What makes something “art”? This might seem like a lofty beginning for an article on internet flash games, but it's worth pondering. Marchel Duchamp, when displaying his now infamous urinal, rejected previous definitions of art. Another Frenchman, Yves Klein, was one of the first artists to exhibit a blank exhibition, and he did so with much fanfare, inviting over 3,000 guests and forcing them to queue before they could enter the empty room. I like to think both of these artists had a sense of humour in what they were doing. The satirical and surprising nature of both pieces were important elements in compelling people to rethink their beliefs.
Cookie Clicker reminds me of an empty room. It was the first “idle game” that I came across, about two years ago. This is a game stripped down to its bare essentials, any element of fun purposefully removed. There is nothing to do but click a cookie. This repetition is reinforced later on, when you can employ the computer to click the cookie for you. The game has no end and no real goals.
I was really pleased by the satire shown in Cookie Clicker. However, much of the credit should go to its precursors such as Progress Quest, which satirises the grinding nature of role-playing games (RPGs), and Cow Clicker, which makes fun of the Facebook game Farmville, the wildly popular but roundly criticised farming simulator.
Farmville really came to represent all that was wrong with gaming. As players switched from consoles to playing games on smartphones and social media platforms, the indie developer scene enjoyed a small resurgence and produced many creative gaming apps. But companies like Zynga pounced on the commercial potential, emphasising player retention above all else, including storylines and gameplay.
Ian Bogost, the creator of Cow Clicker, compared the experience of Farmville to Pavlov's conditioning experiment, in which the scientist trained his dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with food and begin salivating at the sound. Game monetisation has become a science; you can even take a course in it. The tactics all seem underhand, each exploiting an area of human psychology.
For instance, game developers will try and force players to make an investment early on, as they will be more likely to return even if they’re not enjoying the game. They also draw players by creating repetitive tasks and periodically giving them small, random rewards. Many features satisfy their desire to slowly accumulate gains and avoid losses.
Cow Clicker exaggerates and makes light of these strategies: the player clicks on a cow every six hours. That is all.
While the likes of Cow Clicker and Cookie Clicker expose the futile nature of these games, the genre continues to grow quickly. In fact, “idle games” – those where the players isn’t really required to do anything – are thriving. One idle game, Adventure Capitalist, is now the second most played game on internet gaming site Kongregate, with 45 million plays.
Although people cannot change their psychological tendencies, they may benefit from being able to identify and avoid playing games that exploit them. And if idle games gain further traction, we should remember their ironic origins.