The past year has been one of the strangest ever in the life of game designer, lecturer and author Ian Bogost. It started with the launch of the most successful game he's ever developed, and ended with him bringing it to a strange, cathartic end.
That game was Facebook title Cow Clicker, a now-infamous satire against social games. For its creator, though, it's been more complicated than that. As his friend, I confess to being a little relieved it's over with.
This is the story of a person whose joke project became more successful than the one on which he lavished love and intellect, the climate that caused that to happen and how ultimately he decided to learn from it instead of becoming upset.
Ian recently sent me an IM to share some correspondence with one of his users: "Hi Ian," writes one. "I've noticed that the Cowpocalypse has happened and users have to pay to see their cow. Do you have a goal or timeframe of when this will be set back to normal?"
"There's no way to pay to see your cow," replied the designer. "The cows got raptured."
Like any dissatisfied customer, the user said he'll no longer play, as Cow Clicker is "not a very fun game" any longer. Answers Bogost: "It wasn't very fun before :)"
Cow Clicker was never supposed to be fun. It was supposed to be silly, insultingly simple, a vacuous waste of time, and a manipulative joke at the expense of its players — in other words, everything Bogost thought that Facebook games like the Zynga-made hit FarmVille are. In Cow Clicker, players get a cow, they click it, and then they must either pay to click it again or wait six hours; an embarrassing, joyless labour that to him represented the quintessential aspects of the games that were flourishing all over the social network.
Many of those games were being built by his own longtime colleagues in the field of game design — in some cases, admired colleagues who migrated from traditional development to social games. Great game designers, suddenly appearing passionate about simplistic, microtransactions-driven farm and city sims on Facebook. I believe Ian saw their career moves as an inexplicable, even an unethical defection.
He developed the initial prototype as a way to "show, not tell" his deeply felt concerns about social game design at one of his speaking engagements. It was a clever way to go about it, but not too surprising for Ian — the idea that games can say things better than words can has been, in essence, my friend's life work. As a designer, academic and author he's a foremost figure in the field of "persuasive games" — serious games whose objective is to convey information, provoke thought or pose questions. In fact, he (quite literally) wrote the book on them.
One of my favourite traits of his is that he has a particular flair for finding the absurdity in the dull, the dry irony in the everyday, occasionally even poetically. See his tweet: "The subtle sorrow of the airport bagel". Bogost spends much of his time in airports (Delta, always), so rigorous is his conference speaking schedule. And for a while, games like Airport Security, a dull-but-absurd playable about the illogic of the TSA's flight security screening standards, were the ideal exemplar of his public work.
He was, however, known as something of a curmudgeon in private, wearing the crown of sceptic proudly in venues both public and private, from Twitter to a clandestine mailing list used as a base of discussion for many in the independent game design community. Amid debates on the ideal form and function of meaningful interactive entertainment, Bogost was writing about the Atari 2600, fascinated by the intense, almost meditative focus required in "racing the beam" — the challenge of executing programming instructions before the Atari's electron gun can engrave them.
Although Cow Clicker's combination of incisive criticism with absurdity was in many ways just like my friend Ian, in some ways his Facebook angst was a little unexpected, even though he'd always been combative. Usually he could be expected to prefer conundrums more arch. Back in 2008, inspired by a quip from his close friend, Area/Code co-founder Frank Lantz, Bogost had begun the three-year process of slowly, lovingly developing a series of four peculiar "game poems" on the Atari.
The project, A Slow Year, wondered whether games without "gameplay" in the traditional sense could still be meaningful.
"I wasn't trying to prove a point," insists Bogost, who is the sort of infuriating person who, in response to questions about meaning, replies what do you think it means?.
"I was just intrigued by the question," he says.
Accompanied by a fascinating book of computer-generated haiku poetry, A Slow Year would go on to achieve finalist status in the 2010 Independent Games Festival's "Nuovo" category for experimental titles.
The game didn't win its category at the 2010 IGF (that nod went to Cactus' Tuning). But at that year's Game Developers Conference, at which the IGF is annually staged, Zynga's Bill Mooney made a contentious speech to an audience of young creative rebels that basically boiled down to "you're all going to be working for us someday". That moment, to Bogost and to many of his colleagues in the design community, was something of a watershed for the anxiety and conflict that seemed to be roiling under the glassy surface of the Facebook boom.
That was the year Cow Clicker was born. Sitting in one of the social gaming keynotes, the phrase "cow clicker" drifted into Bogost's head. "I liked the alliteration of 'Cow Clicker,' he says. "It was the kind of thing you would tweet."
At first, it was a welcome salvo across those tension lines — a traditionalist's desire to call out those who seemed to be betraying their values. It looked to me like, while Ian found the design of Facebook games hollow and exploitive, he was more disturbed by what he perceived to be dishonesty in the design community.
Bogost's friend Frank Lantz agrees with me. "He's an ethicist in a way," he says. "He's like a rabbi; very wise, very world-weary."
