it, and to let it guide my understanding and opinions about social games. As of right now, I feel genuinely apprehensive about it."

"On the one hand, it's great fun to watch the satire take on its own life." And yet watching it all happen, watching the users and cents fluctuate, Bogost is picking up his own lessons on what it may feel like to be in the shoes of his social colleagues. "On the other hand, I find myself drawn to the game and its support in the same unhealthy, compulsive way I suspect social game players feel about social games."

"Perhaps that very struggle, between joy and loathing, is at the heart of the game's meaning."


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Comments


Ben Lippincott
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I don't think that a game made to satirize the genre it was created really deserves venomous criticism. Most social games are pretty shallow experiences and most put in about as much effort and creativity as Cow Clicker. Mr. Bogost has perfectly encapsulated the feelings of thousands of people and created a game for those sarcastic folks to play ironically.

Holden Link
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Bingo. I've mostly played Cow Clicker and shared "clicks" on my wall as a playful stab to my friends who work at Zynga.

Ian Bogost
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@Ben, Holden

Indeed, I think the uses you're describing are a version of the "release valve"-style play I mention, a special version specific to those of us in the industry.

Doug Poston
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Without being told, I don't know if I would have realized that Cow Clicker is satire.



The only thing missing is a random element (people get bored quickly). Come up with a couple of random outcomes for the clicks... Zynga is probably already making a clone that does just that. ;)



Well played Bogost.

Jonathan Ghazarian
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Cow Clicker is fascinating and a little upsetting at the same time, so I think you've achieved your goal. I'm constantly blocking facebook apps from my wall, but just seeing the designers talk about innovation and how they aren't tied down to pumping out the same shooter everywhere is disturbing when the "innovation" is typically based around how much money you can extract from users. I don't think these games are inherently bad, but the popular ones appear to be the most manipulative and I like that this game really does a good job of laying that all on the table.

Charles Stuard
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I found the board game comparison interesting, as I've never heard it used before. I'm not sure it's completely accurate, however, as far more people actively PLAY social games compared to those who play board games, even if maybe board game sales come close to social numbers. But regardless I would love to read a more fleshed out piece comparing those two.



More on topic, I find this game intriguing. I wish I could try it out, but I don't use Facebook.

Tom Baird
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I don't really take issues with the simplicity of Social Games. Many games are incredibly simple affairs.



The thing I take issue with in Social Games is the manipulation. Free-to-play games require people to want to buy when the game is free. This means that the game has to constantly fight for it's own income. Every new item, and every new feature has to pass the 'will this profit us' check. Because making a good game doesn't make you any money anymore. The only thing that does make you money is making people feel they need to buy in game items.



This leads to games filled with mechanics designed not to make you smile and laugh, but to make you get your credit card. It makes your game design focus more on advertising psychological tricks that are tested and proven to make people feel you need something you don't.



It seems more of an issue with the Free to Play model, but ends up with a lot of incredibly similar, seemingly greedy and tricky games that feel more like corporate promotions than inspired games.

Ian Bogost
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@Jonathan

Thanks for that.



@Charles

Also: most board and card games don't involve the level of compulsion and disrespect that most social games do. I think Brenda and others are mistaken when they conclude that the ire such games inspire is (just) about their mechanics.

Ian Bogost
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@Tom

We just crossed wires and posted the same sentiment simultaneously.

Tim Johnston
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Since when is it a crime to make money in the game industry? I agree with many of the critics of games like Farmville - there's not a whole lot of "game" there in the traditional sense. But, I support the developers right to make the kind of game they want to make - whether its to make boatloads of money or create artistic, unique experiences that may be far less accessible to the masses.



And, how could anyone not see the irony in a game called Cow Clicker!? Jeez......

Jonathan Ghazarian
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@Tom

You said so much more clearly and perfectly what I was trying to say.

