The Elusive Writerly Cow

A recent  NPR Interview  with my colleague the game designer and theorist Ian Bogost endearingly focused on his frustration at having accidentally made an enjoyable game.

The Facebook game Cow Clicker was meant to parody Zynga's Farmville and expose its inanity and cynical commercialism. Instead it became a hit.

Cow Clicker was  meant to parody  the wildly successful Facebook game Farmville,  exposing its unchallenging and pointless gameplay and its cynical commercialism. But  to Bogost’s dismay his intentionally boring game unexpectedly attracted 50,000 users.  Stunned out of his customary ironic detachment, Bogost found himself unable to resist the direct “pleasure” of having people play his game.  He began to pay attention to what they liked and to fulfill their requests, though he was bothered by their unironic pleasure in the gameplay. In order to reinforce his satiric intent, Bogost  tried to subvert the game by charging ridiculous amounts of money for obviously worthless virtual items. To his dismay, people paid and continued to enjoy the game.   Eventually he resorted to outright destruction, starting a counter that ended with a satisfyingly absurd “rapture” that left no cows standing, just a little clickable shadow in the pasture: a “cowpocalypse”!

Yet even the  “cowpocalypse”   was not enough to erase the enthusiasm of the fans and Bogost , who is an extraordinary productive designer and scholar, now  finds himself best known for his most despised creation.   Worst of all, according to his pal the astute game critic  Leigh Alexander, the runaway success of Cow Clicker makes a sad contrast to the modest sales of  the serious art  game Bogost created around the same time,  called  A Slow Year in which the gameplay involves virtually drinking a cup of coffee as slowly as possible to make it last through a meditatively slow seasonal change captured in the retro minimalism of the Atari game console.

In fact,  looking at the mechanics of the gameplay, the design of Cow Clicker and A Slow Year are almost identical —  each is based on the player taking one click-enabled game action  at very long intervals with very little visible effect.  Yet one game is played obsessively by thousands of people and the other is appreciated and collected by connoisseurs but probably little played even by the relatively few who have bought it. Setting aside the author’s intentions (as literary critics are taught to do) , we can see that both games are successful, but they succeed in different terms.

A Slow Year is a Writerly game (it even comes with a book of poetry) in the sense that Roland Barthes used the term for literary works that require the reader to work to understand what is going on. Writerly texts do not respect the reader’s need for clarity.  In fact, they privilege confusion, complexity, and the active effort of decoding.  The writerly aesthetic does not lend itself to the simple agency of click and moo.   Bogost’s art games often work as refusals of agency — but they are still successful as art because  the refusal is meaningful and meant to communicate the need to slow down and to become aware of the mechanics of game interaction.

Cow Clicker is meant to be equally opaque, but it carries the form of the very Readerly text it intends to parody. Even more than in Farmville,  the interactor knows what  to do, and gets clear feedback for doing it:  you click a cow every six hours, hear it moo, and get a tally of your clicks. Cow Clicker also includes the very readable social aspects of the Zynga games it is parodying, allowing you to pasture and view other people’s cows, affording the pleasure of an ambient social atmosphere. Most importantly, it has very readable, pleasing, and witty graphics which make the pointless clicking and mooing into a friendly, shared joke. Perhaps that is the key design flaw — Bogost’s strong graphic design skills and comic timing defeated his philosophical purpose, unintentionally creating an experience of dramatic agency around the ironic anti-commodification message.

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