Explains Bogost: "They call it this 'exciting new territory for games', and maybe they mean that. But then maybe they also mean, 'I've got my kid in university; I can't just be this guy who made interesting text adventures in the 1980s.' I think that pressure is always there, and anyone who says it's not is lying."
Many of Bogost's colleagues seemed to struggle to understand what value he saw in the meticulous effort he lavished on A Slow Year. Bogost felt well-liked designers, like Chris Hecker, "hated" his project and were wondering why he would spend time puttering around on Atari "game poems" when there were more important design problems to be solved, more valuable constraints to test.
Meanwhile, the popularity of Cow Clicker inexplicably exploded. Friends and gamers — myself included — who shared his anxiety over what Facebook was doing to the design community "played" Cow Clicker as a statement of solidarity; sharing that mournful cow on one's wall was something like a protest sign. Bogost's vocal position and the witty way in which he'd chosen to state it attracted a storm of media attention, more than he had ever received over any single work.
It's not that he was a stranger to recognition, but the environment around him had been changing rapidly. My friend had built his career discussing and designing around the idea that games could convey ideas in ways that other media could not; they could pose questions, stimulate behaviour. His approach was subtle, thoughtful, academic, as poetic as the meticulous etching of an Atari's beam.
And it was a quiet discipline; his work was appreciated in academia, media and even in philanthropy, but often considered "ivory tower" — not necessarily a complimentary term — by the mainstream design community and the big profiteers. Then came the Gamification movement, the shiny new idea that if people were assigned goals and extrinsic "rewards", they'd be more motivated to engage with tasks — and brands — than they would have otherwise been.
Bogost's years of research and writing on how games could affect perspective and behaviour prized design wisdom and a deep understanding of context and of other media. Yet suddenly there was an explosion of investment in gamification startups eager to tack game mechanics onto things like check-in apps. The intersection of games and real life was suddenly a very trendy thing, and a new legion of spokespeople emerged to simplify, systematise and mass-market it.
In 2007 Bogost went on the Colbert Report to discuss how games could encourage people to engage with different points of view. But in 2011 it was charismatic Jane McGonigal going on the Colbert Report to assert that the sentiment of victory accorded by gaming could be leveraged to cure global illnesses and poverty. Bogost is a scholar of rhetoric; McGonigal is fond of the phrase "epic win", and gamers cheer her.
I've been friends with Ian Bogost since 2007, when I was at first too intimidated to say hello to him at Games For Change, one of the first industry events I've ever covered.
At first, I was excited to see that, unlike with the esoteric Slow Year, with Cow Clicker, his wit was getting the recognition it deserved. He had used game design to comment on an issue that was part of game design and yet bigger than it, bigger than its players. It was an outcry at the road-fork of gaming's future. In that way it transcended the hype; it really was the greatest success he had ever achieved.
More surprisingly, Cow Clicker developed an active player base — people who missed the humour and attached to it as if it were a "real" game. These players unquestioningly spent real-money Facebook credits to enjoy their cows and sent Bogost innocent player feedback in the hopes of improving their experience.
It subverted every expectation that he had, even as it reaffirmed his worst fears about the exploitive sadism of Facebook game design. Its success also became something to dread. A Slow Year represented everything Bogost loved about games; Cow Clicker was about everything he hated.
And now this acerbic lark, this quick sketch at the expense of FarmVille, was becoming the work that defined him — not his teaching, not any of his previous games, nor his books or his lectures. I understood his anxiety. I felt he must be hurt.
Ian and I used to talk about things like the marketing-generated names for flavours of Sun Chips; it bugs him that there's a "Harvest Cheddar" flavour (you don't "harvest" cheese). He was often delighted by weird food objects — grotesque bacon loaves, fried things being fried again.
But over the past few months the conversations often distilled: His frustration with the social media space, gamification, the superficial Bay Area startup culture and all its behaviours. He was enduring the stress of becoming better-known for what he stood against than for what he stood for. And it quickly became clear to me that Cow Clicker was the receptacle for his aggression.
Bogost declines to say how much money he earned from Cow Clicker-only that the Facebook platform's accounting tools make it difficult to tell for sure. But merchandising Cow Clicker seemed to amuse him: There were Cow Clicker hoodies, T-shirts, mugs, mouse pads, car decals. He offered theme cows for special occasions — like the crayon-drawn "Ponycorn Cow" made available to call attention to Sissy's Ponycorn Adventure, a game made by a child that had become an internet sensation, an avatar for the innocent integrity missing from modern games. It was weirdly fitting.
Then Ian began playing pranks on the users: He found it hilarious to offer ridiculously priced premium cows; in one case, he offered one that was the same as the free default cow, simply facing the other direction. It cost 2500 Mooney, or about $US20 in real money (the game's currency is called "Mooney" — Bogost says its commonality with the Zynga exec's last name is sheer coincidence). The bewilderment and, in many cases, complicity of Cow Clicker's clueless players seemed to tickle him just as much as the environment that made his humour so plausible bothered him.