Ian Bogost
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@Tim

It's important not to confuse critiques of particular sorts of business practices with wholesale rejections of business as such. In my view, the videogame industry has inherited a negative trait from Silicon Valley: the techno-libertarian tendency to believe that money is a measure of virtue. Let's be clear here: that's not a rejection of business success as such, but a rejection of the idea that whatever makes money (or "whatever the people want") is automatically good.



So, one can take a position against a body of work without rejecting games as a business in the abstract.

Chris Remo
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I could not possibly agree more with the contention that many social game developer seem to believe that simply because they attract large audiences, they somehow are doing something of grand social merit. In fact, I don't think this is even limited to social games--this attitude seems pervasive across almost every web-based software or service with the word "social" in it.



The idea that, simply because something appeals to lots of people, it is intrinsically valuable is an extremely worrisome one. I wonder if those same developers would make that assertion about any of the fabulously successful pap on the market in any number of commercial categories.



Certainly, being so obscure and complex that hardly anybody can appreciate your work is nothing to aspire to, but that's hardly one end of a linear "quality" scale.

Ian Bogost
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@Chris

"In fact, I don't think this is even limited to social games--this attitude seems pervasive across almost every web-based software or service with the word 'social' in it."



This is an important point. Social games are one example in a broader trend. I say a bit about this in the blog post on Cow Clicker linked near the start of the article, but it's worth repeating more deliberately here. The online world is turning into a sordid vat of obsession.

Jeffrey Fleming
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@Ian

Your use of the word "obsession" is key. The thing I find most troubling about social games is their explicitly obsessive-compulsive mechanics. The pleasure rewards that they offer seem to be directly designed to scratch the OCD itch in people. The fact that they have a "social" component further intensifies the compulsion by adding group pressure to participate. Certainly traditional video games have elements of this as well, but social games appear almost pathological in the way they strip game play down to the rawest form of obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Alexander Bruce
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I'm glad that this article appeared, because I looked at facebook immediately before reading this, saw Cow Clicker yet again, and thought "seriously wtf is this?" because I keep seeing cows pop up in my news feed.



Now I know what it is, and I love it. I'm enjoying the discussion going on about how "popularity != value", because that same statement could be applied to other addictions, such as drugs, alcohol, smoking, gambling, etc. Heaps of people do it, they're all destroying their health / welfare, and none of it is really doing anything positive for society.

Mark Morrison
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I've been trying to find a better way to explain the lack of compelling reward and challenge I feel in the majority of social casual games out there. I now have something to point to that exhibits a tangible example. This is a cool way to prove out your theory, and it's very insightful perspective for the entire game community. Many thanks Ian!

Charles Stuard
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To be honest, I feel like the comments here are vilifying these games a bit too much... all games try their best to accomplish these very same goals, and if some are more successful then others, I don't think that suddenly makes those games bad. If anything, by this argument, all games are bad. It's sounding like something that Thompson guy would say.



I haven't seen anyone completely "obsessed" by these games, although I know many who play them nonstop. However, I've seen these same people go months completely ignoring these games if something more important came up... normally, when "obsession" or "addiction" occurs, it's at the detriment of other necessary life activities, like holding a job.



I'm sure there are edge cases where this happens, but I don't think its the norm or even a large percentage. I love the satire, but I really think this whole thing is being taken far too seriously... on both sides.

Ian Bogost
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@Alexander, Mark

Thanks, much appreciated.



@Alexander

"that same statement could be applied to other addictions..."



Right. And we don't even have to go all the way to addictions to reach that conclusion. High fructose corn syrup is cheap and sweet and people like drinking it in soda. McMansions in the suburbs are spacious and people like living in them. We must not conclude that the things people do are good by virtue of numbers.



@Charles

You raise a good point that we didn't really get to in the interview. There are aspects of social games of the FarmVille ilk whose seeds are planted in ordinary games. But just because some version of attachment and reward exists in all games does not mean that the massive amplification of that attachment is just a variant of some basic prototype.



