Idle Gaming: Cookie Clicker, FarmVille, and the Art of Time Wasting

Video games come in so many shapes and forms that it’s honestly a bit hard to keep track of. It’s an overwhelming medium that takes ruthless time and energy to commit to. Fortunately, though, there are just so many different kinds of video games that everyone on the planet is bound to be drawn to at least one game in their lives. Whether it’d be a first-person shooter about a space marine fighting the legions of Hell, an immersive role-playing adventure game with a massive beautiful world, or a platformer where you travel through worlds to save a princess, video games help transport you into different worlds. Video games offer different experiences for different people; some games strive to be cinematic pieces of art, relaxing and undemanding games that help the player relax or games of epic scales that seek to challenge the player with brutal expectations. Just to name a couple of examples.

Forgive me for explaining what video games are, but I think it’s important to understand all the shapes and sizes that video games derive from. Just like any other medium, people will naturally have their preferences. No piece of art is objective, despite what hardcore elites may say. Some may prefer high-octane action games that invite challenge, while some may prefer something more slow and methodical. And there surely are slow games that require patience. Minecraft, Stardew Valley, and The Sims are very slow games, but require attentiveness and basic effort. In Minecraft, you can be overwhelmed by enemies if you’re not perceptive and eventually starve to death if you explore unprepared. In Stardew Valley, if you forget to water your crops then your garden won’t grow, and your progress with the farm will suffer as a result. In The Sims, not taking basic care of your Sim results in them living unhappy lives, not paying bills can have your property taken away, and just being straight-up careless can result in your favorite Sim taking a one-way trip to the great beyond.

On top of all this, there’s the matter of video games being a massive time sink. If you step away from Xenoblade Chronicles 3 to do laundry or file taxes, then that’s time away from the game you could otherwise be using to practice against the next difficult boss or grinding for XP and better equipment. On the flip side, spending so much time on a video game could mean you fail to do basic real-life responsibilities. It’s a shame, all of this stress could have been avoided if there was a game you could play… by simply not playing it. I introduce you to idle games, where the best way to play them is simply to not press a button.

Idle games (or incremental games/clicker games/tap games) are a type of game that requires the bare minimum to play, asking you to simply click (or tap) on the game to progress. You do this repeatedly, just mindlessly and rapidly clicking on the game over and over and over, again and again and again. Repeatedly. However, this isn’t in pursuit of nothing. With your “grinding”, you can increment in-game currency to unlock tools to help you increase the rate of “currency”. You can even unlock abilities to allow the game to increase the currency automatically without the aforementioned clicking or tapping required to progress. You watch and wait, hence the “idle” aspect of these games. Seeking higher-level abilities takes time; it could take hours of continuous clicking just to get the ability you want; or in worst cases, watch ads or spend real-life money to earn currency faster, but we’ll get there. Then there’s the option to reset your progress completely once you reach a certain amount of currency, save for some bonuses and permanent upgrades to help you progress easier and faster next time around. But ultimately, you completely start over from zero and the clicking begins anew.

I’m sure this sounds very mundane and repetitive to you – and you’d be absolutely right. There’s really no way to make this sound very interesting or dynamic. But here’s the kicker: you’re always progressing. There’s no good or bad way to play idle games because ultimately you’re still racking up currency to spend on items. In idle games, you always go forward. There’s no real sense of lost progress. The amount of currency you spend on upgrades is always used to increase your rate of currency (or clicking). This mechanic offers up a very low-stress experience; undemanding and unchallenging for most players. There’s constant progression and visual feedback for your menial efforts. Put in a way, idle games are exponential growth.

This constant sense of progression is where idle games stand at their strongest. You have no idea how satisfying it is for me to spend countless amounts of time on a certain segment of an idle game, just to finally earn enough to buy an upgrade that increases your rate of currency. It triggers that dopamine you get when you overcome that one difficult part of a video game you just can’t get past. Let’s say you’re having trouble with a certain boss in Dark Souls. Then you decide to break away from the path to collect souls, find potions, and gain better equipment. You go into this fight, better equipped and prepared for the fight. It’s still a tough fight, but it’s made easier due to the better weapons and new skills you unlocked. You adapted. You learned. Now, imagine Dark Souls, but instead of using all you know to overcome Gwyn, you finally unlock the kitchen cabinets after mindlessly tapping away for an hour or two in Cookie Clicker. Throw in some in-game achievements and challenges and you have yourself a video game genre that constantly rewards and reinforces the player’s efforts and sense of satisfaction and progression.

But there’s more to life than tapping away at your screen. You need to step away and do some actual work. But here comes the most important aspect of idle games: the fact you don’t need to play it to… well, play it. If you need to step away for any reason, the game will continue to increase its revenue and increment those numbers. Come back to the game, and you’ll see those numbers have increased since you’ve last played. In mobile games, in particular, you can close the app and the game will collect currency in the background while it’s off. It’ll stop collecting after a certain amount of time, but you can rest assured knowing the game is playing itself while you’re busy and that you can come back and see those numbers continue to skyrocket even more. This boosts customer retention and keeps the market of the game going indefinitely.

That is the design and allure of idle games, but where did the craze come from? We’ve had a few spurts of idle games in 2002, starting with Progress Quest, a PC text-based game that acts as a parody of MMORPGs. It was certainly a funny idea at the time, just a one-off joke that nobody really paid much attention to. Then in 2009, we got Anti-Idle by tukkun on the flash game website Kongregate. This was pre-GameStop Kongregate, just so you understand how far back we are. This wasn’t the first visual idle game (Ayumilove’s HackerQuest V1 was one of the very first), but was one of the first to really popularize the genre. Unfortunately, when it was initially released, nobody really got the joke. While nobody batted an eye at the game it came out, we were blissfully unaware that Anti-Idle was the first of its kind, and it would soon pioneer all idle games for the next decade.