One day Ian IMed me, seeming unhappy. Something bad had happened, he said, except he couldn't yet tell me what. A few weeks later I learned what it was when I covered the news myself: Social gaming giant Zynga had purchased Area/Code, which meant that Bogost's close friend, discussion buddy and frequent inspiration Frank Lantz, the company's co-founder, was now in the employ of the FarmVille empire.
"He hates Zynga," Lantz tells me quietly. Nonetheless: "I think our friendship is the best example of what dialogue is supposed to do. When I work on social games I think about Ian, and I think about what he would think."
It's a two-way street for the friends who agree and disagree in equal measures. And when it comes to Cow Clicker's explosive success, and the increasing attention Bogost had begun paying to it, Lantz was empathetic: "Obviously, he himself is addicted to it," he opines. "It's fun to have people play your game; it's beautiful. That's what you want most as a game designer, it's the most amazing thing in the world. At that point, you stop caring what the game was."
But seeing Ian immersed in Cow Clicker's no-win spiral, I began to worry about my friend. He had taken on the aura of a mad scientist, making triumphant declarations over equations that were comprehensible only to him and to his inexplicably entrenched players, now indistinguishable from his fellow satirists. At first he introduced a random element that had a chance of stealing virtual currency from players when they clicked their cows.
Then, Bogost unveiled an ominous clock, counting down to the impending Cowpocalypse. I understood only that he planned to terminate Cow Clicker, and that he was also forcing players to buy their way out of it. Or forcing every cow-click to be allocated toward the digital animals' very demise. Or both.
It was hard to tell anymore, and just as some of his game design colleagues seemed fatigued of his acerbic reactions to social gaming and gamification, I was becoming tired of Cow Clicker and what it looked like it was doing to my gentle friend.
Every time he instant messaged me about it I'd ask him, "Is it over yet?"'
Says Lantz: "He probably would be happier if he hadn't made Cow Clicker, but he doesn't want to be happy. I don't know what his goal in life is, but it's not to be happy. He's definitely better off having made this thing that has made him so unhappy."
But as Cow Clicker began to bleed out the last of its life, Bogost sat in his Georgia home, shearing felt with the patient razor precision of a craftsman, cutting and gluing the special limited edition box sets of A Slow Year, returning to its zen. While his snarky whim exploded across the internet and placed him at odds with peers and friends, he seemed to be gravitating back to the thoughtful, inimitable passion project that had failed to earn him nearly as much understanding and admiration.
To me, the two projects create meaningful contrast. Maybe the Cow Clicker players, the media, the meme-hungry internet and even some of Bogost's own colleagues think that game is his greatest achievement. But Frank Lantz believes Cow Clicker and A Slow Year stand side by side as Bogost's best work ever, transcending classic models of expression and rhetoric.
"These things are spectacular, and they're actually important, and he's willing to follow along on the journey that his work is going on," Lantz says. "When your work can be bigger than you and drag you along with it, it's spectacular. And he suffers from it — but we're all benefiting from it."
(Bogost has said that Cow Clicker has been played by more than 50,000 people. A Slow Year, which is sold as a book of poetry that includes video games bundled with it,according to Bogost, "sells like most poetry books probably sell.")
The A Slow Year limited sets include the poetry book and the game on Atari cartridge, all set in black velvet and red leather, gold foil stamping, all hand-numbered, hand-made. While a manic counter was screaming the end of Bogost's journey to challenge social gaming norms, the creator was quietly, manually, assembling a physical art object.
Only 25 will ever be made; they will sell for $US500 apiece. Most have already been sold. To Bogost, like the poetry book that accompanies the Atari game, the handcraft and limited nature of A Slow Year's special edition help establish the project uncompromisingly as an art object, a creation bigger than "video game."
The cows will have no such permanence or preciousness. As a final insult, Cow Clicker is still active on Facebook, showing empty pastures. The countdown clock reached its end, and the cows all have been "raptured." Bogost even produced a new Cow Clicker T-shirt that shows the grass plot, the ominous hovering clicker-arrow-–and no cow.
Yet the protestations of users still pour in; Bogost has received countless messages from people who don't seem to understand that the experiment is over. They want to know when they can click their cows again, if there's anything they can do. They miss the game.
"I never expected that would happen," reflects Bogost. "A lot of the serious players… just like clicking a cow sometimes. It's very innocent; they just like clicking a cow."
"Maybe they have a point," he muses. "Maybe there's a way that it can be something more meaningful than I suspected. I am trying to take that charge seriously and think it through in a way that is more sophisticated than when I started this experiment a year ago."
"Let alone the players, at the very least, I owe myself that."
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, columnist in Edge Magazine and games editor at Nylon Guys, in addition to freelancing reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.