En route to Austin for SXSW, I settled in with the January issue of Wired and the soundtrack to Drive, which I highly recommend for dusk flights if you have a window seat. I came across an interesting article about Ian Bogost and his Facebook game project “Cow Clicker”.
I won’t get into every detail of the game here, but I definitely encourage you to read the article at wired.com if you are so inclined.
To sum up, Bogost created the game as a satire of Farmville and it ironically went viral. It came from the point of view that games like Farmville and Mafia Wars create game mechanics designed to suck people into repetitive pointless tasks and then hopefully charge them for the privilege of an enhanced experience performing pointless tasks.
In Cow Clicker, the satire, users had cows in a virtual pasture, and they got points for clicking on them. And there was a leaderboard. Eventually it gained 50,000 users, and held onto many of them until Bogost’s self-imposed “cowpocalypse” when all the cows were raptured effectively ending the game.
The thing that struck me about the story was how the satire backfired in some ways. It was meant to simply make a point – for people to try it for 15 minutes and thus get the point Bogost was trying to make about game design. But because the satire was based on the same sort of game mechanics he despised, it actually wound up taking off in spite of itself. There were thousands of people who played it for real. Even as Bogost kept upping the satirical ante, this deliberately pointless game gained ardent fans.
To me this represents the raw power of what happens when you hit on a fundamental insight about human behavior, and what gets them hooked on a game, activity or even a brand. No matter how much you wish it wasn’t true, and you want to snap people out of a set of behaviors you view as pointless, some things speak to us at a deep level. The entire field of psychology is predicated on the idea that humans are not each a completely randomized set of emotions and behaviors. There are things you can learn about how we as a species are wired that even the best satire can’t wash away.