I’m Clicking A Cow

Games researcher Ian Bogost, whom I had the extraordinary pleasure with at this year’s IGF, made a Facebook game called Cow Clicker. It’s an intriguing work.

Cow Clicker

“You earn a click every time you click your cow (moo!). Once you click, you’ll have to wait another six hours to click again. Come back regularly to maximize your clicks.”

It’s basically a social game like Farmville stripped down to it’s bare core. It’s so stripped down that it doesn’t even try to dress the fact that all you do is clicking on a cow. But of course, that’s the very idea of the game. It is not a serious attempt at a Social Game. At least not in the same way other Social Games are. It aims at exposing some of the problems with how Social Games work by putting them bluntly.

Ian actually wrote a very intriguing post about some of the philosophy behind the game. It a great piece, that puts my concerns into words much better than I ever could. He mentions 4 problems with Soical Games and calles them Enframing, Compulsion, Optionalism and Destroyed Time. Of the 4, I think Optionalism is what concerns me the most. It’s the fact that you don’t actually do anything in those games.

In search to encourage players to play more digital games almost unintentionally invented and perfected some very good systems to create extrinsic motivations for in-game action. There are some pretty complicated RPG leveling systems, achievements, collectibles, etc. Those systems are good at motivating players but rarely add anything substantial to the game. I think every reasonable designer and even players themselves understand the inherent danger of over-using those systems. Social Games are stripped down from all gameplay and interaction so that only the motivational structures remain. There are no decisions to make in Cow Clicker. The interaction with game elements is reduced to the simplest action possible – clicking a cow. All that is left is collecting virtual money, inviting friends and buying decoration.

But the interesting thing with Cow Clicker is that it is not just an art project – a glorious fail meant to be watched but not engaged in physically. You can actually play it. It’s almost like a joke. By playing the game, you can express that you are in on the joke. And then by playing it, you realize that the motivational structures do work. I catch myself contemplating on paying real money to buy an especially funny cow. Wait! What am I doing here? Am I still on the joke? Am I buying this in an ironic way? Or is the joke on me because I’m spending real money anyway? And how is spending time less humiliating?

I’m reminded of a project I did during my studies. It was conducted by Fiona Raby form Dunne & Raby. She is a rare designer who is doing so-called Critical Design. Basically, she designs products and services that aren’t meant to be real consumer products. Instead, they encourage people to stop, pay attention to and think about all sorts of controversial topics. Here is one example that stuck with me: there is a technology in development to clone human tissue in a vat. It could be used for organ replacement in the future. At Dunne & Raby they came up with a fictitious product of “Victimless Meat”. Imagine a steak made entirely in a lab, that was never a part of a living creature. Would that kind of meat be acceptable for Vegetarians? What if you would push it even further? What if you could clone and sell a human steak? What if you could even make it personal – a steak made out of the DNA of a celebrity or a relative or a person you really hate?

The reason I mention this is that Cow Clicker seems to be a very related project. It’s Critical Game Design. It has the same superficial simplicity and underlying uneasy ambiguity. It exposes you to conflict of values and convictions. In many ways it even goes further. The Dunne & Raby projects are often fictitious. Cow Clicker is real and you can go play it right now.

By the way, if you are interested in some of the thinking behind Critical Design, I recommend a book by Dunne & Raby: Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. And of course, check out the books of Ian Bogost as well! Certainly less ambiguous ways to invest your time and money.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

One response to “I’m Clicking A Cow”

  1. Luis Sopelana


    “What if you could clone and sell a human steak?”

    Just wanted to pint out this was explored as a background element in Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s comic series TRANSMETROPOLITAN in the form of a chain of Long Pig restaurants.

    Thanks for pointing us in the direction of Dunne & Raby. Very interesting work.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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