Why Clicking On Cows Brings Us Closer Together

A Facebook game about Facebook games was inevitable; Hence “Cow Clicker,” a spoof Facebook app created by game theorist Ian Bogost in an attempt to distill the appeal of Zynga games like FarmVille, Mafia Wars and FrontierVille. Between Scamville, Mark Pincus’ “every horrible thing in the book” comments, and a particularly unfortunate speech at the GDC, 2010 is the year to hate on social games — viewed by many gaming industry developers to be simplistic derivatives requiring no talent or skill.

Whether Zynga games are successful because they give users valuable social experiences or because they are, according Bogost’s fellow game theorist Jesper Juul, “brain hacks that exploit human psychology in order to make money,” people will always be willing to play up the latter theory. The word “exploit” added to any article makes for great pageviews. As do extreme examples, like the case of the kid who ran up a $1,400 debt on his parents’ credit card trying to pimp out his farm.

With both Zynga and another social gaming entity of a different kind, Foursquare, vying for a spot on tech’s A-list, I’m betting on Zynga — or at least aligning my bet with consumers to the return of an estimated $500 million (or more) in revenue this year. It’s hard to argue with that or the more macro level evidence that these things are universally beloved.

While it’s really easy to snub your nose at your cousin for posting [insert laughable Zynga update here] to your news feed, the force of 61 million monthly users is no laughable thing. Cow Clicker seems to be riding on the coattails of this popularity, as it’s up to 15,000 users in its first week. Bogost told TechCrunch:

“Given the nature of the project, I’m not sure what would count as ‘success’ in my mind. As far as money is concerned, a minority of players are paying cash money for credits (called “Mooney”) to click or to buy cows, and a small number are buying t-shirts and other swag. For now, I’m mostly covering my hosting costs.”

Is Bogost hinting that we’re all all heading towards some kind of compulsive virtual dystopia? “Zynga et all are doing something subtler. It’s more like selling corn-sweetened processed foods, perhaps.” Sweetened processed foods you can share with your friends.

Both Zynga and Cow Clicker are in the business of selling status in pixels. Clicking on a cow or buying a pink tractor or spending real money on fake night vision goggles is now the digital version of “keeping up with the Joneses.”