Abandon all hope, ye who click here!
5,714Hello, my name is Mark, and I think I may be an addict. For the past few days I have been staring intently at a meaningless number multiplying by itself on a computer screen. I have done so at the expense of worthwhile tasks and genuine commitments. I can’t look away. I’m addicted to Cookie Clicker.
It’s been two days now, and my Macbook hasn’t slept for longer than a few hours. I fear it no longer runs on electricity, it is powered by cookies. Not the Google ad-serving kind, no that would be innocent. I’m talking about the crumbly, delicious type, or more aptly the virtual representation of them.
For those unaware of what Cookie Clicker is, stop reading now, as this “game” is a biscuit shaped wormhole to a dimension of horrors. You have been warned. Just say no. You'll only come to resent the person who introduced you to it.
It starts innocently. A simple instruction, click the cookie. It looks like any other browser based affair, lightweight and not worthy of an otherwise dedicated gamer’s time. Yet, the image of the tasty treat is nice, so you click it. You now have two cookies. Result. More clicks will enable you to use that amassed chocolate chip currency to purchase a pointy finger that’ll automatically click once every ten seconds for you. But that pointer has a lot of down time, if you click a bit more you could enlist the help of a grandma to bake cookies.
You can add to the cookie production line with farms and factories, all the way up to time machines and antimatter condensers, and each brings with it a myriad of upgrade options to add to base rates of CpS (that’s Cookies per Second to non clickaholics) and double output ratios. It’s all numbers, and it’s all meaningless. Or is it?
Like any game, the upgrade path must lead to something, and the drip feeding of unlockables is well laid out. But getting to another rung on the ladder has no point if there’s not an end goal. This sense of “what’s it all for?” is not a wake up call though, but the first sign of madness as you’re well on your way to accepting that you’re easily manipulated.
Lost seconds of productivity turn into minutes as the counter continues rolling to your next target. Your target, not the game’s. If only I could get to one billion cookies per second, you’ll think to yourself, then I’ll have achieved something. Then I could stop. But like a serial glutton, your base instincts will override your sanity. You’ll click again.
Is it a post modern treatise on the industrialisation process? An ironic slight at modern consumerism? A Nigella-esque dig at dietary fads? Is it anything? You start looking for meaning in the cookie. A chocolate chunk laden Rorschach test that reflects your own inner desires and neuroses. I see a face. It’s laughing at me. Only clicking will make it stop.
To click, or not to click...The initial joy of seeing a number go up like in any tower defence game or RPG dissipates to leave only bewilderment and blind obedience. By this point it had wheedled its way into my brain. Passing a biscuit aisle I caught sight of a packet of cookies in the corner of my eye. Eureka! It must be some kind of viral campaign. Maryland hiring a hot young ad team who were deep into blue sky thinking and were working in conjunction with some savvy developers. Designed to lure in punters with the aim of gaining brand awareness thanks to word of mouth, to be followed by a big reveal.
But no, that would have meaning. Cookie Clicker has none. You click. That is the process and also the goal. Numbers go up and you click. Then comes the horrifying reality of what your pastime - gaming - ultimately is. Cookie Clicker isn’t a bad game, it can’t even be dismissed as not qualifying as a game, it’s the perfect game. It offers the barest notion of narrative and wears its senselessness as a badge of honour - those who miss it do so because it's so clearly in plain sight.
I’m increasingly becoming convinced that it’s a work of certain genius. It indicates a mind that’s deconstructed the appeal of the medium down to its constituent parts and highlighted how to get gamers to respond in a Pavlovian fashion; at least the dog had real food to salivate over, not a virtual cookie.
At its core is a manipulation of our love of numbers. They’re at the centre of so many playing experiences because they’re the simplest indication of progression. Base stats get a buff, more money is accumulated and high scores are there only to be bettered. Shooting a piece of paper is boring, but shooting a piece of paper with numerical values delineated from one another would be a game. Cookie Clicker’s creator (who describes himself as “a french kid into procedural generation, web design and game-making”) recognises this and has turned his calculator into the anti-Folding at Home.
But you need a reason to keep the sums adding up, so he gives you a reason - to gain access to the means by which you can increase those numbers. The building of a production force and upgrade paths are cynically perfect. It creates a grinding loop from which you cannot escape. But how do you get the number-loving enthusiastically competitive gamer into this trap in the first place? It starts with a click, but what would entice them? What was needed was a simple icon, universally liked and capable of hiding the game’s dark heart; a cookie. And what a cookie it is. Beautifully recreated, like a crumbly delicious moon, adorned with a tasty chocolate chunk sea of tranquility. I may be over analysing this.
Have you ever justified games to a loved one who thought you were wasting your time? Don’t let them catch you playing Cookie Clicker. You’ll need to quickly draw upon all your split second browser closing skills just to hide the shame of this devilish auto-calculator. Even the twist that comes after a few days’ play doesn’t really add a reason to the compulsion, just another layer to the numbers-fest.
It’s not a menace because it devours time, it’s troubling because it makes you evaluate what a game really is. It’s an experience that you’re led to, in which you’re dictated the rules, and you ultimately must attribute meaning to. If the integration of in-game awards in modern gaming hasn’t made you question this, then Cookie Clicker’s achievements will, the crushing comment “you can stop now” that greets one milestone is a slap in the face that would make any sane man quit. I, on the other hand, need to double my antimatter condenser’s output one more time...
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