Cow Clicker breaks down social games, misses the point
"You get a cow. You can click on it. In six hours, you can click it again. Clicking earns you clicks."
Such is the basic description of Cow Clicker, a new Facebook game that definitely delivers what its title promises -- the ability to click on a cow. Yes, there are a few other social game trappings thrown in there -- you can invite neighbors whose cow clicks count towards your total, and you can purchase prettier cows with in-game "mooney" -- but there's really little besides the titular cow clicking to this simple parody game.
Cow Clicker Creator and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost describes Cow Clicker as "Facebook games distilled to their essence" and in a way he's right. Read that description from the first paragraph again. Replace "a cow" with "crops," and "clicks" at the end with "coins" and you have a bare bones description of the basic gameplay in Facebook mega-hit Farmville. The same process can be applied to describe countless other popular social games. Cow Clicker even lets you spend mooney to skip the six-hour wait for more click opportunities, mimicking the way many other social games let you spend in-game money to avoid having to wait for rewards.
But Bogost's simple parody utterly misses the point of social gaming in some major ways. Sure, in strict gameplay terms, there's little to differentiate Cow Clicker from countless popular social games. But for million of players, the appeal of social games isn't in the gameplay, but in the opportunity for world building and role-playing.
Most people don't play Farmville just to mindlessly collect coins. They play so they can build a farm to their exact specifications -- a barn over here, a chicken coop over there, a hay bale picture of Mario over there. They play these social games to escape their dreary work-a-day lives and spend some time constructing simple worlds from scratch, and to share those worlds with like-minded friends. Even text-based games like Mafia Wars build an fantasy world filled with imaginative items and fantastic locations and (arguably) interesting virtual tasks to perform. The coins and the crops and thousands of other gameplay trappings in these games are just a means to an end -- a way to earn more toys for some vibrant virtual dollhouses.
Cow Clicker offers none of these creative opportunities. All it offers is a static picture of a cow. This may seem like a cosmetic difference to some, but I think this difference is key to understanding the popularity of social gaming. Cow Clicker captures the heart of many social games, but not the soul. It mimics the gameplay responsibilities without bothering to copy the social and aesthetic rewards that truly drive most social game players.
Most people play social games to play a role they can't play in real life. In Cow Clicker, the only role to play is that of a person clicking on a cow. What kind of an escape is that?