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February 2011 Issue

Featured - Moo: Facebook Game “Cow Clicker” Created by Georgia Tech Professor
Georgia Tech Professor Ian Bogost

Moo: Facebook Game “Cow Clicker” Created by Georgia Tech Professor

Cow Clicker’s creator, Ian Bogost, is an Associate Professor at Georgia Tech. He works in the School of Literature Communication and Culture and is also an affiliated faculty at the College of Computing’s GVU Center. David J. Terraso in the Office of Communications at Georgia Tech conducted a Q&A with Ian especially for the System Supplement.

Q. What is Cow Clicker?

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.

Q. Why did you create Cow Clicker?

Cow Clicker is satire, 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.

Then in July 2010, 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. 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.

Q. How has it been received? Who plays it? Have you been surprised at the reaction?

It struck a nerve, and got a lot of games, technology, and culture press as a result. I think people don’t really understand themselves why the trend of social games is so popular, or why they play the games they do, or what it all means. Cow Clicker gives them a tool to think with.

At its height, over 50,000 people were playing Cow Clicker on Facebook.

Q. I understand it had a strong start last summer, is it still growing strong?

It’s certainly evolved, which is a strange sensation. The game itself isn’t growing like it did initially, but there are a solid group of maybe 10,000 devoted players. In that sense, I guess the joke’s on me. People really play Cow Clicker, even if maybe they ought not to.

Q. Has the creation and reception of the game taught you anything unexpected?

I’ve had to revise and make more subtle my opinions about social games, but mostly I’ve learned what it’s like to make and operate one of these titles. And it’s an experience that’s neither good nor awful in itself.

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. As I’ve managed Cow Clicker, I have found myself watching people play, listening to feedback, and imagining changes. That process comes with its own compulsion and self-loathing.

Q. What’s next for you?

This January I extended Cow Clicker into its own platform, making an open API for players to create their own cow clicking applications. It’s an extension of the satire, one that targets recent technology trends like “gamification,” platform plays, and app stores. More about that can be found here:

Apart from cows, I’ve got a new book on the applications of games coming out this year with University of Minnesota Press, entitled How To Do Things with Videogames, as well as a book of philosophy called Alien Phenomenology, which deals in part with the practice of making things as a way of theorizing.

Q. Do you have anything you’d like to add to this discussion?


For more information on Cow Clicker, please visit:

Posted by Sonja Roberts on February 02, 2011
Published in: On Campus

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