The Thompson thing is a cheap shot, and an inaccurate one. I dare you to look at my previous work and say that again. My arguments are reasoned and come from a place of experience. I am not making them for my own glory. I've been a very public supporter of the unspoken benefits of games for a long time. But that doesn't mean that I ought to support *any and all* games blindly. We must learn to distinguish among examples of our craft, to culture and stand up for particular values and even--this is a big one--to disagree fundamentally. That would be one sign of a sophisticated media form.

Mark Morrison
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@ charles, your tone suggests that you may either work at a casual social game studio or have an allegiance to friends who do. you don’t need to defend anybody here. no one here is questioning the great talent the zynga, playdom, etc. staff possess. in fact, this social gaming scene has been a huge lifeline to great console talent who have felt the pain of the widening attrition in the traditional game development space. furthermore, it is the leaders in the social game world now who will help to pave the way for the more exciting interactive media to come. your thompson comment is a cheap one, and you should check out ian’s history. that’s the first thing i did, before playing cow clicker today for the first time. remember that this is an industry. with successful industry comes a need for revenue and innovation. the first part has been accomplished in my opinion. we are now living the second part in real time, and this is why ian’s theory and game are so thought provoking.

Ernest Adams
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Ian Bogost is a stone effing genius and I hate his guts for being smarter than I am and thinking of this when I didn't.



All he has done is to say "the emperor has no clothes" and prove it. If you don't like him for saying it, ask yourself what that says about YOU.

Charles Stuard
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Didn't mean to sound like I was taking a cheap shot, so I'm sorry I offended you. It just feels to me like a lot of hyperbole, which is what I attribute to Thompson. In addition, I wasn't directing them at you, specifically, just the overall attitude I felt was developing in everyone's comments. As I've said, I unfortunately don't have the means to even try your product.



Back to the original topic, these same arguments about obsession and addiction are made against regular MMOs. And when it comes to MMOs, sometimes the only difference between an MMO and a regular game is a steady stream of content. Call of Duty, as well, keeps players locked into their game for many many hours on end, on a consistent basis. I've seen housewives play social games for about an hour and move on, then come back the next day... folks on Call of Duty can play for 3+ hours daily.



I don't have your experience, so I'll just need to further educate myself it would seem. I guess I'm having trouble seeing the difference here between social games and other types, aside from the population size. I'm not saying we can't criticize games, but I'm just not seeing the full validity here.

Mark Morrison
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@ charles. therein lies the magic in what ian has done here. he's proved his concept with an actual playable example. if you cannot access facebook or myspace to experience the social casual games then it's impossible for you to be expected to understand the context we are speaking within. try and check them out for yourself. i guarantee you will have your own opinion about the vast difference in feature/mechanic sets.

Ian Bogost
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@Ernest

You are a gentleman.



@Charles

No worries, the Internet makes things hard. I hope I didn't overreact, but you know, the Thompson card is almost like videogames' version of Godwin's law.



About MMOs: good point. I think MMOs are risky too, and they are worthy of some skepticism too. Jon Blow has talked about this issue before: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=16392



Here's one way to generalize what both of us are saying: games don't do all good things. Some of them do mostly bad things. We ought to care about that, and we ought to change the work we make to make it more meaningful, and less traumatic.

Christopher Enderle
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Since when hasn't marketing been about feeding and exploiting people's obsessions? Though the internet really has made it an order of magnitude worse, it seems. Not only do games exploit it, but you see it in politics as well with echo chambers forming resulting in political minorities seeing themselves as oppressed majorities and the breakdown of debate and compromise.



Even if you're morally against using the way our brains are wired up to create revenue, how else can any serious company compete otherwise? You need money to compete, and to be successful you have to be better at getting money than your competitors, and to do that you have to come up with and implement even more effective ways of exploiting people's obsessions. It "might" be a bad long term strategy, but since when has business been about the long term?



I do think these types of "social" games, even MMOs or really anything with a subscription, really do start to blur the line between the industry providing a service or a product. It'll be interesting to see if any of these concerns pop up during the Supreme Court's hearing on California's game law.