Up until this point, no attempts at an “anti-game” really exploded. We were all too busy with little things like the Great Recession to care at all about some joke games. We all had to find REAL entertainment and stimulation. Social media was as prevalent back then as it is today. Though Twitter wasn’t the hellscape it is today, we were in a pre-Metaverse Facebook. We all remember those Facebook games in 2010, right? You know, when FarmVille and Candy Crush were the dominant games on the internet. These annoying, intrusive social games overtook the social media platform and became the face of Facebook. In comes Ian Bogost, a college professor of digital media and literature and author of Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to be a Thing and Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism and Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. He highlights four aspects of the Facebook social game circle that nefariously changed the way we use social media, both in the past and the present:

  1. Enframing – When everything is just a resource or tool to use for personal gain. Bogost argues Facebook games tricked players into thinking friends are just mere tools and resources to gain what they want—in this case, improving your virtual farm. Everything is data. If you look at an empty field, all you see is a spot devoid of farmers, cornfields, and tractors.
  2. Compulsion – Similar to Twitter, you just check and check and check. We’re addicted to social media and other electronics because we just compulsively jump into them. I imagine as you’re reading this, sometimes you’ve checked in on Twitter or Discord to see if you missed anything. The same goes with FarmVille, as you’re compulsively checking in on your farm to see if it has grown or if anyone sent you crops or tools.
  3. Optionality – The basic idea of choice. We can choose to play games, watch movies, read entertainment articles, or donate to our Ko-Fi. In Facebook’s case, however, you could also choose to either play the game and improve, or just not play the game and let the resources come in automatically with zero effort.
  4. Time Destruction – As previously stated, games are huge time commitments, ranging from hours to full days of completion. A game can waste our time with artificial traveling and padding. Open-world games require players to travel entire maps just to progress the story, but you’ll also find yourselves doing side missions and grinding that just pad out the already-monstrous length even further. Bogost argues this isn’t engaging gameplay, but rather empty time we waste doing things. Bogost suggests social games are destructive even when we’re not playing them, because of our fear and anxiety with not checking the app; the fear that we could be playing the game to improve our farm but we’re at the grocery store and not improving our farm.

Then in 2010, Ian Bogost created Cow Clicker, a parody of that era of Facebook social games and was the first idle game to receive critical mainstream attention. Ian Bogost claimed Cow Clicker was the most watered-down and neutered version of those Facebook games, an experiment showcasing just how pointless and destructive the social games were at the time. In Cow Clicker, you click a cow once every six hours. If you’re impatient, you can pay money just to click the cow once more, or have your friends click the cow for you so you can click the cow. Better yet, you can change the color of the cow. Pure video game immersion at its finest. 

It’s a deliberately stupid idea and was clearly a commentary on social network games, but it also became one of Facebook’s most popular games that is still played to this day. However, in 2011, all the cows were removed and you can only click on where the cow USED to be. 

Yes. People still play this.

While Cow Clicker failed as a social commentary (or a success, depending on how you wish to look at it), it is undeniably the pioneer for what would become a lucrative gaming genre. Ian Bogost recently wrote a heartfelt statement that concluded his final thoughts on predatory game design and Cow Clicker’s social impact. Definitely worth a read.

In August of 2013, the driving force for idle gaming would come in the circular shape of Cookie Clicker. Programmed by Julien “Orteil” Thiennot over the course of a single night, it was posted on 4chan and in mere hours, it garnered over 50,000 players. One month later, over 200,000 per day. Soon after, about 1.5 million hits in one day of August alone. As of January 2014, it was still getting over a steady 200,000 hits daily. Cookie Clicker is criticized as being addictive, with its fanbase being seen as cult-ish. There were even complaints that the game was doing societal harm, such as being bad for the environment since so many computers were left on, and people wouldn’t be doing work because so many people would have their attention glued to Cookie Clicker. But what can’t be taken away is its impact on idle gaming. It’s this mixture of simplicity and surprising complexity that caused idle gaming to take the world by storm and create a whole-new modern game genre. 

Idle games are criticized for having the illusion of progress, while no real achievement or skill was actually made or required. The thing is, idle games are just simple games that you’re meant to keep in the background for momentary bursts of joy and satisfaction. I think to treat these games as something more than that is a disservice. To put them on a higher pedestal or standard when they’re meant to be grossly simple misses the point of them. Of course, idle games are always going to vary in quality. The problem, though, is that idle games have become a shadow of their former self. What was once a clicking game full of satisfying visual and auditory feedback, many idle games now rely on taking up TOO much of your time in order to convince you to cave in and throw in some real-world cash, such as agonizingly slow pacing or special events with an unforgiving time frame, or watch numerous ads of misleading mobile apps and crypto services in order to receive temporary in-game bonuses, such as score multipliers or premium currency that can cost up to a hundred real-life dollars in some cases.

There’s a lot of joy to be had with classic idle games. And there are certainly some modern gems as well to fix your clicking craze. Whether we like it or not, idle gaming is becoming more and more lucrative, and oversaturation and pure greed is bound to destroy the genre. But if we focus on the good aspects of idle gaming – the addictive presentation, the bouts of joy and satisfaction, the wonderful creators that pioneered the industry – maybe we can go back to that golden era. It’s easy to be cynical about idle gaming as a piece of media and its effects on the industry, but it’s still a captivating history.

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