What does it mean to make a social game in earnest, and why do developers feel such "disgust and anguish"at the evolution of the space?
Designer, professor and author Ian Bogost was mulling these questions when he came up with the idea for Cow Clicker, a Facebook game that started out as a cute satire and became a more complex and thought-provoking commentary than he could have possibly perceived.
It started with a phrase, "cow clicker," which Bogost says popped into his head as a generic and pejorative term for the click-oriented play involved in farming sims or other social games focused on "implicating one's friends in these networks of obligations," he said.
With the mixed blessing of being the media's "go-to firebrand," Bogost ended up "saying some less than moderate things" about Zynga, FarmVille and the social media business following 2010's Game Developers Conference. "What was animating those hallways in March was a sentiment of fear," he observed.
What he saw -- he explained as part of his GDC Online lecture on Wednesday -- was not the fear of being taken over in the marketplace, but a strange and intangible anxiety about what these games really are.
Birth Of The Barn
While Bogost was engaging in a heated debate over these issues with other developers, Playdom's Raph Koster suggested that he try making a game in the genre himself before being so critical. So Bogost decided to develop some theories to qualify his position: "I didn't want that theory to be just a bunch of writing -- I wanted to do something appropriate for... academic content, but still wanted it to be fully playable," he said.
The project tied in with his thoughts on scholarly work in general; why does scholarship always mean writing, he wondered. "Since I study video games, it stands to reason that I might make one that was neither theory nor art, but something in the middle," he proposed.
To distill his position on the social game genre down to its essence, and to identify that essence, Bogost said he had to identify the properties that were giving him pause. The first he determined was a property he calls "enframing." The word enframing comes out of Heidegger's critiques of technology, and Heidegger used "technology" as a word to generally refer to a modern era in which everything exists as "standing reserves" to be consumed.
"Taking something and only caring about it insofar as it's only capable of doing something else for you... there's something insidious about it in games," Bogost suggested.
Facebook games apply the act of play -- and friendship -- to a potential use. Facebook friends become not "friends," but resources for the players to use to accomplish goals, and for developers to use to monetize their products.
Bogost identified compulsion as another element that alarmed him about social games. In the web 2.0 era, people can become obsessed with the information feed online. "I feel awful about those obsessions," he says.
Then there's "optionalism," the option to spend money or resources to avoid your in-game responsibilities. "There's something strange about social games in that you don't have to play them... you can buy out, or perform other actions so that you don't have to bother to play the game that you're choosing to play," he says.
Finally, Bogost recognized social games' different idea of time consumption. Console games in the modern era make considerable demands on players' time, and some of those demands can feel repetitive or empty. But something "more violent" happens in social games, he says: "The time we spend away from them is also stolen from us," he suggests. "Most of this is accomplished through manufacturing dread," he adds, noting that users can miss out on crop harvests and rewards from friends or receive other penalties when they avoid playing a social game for a certain amount of time.
And it's not unique to games -- in the word of immediate connectivity, software programs, text messages and other tools are contantly reminding players to update, to re-connect and to re-engage, which contributes to social compulsion.
Thus Cow Clicker was born as a simple game where you get a cow you can click on once every six hours. You can join up with friends's cows in "pastures," resulting in more earned "clicks." Players can also use micropayments of in-game "mooney" to buy "premium" cows that add only decorative elements to the game. Bogost insists the currency is simply a pun on the sounds cow makes, and not the darker allusion some have suggested:
"I swear that 'mooney' was not named after [Zynga VP] Bill Mooney at all," he asserted. "It was just a strange coincidence."
Out To Pasture
Bogost hoped that Cow Clicker would be a statement in total absurdity -- players would be clicking for no real reason, ranked on leaderboards in no real contest, and "that's the whole thing. I think I spent four days working on this," he says.
He finds it "incredibly disturbing" that the game went on to be what he calls the most successful piece of art he's ever made. Its numbers are not impressive by social game marketplace standards -- 50,000 cow clickers at the game's peak, clicking around two million times, a number that has since declined. But he watched the game's users to see how many users actually "got" the satire. And people seemed to receive Cow Clicker as satire, judging by amusing puns, jokes and meta-satire that players left on the game's Facebook page.
There were one-star reviews, too, either from people who didn't understand what Bogost was trying to accomplish -- and from people critical of the design, suggesting better or more ideal game tuning or arguing with one another about the user ratings they'd applied to the game. There were excessively earnest reviews, criticizing the fun factor or the lack of flash, even while aware that it was a joke.
Bogost also received pitches from monetization platforms suggesting how to make his game earn more. Someone wrote a strategy guide; someone cloned it in the aquarium genre by creating a "fish clicker." He even received an email photo of the white board at Facebook's HQ, with a cow clicker cow drawn squarely on it.
"I found myself caught up in this web," Bogost laughs. But he decided to keep going with it, continuing to introduce new "premium" cows in popular genres, selling Cow Clicker swag and offering more (and naturally more insulting) incentives, such as a meaningless gold cowbell players can receive if they rack up 100,000 clicks.
"I tried to listen to my users and all that stuff you hear people talk about," he said. People wanted to be able to gift cows, so he implemented it. "Then it felt like I had been listening to them too much and not pushing them hard enough," he said, leading to his decision to unveil a $25 cow that was identical to the game's stock cow, simply facing the other way.
He found it interesting to watch people perform the irony -- an irony he cheerfully perpetuated. The ongoing puns remain central to the game, and players electively took it up in the notations they made about their cow clicker wall posts, Bogost said. The game became a way of thinking through ideas and questions on social gaming and to provoke discussions, he reflected.
What Happened Next
Bogost said he learned that he underestimated how much of his actual time and work it would take to get the game to the level that he wanted it to be, to say nothing of how much it would take to get it to really become a big money-maker.
Social games are not just about clicking on things -- critics of Cow Clicker have suggested that the satire leaves out the creative and social experiences people get from, say, building a FarmVille farm to their specifications and showing it to their friends. But not only did the dedicated Cow Clicker reactionaries prove that players do gain a personal experience from the game, but Bogost remains skeptical of the idea that game designers package and sell creativity.
"In some ways, this idea of creativity emerging from a game is not because we put it there as designers, but because no matter what tripe we throw at them, they manage to rise above it... it seems perverse to take credit for taking credit for their resilience," he says.
Something one finds "evil" doesn't become less so because it's coupled with intent and design, Bogost notes. "I don't know what you can make of the fact that you're celebrating your ability to sell tripe to people who want it," he says. But he's encouraged, in some ways, by the "fuck the users, whatever I need to do to get revenue" party line of many social gaming companies: "At least I know where to put that in my frame of understanding," he says.
This frame stands in sharp contrast to early game developers trying to bring arcades into bars, though, Bogost says. They were part of a counterculture: "They had ideas, they had vision and goals... it wasn't about making a crappy ping-pong thing," he says. Those values may be missing from the gaming landscape today -- much of what bothers Bogost in social games is present in most products that come out of the Silicon Valley space, he says.
"But if we want to be culture-makers, don't we have to be troubled with doing the work... rather than letting others set the standards?" he posed.
Ultimately, Cow Clicker is a microcosm of the social game development scene more than it is a critique of it, Bogost says. In his view, perhaps the "most perverse" thing about it is that, in the end, it was a viable social game. "I think that makes it tragic, as much as it does satiric," he concludes.
"I worry about Cow Clicker players," he adds. "They shouldn't be playing Cow Clicker."