Charles Stuard
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@Mark



Well, I know some since I have many friends and family that play them, but I do suppose all my knowledge is second hand. I did use to play some of those HTML games back in the day, where you had to build your own armies and such, basically was a big game of Risk... but I suppose it's not quite the same.



@Ian



I'll give that article a read as well, and I completely agree games should generally strive to be more meaningful, for sure. Still not completely sold on the traumatic angle, but we'll see how my thought process goes as I move forward.

Michael Lewis
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Man this whole argument rips me apart. Why should games strive to be more meaningful? Isn't it ok that some games strive for this while others are just entertainment. I feel like we could solve a lot of this fear by not calling social games "games". They are toys. Social toys with dynamic feedback systems. I never win anything, and I can't get a personal high score by that I can compete against or others. Games are about competition or goal achievement.



I just feel like we are looking at apples and oranges, or at least apples and pears.

Ian Bogost
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@Michael

There's room for lots of purposes for games, from high art to tools. I've written about many such uses over the years, including here on Gamasutra. But why would you want to make games that actively, deliberately disrespect people's lives and relationships? And why would you be content to pass that problem on to someone else by calling it by another name and washing your hands of it?

Michael Lewis
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@Ian- precisely because I want to make games, not be concerned over how I compete with something that I sense is not the same. Yes, designers can purpose games for many things and can even do some good by doing so. I absolutely am on board with that statement and have read some of your past work. I personally don't want to make games that deliberately disrespect peoples lives and relationships, but I would guess that the developer of these games do not want to either. At the basest level they just want to make money.



I would need real data, not hearsay and isolated instances to believe that these games are inherently bad. Sure these games are going to be bad for a few people, but that is a nature of life. I would guess the act of driving a car causes more destructions to the lives of people than these games, but because for most of us its fine, we are accepting of it.



So I want to call it another name because it is a different thing. Basically I see it like this, if I go play catch with my friend, I don't say I just played a game of baseball. I just played catch. It was an activity that I enjoyed. In regards to washing my hands of it, I am not sure about that, there may be things to explore from these activities that can be used as mechanics in a game, but that is another discussion.



Which gets me to my last point. I want to call it another name because I feel that having these social "games" in the same thought realm as more traditional games is creating a high level of interference on the interesting discussions we could be having as a development community.

Ian Bogost
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But Michael, we can't choose the things that unfold around us in the world. Cow Clicker arose precisely from my discomfort with the reality of social games *being games* to a great many players and developers. What do we do with that fact? It's up to each of us, but I hope when you make your own choices, you muster values more detailed and deliberate than "I want to make games, and these are not games, so I propose to ignore them." For better or worse, these social games are challenging us to engage with them, to make sense of them, to determine why we love or hate them, why we embrace or reject their principles and design patterns and business models and so forth, and why we'd want others to follow our lead. That's surely a discussion worth having along with the others?

Michael Lewis
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Sure absolutely. I find this discussion around social games (since that is what they are called) interesting. I also think there are many things we can learn from them. My only point is that labeling them in terms that make them seem evil is probably not productive for the discussion.

Ian Bogost
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Michael, there's no question that I've used some strong words here and elsewhere, partly for rhetorical effect. But I hope you (and others) will see Cow Clicker, along with this interview and the article I wrote to go along with the game, as a fairly nuanced approach to that position. I won't deny my opinions, but as far as for discussion... the evidence would seem to suggest that its been at least somewhat productive!

Anthony I
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"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play." (strange game = social games)



"How about a nice game of chess?"



LOL

Jesse Fuchs
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Why should Ian bother to reply to JM, when everything that needs to be said can be said just by posting this one link?



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aF8wLg5Asgo

Robert Anderson
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Best read I have had this week!

Jesse Fuchs
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Christopher Enderle said:



"Even if you're morally against using the way our brains are wired up to create revenue, how else can any serious company compete otherwise? You need money to compete, and to be successful you have to be better at getting money than your competitors, and to do that you have to come up with and implement even more effective ways of exploiting people's obsessions. It "might" be a bad long term strategy, but since when has business been about the long term?"



