You click a cookie for points and you can earn items which click for you. That's it. So then why is this game so popular?
There’s a new video game in town. It’s called Cookie Clicker, and news about it is spreading like wildfire on all the major social media sites. From Tumblr to Twitter, it’s interesting (at least for me as a new media professional) to just watch it go viral. There are videos of Cookie Clicker gameplay clips and reviews appearing on YouTube, memes and fan art being created and sent around, and a flurry of discussions on a host of game-related sites. But if you decide to try out the game yourself, be forewarned: going by comments on the forums, it’s highly addictive to a whole lot of people.
When you first open the game, you’re presented with one giant cookie, replete with heroic light rays bursting out from behind the cookie, suggesting that it’s the One, the Holy Grail of cookies. There are no instructions, but you’re drawn inexplicably to click on The Cookie, slowly at first, and then much faster as each of your clicks is registered and a counter prominently displays the running total number of cookies you have. You’ll soon find yourself clicking as fast as you can, and if you keep this up, it’s a sure-fire way to hasten carpal tunnel syndrome.
As you click on The Cookie, you’ll notice ‘power-ups,’ which can be ‘purchased’ with cookie-points to help you produce more cookies. It starts with small and affordable power-ups like Grandma – a tiny, 8-bit-like graphic of an elderly lady who bakes a couple more cookies for you every second. Then as you progress, you can ‘buy’ a Farm for 500 cookie-points. With this, you get to plant cookie seeds to grow yet more cookies. Soon, there’s a Factory and Mine available to you. And Shipment, which “brings in fresh cookies from the cookie planet.” There’s the Alchemy Lab, which “turns gold into cookies,” the Portal, which “opens a door to the cookieverse,” and the Time Machine, which “brings cookies from the past before they were even eaten.”
A few days ago, the Antimatter Condenser power-up was introduced and superseded the Time Machine as highest end-tier level power-up available. This Antimatter condenser, which by the way is available for the one-time only initial sale price of 3,999,999,999 cookie-points, is said to condense “the antimatter in the universe into cookies so you don’t run out of regular matter to make cookies”. Just in case you’re wondering, according to forum discussions and because the price of any power-up increases as the game progresses, the price to achieve 100 Antimatter Condensers is 31,314,807,992,171,298, or 31.3 quadrillion cookies.
And then things get surreal and weirder still (as if they weren’t already surreal and weird enough). There are upgrades available for each power-up that make your power-ups even more productive, allowing you to make many more cookies per second. For example, you can transmute your Grandmas into all sorts of Cosmic Grandmas that are many times more efficient than plain-old Grandma so that you end up with a veritable army of cookie-baking, alien-looking Grandmas. Or how about a Quantum Conundrum upgrade that makes your time machines twice as efficient? When you get to this option, a quote appears with the upgrade: “It’s full of stars” – an obvious geeky reference to Dave Bowman’s dramatic remark in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And speaking of the Time Machine, according to the Cookie Clicker wiki (yes, there’s a wiki), “getting to 100 time machines takes less than two weeks. However, without catching golden cookies, getting to 150 time machines would take about 30 years.”
Time-waster? Yes, probably. But to a professor like me who thinks about the way we think (the fancy word for this is “epistemology”), this little game is a simple enough example to study and reflect on the way we interact with online entertainment. It can point out who might be more prone to addiction and who isn’t, as well as how different aspects of the game are expressly designed to hold our attention. Becoming aware of these can help us help our kids (and some of us adults too…you know who you are) develop healthy media habits.
What makes it so absorbing? For one, the two counters that together tell you how many cookies you currently have as well as the number of cookies that are being produced per second. It’s mesmerizing to watch the counter keep counting up! It speaks to that part of our brains that tells us we now have more than what we had a moment ago. As you get more power-ups and upgrades, the total number of cookies counter counts up so fast that the tens digit just becomes a blur. When you reach more than a million cookies made per second, and the cookie animated graphic shows that it’s just raining cookies, and you’ve already spent hours on it, your brain tells you that you’ve somehow been productive because those numbers say so! At the very least, you’re rationalizing.
The statistics page assures you of your productivity with the number of cookies you’ve got accumulating in your cookie bank along with a running all-time total of cookies baked. It tells you how long it has been since the game was started, but just in case you’re feeling guilty, it reassures you with the number of power-up buildings you own, plus the number and percentage of upgrades that you’ve unlocked. (Boy, you’ve certainly been productive, haven’t you?) Moreover, you get to see all the achievements you’ve earned in the form of pretty little badges. Then there are the periodic news updates like “Your cookies are being talked about for miles around!” and the animated rising milk level (a “valuable resource that is gained along with Achievements”) which turns from white to chocolate to raspberry as you achieve various goals. On that milky note, you can also employ Kitten Helpers in your never-ending quest for more cookies.
In fact, you can just leave your computer on with the site open and you’ll keep accumulating cookies. You can export a save state to bring it to another computer, or continue from where you left off, or share it on a forum so someone else can pick up from when you left off. Here, enjoy my save (just copy and import this into the game via the menu’s “import save” button):
There’s the use of the classic Tower Defense strategy where prices of cookie-producing facilities start low and increase in cost so as to make it more of a challenge to purchase them as you go along. To entice you further, the buttons for these power-ups are greyed out when you don’t have a sufficient number of cookies in your cookie bank, but you can still see them and their cost, gently cajoling you to reach the appropriate level so that you can click these buttons to get the power-ups.
And though I’ve got the game loaded in a minimized tab in Firefox, the tab itself shows the growing number of cookies I’m accumulating (you don’t get to ignore it so easily). Yes, the game is running as I type this (… cooookkies.) Too late – my nine-year-old, six-year-old, and three-year-old sons have already come around to peer over my shoulder. (Oh, oh, can I click too, pleeease?) Twenty minutes later, after I’d stepped away from the computer to read some research on video games, my kids were still taking turns to click The Cookie, despite the power-ups (Do you play cookie clicker or is it playing you?) I’m betting that they would have continued to do so, too, had I not called them away. Like the Pharisees going away one after another, from oldest to youngest, when Jesus challenged that the one without sin cast the first stone (John 8:9), my oldest came first, followed by his two younger brothers. I have discussed with them before about the power that media can have over them. With prayer, I think they’re getting it, but I’ve got to be careful too. For now, my excuse for continuing to run the game is that I’m writing about it. What’s your excuse?
Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media, is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.