Leigh Alexander is getting a lot of well-deserved praise for her thoughtful piece on Ian Bogost and his satirical social game Cow Clicker. Since I’m sort of a running character in the piece, I thought I’d chime in with my much beloved opinion.
As much as I enjoyed Leigh’s article, it struck me as strangely melancholy, almost elegiac. I think there’s a much less tragic reading of the game and the whole situation. I mean, first of all, the game is funny. It’s a funny game. And despite being told of its players, the Cow Clicker army whose appetite for self-destruction threatened to devour Ian over the past year, that they “missed the humor” I remain skeptical. Isn’t it possible that these people basically got the joke? Got the joke and liked the game anyway? I mean, I know these people aren’t all game designers, game journalists, or game scholars (although presumably most of them are one or two steps removed), but the joke is obvious, broad, hilarious. And while Ian, to his great credit, heroically resisted my attempts to persuade him to put more gameplay into the game, he was indefatigable at adding new jokes. The ridiculous cows, the fake mechanics, the craven spin-offs and brand-building tie-ins, and the puns… oh god… the puns.
So why assume that these players for whom we are meant to feel such tongue-clucking pity were oblivious to the games satirical purpose? Maybe they didn’t get the joke the way Ian wanted them to, but then, why should they? He wanted them to get that a game this simple, a game this strict, a game this transparent and shallow couldn’t be playable, shouldn’t be played. And they didn’t get that part of the joke. But maybe it’s because that part isn’t true. They played it. They wanted to play with this ridiculous, simplistic system. Some of them mindlessly clicking it in synch with the master clock. Some of them mindfully mapping the exploitable tics (just like real gamers!) that emerge in any system, even one this featureless. Some of them harvesting clicks with automated scripts, and some indulging themselves in moral outrage at the transgressive heresy of the auto-clickers.
So the players took it too far, or maybe not far enough, but you know, to me, that’s the best thing about Cow Clicker, that’s the funniest thing and the truest thing about it. Because it’s a game. It’s unruly, ridiculous, surprising, mysterious, and generally all fucked up. It’s not a text to be read and interpreted, it’s not a stand up routine for an audience to react to. Its humor and all of its meanings, are excavated, improvised, emergent, and out of control. Just ask Lizzie Magee. Would we be better off if Monopoly had remained a dour lesson in land taxation instead of becoming what it is – part satire, part fantasy, part party machine? Well, no, of course not. And likewise, Cow Clicker wouldn’t be nearly as awesome without these ridiculous players and their bad taste, their blown punchline and their ridiculous demands on the game’s creator and on themselves.
I don’t know why they do it, these ridiculous players, but I have some guesses. You can’t really say they were tricked into it. If this is a Skinner box it’s a Skinner box laid bare, there’s no cheese, no pleasure-tickling electrodes, no cocaine. There’s just a button. I don’t think mice push buttons that aren’t hooked up to anything. But people do, they’re called games. Games are Skinner boxes in which you are both the scientist and the mouse. You pretend to care, and then you get to experience what it means to care, only at one remove, like, with a clipboard. Some games let you pretend to murder other people, Cow Clicker lets you pretend to be a slave. A slave to the button. A slave to the rhythm. A slave to these damn Cows. A slave to the daily grind of Facebook, work, and life.
Games take us to weird places, and vice versa. Cow Clicker players were able to squeeze something they wanted out of the imaginary servitude of this tiny system. That might make you feel sadness or contempt. It makes me feel… curiosity.
Someone told me once about a form of daily meditation that involved two bowls and a collection of pebbles. The first bowl starts out full and the second empty. Every day you take one pebble out of the first bowl and place it in the second. Eventually, once all the pebbles changed place, you start over again and go the other way. That’s it. It’s just that. A very slow way of keeping time.
I think Cow Clicker is like that, only stupider. It’s a form of meditation where you also get to make fun of yourself, your ridiculous urge to count, to obey, to acquire, to attend, to connect, to click. It has none of the prestigious cachet of a sacred ritual, it’s just a bit of disposable pop cultural junk, a game, and not just a game, a Facebook game, but I think that’s what it is after all. Ian thought he was making a joke about a terrible game and ended up collaborating with a bunch of ridiculous people on a different joke that was far better, and weirder. Like one of those stupid jokes that circles endlessly in the back seat of a family car on a long road trip, where it’s funny because it’s stupid, and then it’s not funny, but you keep saying it until it gets funny again because of how not funny it is, and you keep saying it until it’s funny because it’s just the sound of your voices laughing at the endless boring landscape rolling by. Cows.