@Christopher Firstly, your implied definition of "serious" is extremely funny, in exactly the same way that the definition of "adult" in a shuttered-window store called "Adult World" would be. So thank you for the lulz. But the strange thing is that, without realizing it, you seem to have just made the best possible argument for what Ian's doing.



After all, given that 1) Sociopathic brain hacking has been proven an effective competitive method, which naturally leads to a race to the bottom, and 2) Government regulation should be the last, not first resort to solving a social problem in a liberal free-market society (which may be the most important of the many, many differences between Bogost and Thompson), then 3) Clearly the correct solution for anyone who is opposed to these games and thinks this race to the bottom is a Bad Thing is to create, via some form of rhetoric, the traditional negative market incentive in this case: Shame. You may have heard of it.



This of course won't directly affect the truly sociopathic, who are shameless by definition, and if there's not some actual meat behind the rhetoric—if, like left-handedness, homosexuality, or liking rock 'n' roll, addictive cow clicking turns out to be a very stupid thing to be ashamed of, then the rhetoric will be unlikely to convince that crucial penumbra of casual observers. especially given the instant pushback that's possible on the Internet—not to mention the vastly greater resources available to the other side, one of the traditional perks of being the first to the bottom.



But, if he's right, and Cow Clicker does maintain its current arc, it will pick off some of their squishier allies and make life somewhat harder for the sociopaths themselves, all in exactly the way that a liberal free market wants us to. Which is exactly what Ian, like any other social critic, should be doing. So...what's your problem, exactly?

Nathan Addison
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Most interesting. You know when I saw that this was an article about Mr. Bogost I just had to check it out. I've really enjoyed following his articles and he's always proven to be an interesting read.



With as much insight the man brings to our industry I'm kind of bewildered as to why his comrades have gone up in arms against him for making a simple social game as an experiment. It reminds me of a box of crayons where the crayons get upset with one another for being able to draw in different colors. Seems a little bit silly if you ask me. And you know maybe it's my game designer background that makes me think of it this way?



I don't claim to be highly educated or a man with grandiose visions of what this industry "should and should not be". At a young age I started designing games not realize that that was what I was doing. Card games, sports, number games, skill based games, board games, and the like. I've made tons of them with no thought of it. Now, I've always had a passion for video games but I never actually tried my hand at making them until the last couple of years. Of course since I've made this a full time profession I have committed myself to study but all together I have zero "higher" education. Perhaps that is why this bewilders me?



Thinking about this whole "social vs. purist" argument makes me wonder if this hasn't already happened in the past? Think about it. Gaming is a cornerstone of human culture. I wonder what men had to say when card games started to come on the scene? Do you think there were these same arguments that we experience today? Like "You're ruining what games are!" or "That's not a game!" or "You're just squeezing money out of the masses!". And for fun lets say that hypothetically there were such arguments. In that case today we see what happened to both "industries"; they're still here.



On the thought of social gaming I'm still a bit confused. Very recently I made a card game that was a big hit with the locals. We'd sit around the table each taking his turn and enjoying one anothers' company. We'd get excited, jump out of are seats, everyone would get louder and louder and we all had a good time. In the end the experience the game generated tempered our friendships and will in the future bring a lot of fond memories to everyone, including those that lost. To me that's a social experience like games have been for centuries and centuries. So why oh why do we even concern ourselves with the thought that the social gaming market will ruin an industry? At the end of the day the definition of a game will still be what it always has been. The experiences that we invoke may change but the emotions that can be conjured up within a man will remain the same. Now if you're worried about paying the bills then I total understand why you might be a bit concerned. lol I need to put food on the table as much as the next guy but just like this market I will have to adapt to the current climate. If I didn't bring home at least my cost of living my wife would have a fit.



It's easy to be critical. To talk down about someone or something is a lot easier than encouraging and uplifting. In the end I would really love to see us come together and agree to disagree about an issue than to turn on our colleagues.



Good article, sir. You made me think. Now time to tackle another stupid GDD....

