Moo! Cow Clicker is light on gameplay, but brilliantly satires the spam-heavy nature of certain farm-themed Facebook games.

Disregard the score you see above. For a game like this, it’s a formality that doesn’t quite fit its intent. Cow Clicker is certainly no farm sim and isn’t interested in capturing the attention of virtual farmers. Cow Clicker is famed games industry critic’s Ian Bogost‘s reaction to the rise of social games, in the form of a social game he constructed by himself in a few days.

It’s a very effective parody of older text RPG-style social games, asking you only to click on cows and get other people to join you in cow clicking. Clicking on cows every six hours (unless you pay to click faster) slowly earns you mooney (which you can also buy), which you can then invest on a fancier cow to display to your friends. The game’s core mechanic is simply clicking on your cow, listening to a sound effect, and then posting about it to Facebook (“I’m clicking a cow!”).

Cow Clicker

Cow Clicker could be mistaken for one of the growing genre of FarmVille parodies (like FarmVillain), but it’s more subtle than sophomoric. Cow Clicker does not parody FarmVille‘s distinct look and doesn’t have a remotely similar interface. The only point of comparison is, really, the use of cute cows you can pay to make fancier. What Cow Clicker really puts in its sights is the reliance on Facebook notifications in gameplay, the essential mechanic that renders a game like this social. To advance more quickly you need to add friends to your pasture. You can only add nine friends, who must be added individually. Having friends play the game with you magnifies the value of everyone’s clicks. There are numerous leaderboards tracking who has the most clicks. The non-negotiable (save through money) timer makes it clear that you’re not going to top the leaderboards unless you get a lot of friends to click cows with you.

Now, all of this is designed to beg the question: why on Earth would you want to top the leaderboard of a cow-clicking game? Why would you care about how many times you’ve clicked your cow, and especially, why would you care so much that you’d mobilize a team of friends and acquaintances to boost your cow-clicks on Facebook? Even the game’s ability to let you pay for more clicks and more mooney silently asks, “Why are you doing this? You know you’re paying for nothing of value, right?” As a means of questioning the value inherent in social gaming and the way friends can pressure friends endlessly to help them advance, Cow Clicker is really quite brilliant. The silly cow art softens the parody a little, preventing the game from being so insulting that a player would never bother to think about it.

As performance art, Cow Clicker deserves a 5 out of 5 on the Gamezebo scale, provided that scale could be used to fairly evaluate such things. It can’t, so instead we have to look at it purely as a social game among social games. By this metric Cow Clicker doesn’t fare so well. It feels like something one person knocked out in a few days, with very little visual appeal in the interface and some outright player-unfriendliness. You have to refresh your browser to reset the clock when it’s time to click your cow and you have to navigate through layers of slightly unclear menus to do other basic things. The whole experience feels very dated, like playing a social game as it might have existed in the early days of the Facebook platform. Because it’s so rudimentary, Cow Clicker‘s ability to act as an effective parody of more sophisticated modern social games like FarmVille is limited. It’s not even that much fun to play once you’re finished engaging with the thought-provoking absurdity of the basic concept.

Cow Clicker

Cow Clicker is worth your time if you like to think a bit about the broader meaning of games as a medium, for its criticisms aren’t really limited to social gaming. As traditional video games and casual games strive for ever-broader audiences, many of them fall into the trap of offering their players no more than glorified cow clicking, the illusion of accomplishment unaccompanied by any sort of deeper challenge or mentally engaging framework. Video games were once so obtuse and rigorously challenging that they were the domain largely of children, who could apply near-infinite free time to unlocking their mysteries. Now, a game like Cow Clicker, a game that quietly mocks the very idea of being game, can rack up nearly 50,000 monthly active users. It begs the question of how more or less valuable cows clicked are than FarmVille‘s crops grown or Mario’s koopas stomped or Halo‘s aliens defeated. In a strange way, Cow Clicker may actually validate the potential of social gaming.