Jesse Fuchs
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Michael Lewis:



"I would need real data, not hearsay and isolated instances to believe that these games are inherently bad. Sure these games are going to be bad for a few people, but that is a nature of life."



@Michael



Something I brought up—both at the original debate where Cow Clicker debuted, as well as in Ian's comment section—that I would like to see more empirical data on is exactly how lopsided the free-to-play-no-upper-limit-on-spending model is, and how much the necessary mathematical implications of that model drive the aspects of social games that people such as Ian and I find unethical and shameful. I asked whether these games would be able to be profitable if not for the "whales" who spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on the games, and even Aki, the game designer from Digital Chocolate who was there to present the defense, seemed to think the answer was a definitive "No," though nobody had any hard figures. Which leads to the much murkier question of whether the whales are merely sybarites or genuine addicts.



But let me attempt some illumination via thought experiment. Take some social game: Farmville, Cow Clicker, whatever. Now, imagine that any money a player was to spend on that had to be put into an account specific to that game within the first, oh first 5 days of playing it, or first 2 hours of total playtime, or whatever—essentially, they have to "tie themselves to the mast" and decide the maximum amount they are willing to spend on the game before the siren's calls of habituation, sunk costs, slippery slopes, and the terrible homeostasis of desire have had a chance to sink in too far.



My serious metric for you to contemplate is: Would the game survive? Cow Clicker would; I doubt the viability of most others. If that doesn't equate to "inherently bad" in your dictionary, it may be time for a new dictionary.



My slightly less serious metric is: How much would player's subsequent behavior resemble that of Gene Wilder in this clip?



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pu1DMSqTLyk

Ian Bogost
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@Nathan

Thanks for your interest in my work, that means a lot to me. A couple small points:



(1) I don't mean to imply that the negative reaction of developers has been the primary one, even among developers. But it's been loud enough for me to notice and to ponder.



(2) I'm not suggesting that social games will save or destroy the industry. Rather, I'm making (or trying to make) a very surgical claim about a particular sort of approach to building and playing games. There's no eschatological fantasy at work here. That said, I'm not comfortable judging the virtue or value of something (anything) simply by asking whether or not the industry around it perists.

Christopher Enderle
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@Jesse I was mainly trying to play devil's advocate with that quote. My problem is that my quote seems to be the position taken by the investor/business side of the industry. How can someone morally against that position combat it? Maybe it is by creating shame, by showing how these types of games are now uncool thus leaving them behind as just another fad. It seems like a risky strategy, though, or at least one that shouldn't be solely relied upon.



Making the presumption that games can enrich peoples lives, perhaps such an experience wrapped around the cow clicking framework is the only way to outcompete what's currently on the market. Maybe other games that try to pad out the cow clicking with actual fun content haven't done as well for other reasons or maybe the audience has been conditioned to dislike anything that comes in between them and their cow clicking. How can we, as developers, help the audience take a step back in that regard? Ian's work sure helps, but what more can be done?

Nathan Addison
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@Ian

Thank you, sir. I appreciate you taking the time to clear up my misconceptions. As always I am interested in seeing the future results of your experiment and this forum's discussions.

Ian Bogost
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@Christopher

"How can we, as developers, help the audience take a step back in that regard."



A good question. Merely asking it is a step in the right direction. I don't think we ask it enough... the question, "why am I making something?" It shouldn't be enough to answer, "because that's what people are doing now." Games are varied and pliant and flexible, and surely there are many viable, deliberate approaches, explored and unexplored, for making viable, enriching, interesting experiences with.



I've brought this up before in the comments, but one of the most urgent issues we face as an industry is reconciling our relationship to today's Silicon Valley high-tech industry. Games have for some time been mired in a nether-land between entertainment and high tech. Collectively, we've not taken a strong position in either direction, either toward art or toward, well, whatever you'd call what tech startups do. The "social games" industry has tipped the scales in the direction of Palo Alto. Or differently put, Palo Alto is expanding north into Redwood City and south into Los Angeles. Are we even aware of it?

Dylan Woodbury
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His daughter (I think it is - abbey bogost) is ranked third on the rankings page!!! lol



This is just awesome. I wonder how popular a facebook game he could make if he made it to be good?!?

Dylan Woodbury
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If you think about it (I guess this is what you were doing Ian), Cow Clicker is any ThemePlace game (Farmville, Cafeworld) or social text role playing game (Mafia Wars) at its very roots. No matter what you throw on top or how complicated these games are, you come back every so often to click your stuff, and when you get frustrated by your lack of progress or begin to believe that the large igloo would be so much cooler to have on your farm than the small free igloo, you pay money.



I've always thought that the social networking game companies could do so much more than these games and arcade ports. How about a game in which you use strategy to conquer, rather than grinding the entire game.



I've had this concept for a game in which you can either start your own company (probably can't do up front, unless you have some wealthy friends who can stake part of your company if they like the pitch), or join a friend's company. The company gets money, and the CEO gets to hire friends or decline friends, as well as negotiate salaries. If a worker stops playing or does not fully accomplish a task, the president would probably benefit by firing him/her. You get experience points for doing well, and your level can ensure certain benefits/salary and make you stand out if you apply for a job. If you make enough money by making your way up the corporate ladder, you can quit and start your own company, and even bring over contacts you've made at previous jobs. Maybe one kind of job asks of you to make an idea for a certain product, and others vote on randomly selected ideas for a small pay for them and the company. I'm not going to give my complete idea (as to exactly what the companies do and stuff down that path), but a solid game concept with simple rules which allows room for creativity and strategy allows for infinite gameplay and infinite possibilities. As the CEO, you can give rewards, promote, demote, fire, hire, stake in other businesses, etc., and as a worker you can fight for promotions, get contacts, get experience in different kinds of tasks, etc. These mechanics really push the SOCIAL part of social networking, and would be discussed on end off the internet.



Ha. I guess this has turned into a kind of pitch, but I hope you can really see the fun social games CAN offer, even if games like FarmVille throw good game design into the burner. Anyways, anyone have any other ideas for ways to push social games beyond the click and wait structure they have now? (and if I play this game online and nobody brings me in for a role in the process, I'm gonna be kickin myself in the butt).



Anyways, thanks for pushing the envelope once again for us game designers, Ian.

Ian Bogost
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@Dylan

Abbey's my wife. She has a very effective pasture, it seems.



I agree with you that there's nothing fundamentally worthless about the infrastructure of Facebook and its application to games. Hopefully we'll see Brian and Steve and Brenda and Raph and others accomplish that. For now, I think it's Frank Lantz (Area/Code) who's doing the best work on Facebook. He's just not getting as much attention (or financial success) as all these generic cow clickers.

Alvaro Gonzalez
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I think this post is not seeing the whole picture. Social Games are nothing else than a "ism" that eventually will give us more fuel to continue running on the path that will drive us to understand the game design language. Been critic is important if we want to keep challenging, but I think we have to focus not on the CEOs, developers, $, etc. we have to focus in try to understand what is the contribution to the games language this social games make.

Dylan Woodbury
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What in the design in a game like Facebook makes it fun? It must be fun, right? Otherwise 60 someodd million people wouldn't be playing it. I don't understand how people do not get bored of doing the same exact thing in the game for that long. The difficulty does not increase (there really isn't any difficulty), and the game has no challenge to start with. By our understanding of game design, once a person has mastered the game or has become bored due to the lack of challenge for him/her, he/she stops playing. Some people, though, have been playing this way four times a day for over a year, on five different variations of the same game! I was wondering what your thoughts were on this, Ian (unless you've already answered this question).

Ian Bogost
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Dylan, it's an interesting question. You must be right that something is causing players to play these games. It need not be "fun" though... it could be any number of other sensations, from an earnest interest that I've misunderstood or unfairly dismissed, to a troubling compulsion that preys upon their worst flaws. My suspicions lean toward the latter, and that's why I cite compulsion as one of the dangers of social games as we currently know them.



I can recommend A. J. Liszkiewicz's essay on precisely the question you ask, which you can find here:

http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/content/cultivated-play-f
armville



His answer is, basically, "People play FarmVille because other people play FarmVille." But read the essay, it's much richer than that.



A particularly generous answer might be something like this: these games do something similar to casual games. They provide a break, a respite, a calming, predictable, scheduleable moment in an uncertain and confusing world. That's certainly what games like Solitaire and Bejeweled have done, in part. Or more broadly, what an activity like knitting offers... you could say of hobbyist knitters, "Some people have been making scarves day after day for years!" and not be wrong. There's at least one difference, though, between knitters and cow clickers, and that's that the knitting industry isn't bending the former over in order to extract every last penny of cash and modicum of pride out of them at every turn. And again, you can't just buy out of the knitting, get the scarf, toss it, and move on. There's still something intrinsically rewarding about the activity, beyond its mere completion.



Some advocates of social games answer your question by remarking that players of these games are not just doing rote actions, but constructing little, personalized expressions. I find that claim preposterous, personally, but it's a common one. If choosing to put your barn in this square or that square counts as "self-expression" then I possess only sorrow for our future.

Rob Solomon
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One of the things I really like about Cow Clicker is how it exposes the artifice of personalized expression through these games, as you express yourself through these pre-packaged sprites.



Take for instance my own experience with Cow Clicker. I bought the Argyle cow before the others in my friends' list, but then felt displeasure when I saw that other people were buying the same cow, so now I feel the need to get another cow to differentiate myself within my pasture. Rinse, repeat.



If I could easily change the shade of my cow I wouldn't have this desire, which is why most of these social games don't offer much customization. There are five shades of that lava lamp, and you have to buy each one separately. This is one of the main reasons I don't buy (ha ha ha) the "we're furthering personal self-expression" argument of social games.



Often, the compulsion to play often doesn't flow solely from your friends playing the game, but in beating your friends at it. One of the most genius thing social games ever did is to show your relative position in XP to the rest of your friends, so that you would be compelled to "keep up with the Jones". Cow Clicker does this too. I know better than to check the scoreboards, but I do it anyway. Moving up the scoreboard remains satisfying, and I'm not even doing anything! Why is this?!

Michael Curtiss
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Haha, I do enjoy the game :).

Daniel Martinez
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It's too late for us to return to Cup and Ball, Marbles and Yo-Yos, isn't it?

Christina Freeman
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One of the main reasons people play games is to waste time and distract themselves from the other realities of life. Many people are disillusioned, disenfranchised, and dissatisified with the way things are, and feel powerless to change them, so they seek distractions instead. Social games on platforms like facebook just enable this a bit easier, while providing false motivational boosts from the otherwise meaningless objectives these games have, just like achievements and reward systems in MMOs and other types of games. It is rather unfair to dismiss social games when the general dumbing down of games has been afflicting every type of game since there was a games industry.

david vink
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Very interesting read. Thanks a lot, Mr. Bogost!



Perhaps rather than (or on top of) protecting children from violent and sexual content in video games, we should protect them against specific addictive types of gameplay as well. There have been discussions about this with regards to MMO's (WOW in particular).



Btw I am assuming here most Farmville (etc.) players are kids.



Another random thought I had (question for Ian Bogost): Is playing Farmville for 20 hours a week somehow worse or less good than playing, say, Mario Galaxy for 20 hours?

Ian Bogost
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@David

I doubt that the goodness or badness of anything can be understood merely as a function of time spent on it. FWIW, the vast majority of FarmVille players are not kids, and remember that nobody under 13 can use Facebook anyway.

Carlo Delallana
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The biggest thing missing in social games (for me) is the social part. There is this missed opportunity to use games to build stronger relationships and spark new ones but what I've observed is more about social economy and status rather than true socialization.



Can a social game help players reminisce about old times?



Can a social game rekindle an old flame?



I think the "game" part is there but the "social" aspect is under-served .


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