Someone at work put it like this: “If you play Cookie Clicker, you’re trying to escape something in your life.”
Cookie Clicker is a misleading name. Yes, you are tasked with clicking on a cookie in order to create more cookies, but only for a while. Once you’ve clicked the nominal cookie a certain number of times you can spend your cookies on more efficient cookie generating tools. For instance, a grandma who can cook the cookies for you. Then you need never click again. But you will.
One of my colleagues played Cookie Clicker for so long that he didn’t even know what his number meant. He had a denomination of cookies he could neither pronounce nor understand. “What comes after a gazillion?” I asked him. We didn’t know. Maybe this is what Cookie Clicker aims to teach you. Whatever he’d achieved, it was marked by a QI. He would sit back and eat his Subway six inch and just watch the numbers add up, clicking whenever he had a spare hand. You can have Cookie Clicker in a tiny window right next to whatever document or spreadsheet you’re working on.
Someone in my office hacked Cookie Clicker. He wrote a script that made the cookies self-click. This means that in addition to whatever cookie generating devices you have purchased with cookies (grandmas, antimatter condensers, time machines so you can go into the future to get future cookies) the computer is also tricked into thinking you are manually clicking also. The rate at which manual clicks accrue cookies becomes meaningless once you’ve got say, more than a gazillion, but still it is important to know that you can hack the Cookie Clicker, because the more cookies you have, the definitely, irrefutably better, and it’s not cheating per se because the only thing at stake is the seconds in your terminally depleting life. Eventually, the knowledge of a means to accrue more cookies is devastating if you’re not wielding it. If everyone in the world started playing Cookie Clicker right now, the loser would be whoever dies first.
It’s not unusual for games to give you the goal of larger numbers, but Cookie Clicker never punishes you on your way: you cannot go in any direction but up. It’s only possible to spend cookies on things that will get you more cookies, so you can’t even try to lose your cookies because they’ll just keep coming. As soon as you start playing you’re trapped in a mesmerising loop of acquisition, and that’s the central horror of Cookie Clicker: once you start, you cannot plug the hole of cookies, but what exactly do they do? There are no leaderboards, no sense of one-upmanship, unless sought from friends or internet forums. It is a lonely game.
Cookie Clicker is apparently very fun. It’s not my bag, but people find it fun. Fun is probably the most loaded and frequently used term when we talk about video games. Anything, objectively, can be fun. Is fun distinct from pleasure? Is it distinct in its own barely conceivable way? Fun can definitely be bad. People murder other people for fun. People punch other people and even small animals for fun.
Is sex fun? It’s pleasurable, but is fun the right word? Is reading a challenging novel fun? We can glean pleasurable satisfaction from many pursuits, many activities, but fun is a type of engagement that is unique. There’s something whimsical about it. You associate fun with laughing, with child’s play, with something remote from gaining experience. Fun is downtime. Fun is something that won’t necessary nourish or teach you. But still, Cookie Clicker is probably not actually fun in a way anyone would reflexively define fun.
Fun in video games is often about being ladled instances of self-satisfaction. Victories, progress, seeing more of the game, trophies, and achievements. Mastering it. Yes, fun is being challenged, but it’s usually associated with some promise of winning, or achieving on terms laid by the game or activity at hand.
One popular contemporary video game series, Dark Souls, is proudly marketed as one of the most difficult video games of all time. Published by Bandai Namco and developed by Japanese studio FromSoftware, the action RPG requires its player to constantly face challenges which at first appear impossible. Not only that, but it punishes you for failing. It removes sought after player states and progress with each death, and steals away success yardsticks such as in-game currency and the ability to summon help from other players.
Playing the recent sequel to Dark Souls, I was struck by a sense of pride on completion of one of its many challenges. I realised that defeating a difficult enemy after six hours of futile attempts triggered a similar endorphin rush to reaching a long term goal, or doing some exercise, or making someone I love feel good. I would lie in bed afterwards and think about my achievement and feel a sense of bliss, like I was a significant step closer to a goal that is of immense personal importance to me. But in the end, all I was doing was playing a video game. Pressing buttons. I was doing nothing, basically. I was wasting my time.
But the difference between Cookie Clicker and Dark Souls 2 is that one is rewarding and the other isn’t. Cookie Clicker is compulsive whereas Dark Souls 2 is challenging. There is an end goal in Dark Souls 2, but in Cookie Clicker you can never truly be finished. There are rules to learn and understand in Dark Souls 2, but in Cookie Clicker, the rules are obvious from the start and you master them immediately.
That’s what Cookie Clicker is: the futility of play. The central meaninglessness of it, the absence of true reward. It reveals how easily we are drawn into the systems and mechanics of play, despite their conditions, and it emphasises that challenge and reward is not indispensable. Cookie Clicker is not the only game that is about games, but it deconstructs the motions of play in a brutally effective and existential fashion: divorced from what’s happening on the screen, all the player is really doing—all that they are truly enacting—is a series of button presses, mouse clicks, or hand motions. Cookie Clicker invites you to do this and hooks you with astonishing ease, while at the same time offering absolutely nothing in return, not even the pleasure of learning how to play it better than anyone else. It’s anti-game. And this last point, the desirability of becoming adept, is the most interesting aspect of Cookie Clicker, because you can’t. You can’t master Cookie Clicker.
Many other self-critiquing games, such as the PC platformer I Wanna Be The Guy, subverts the learning process of games by constantly breaking the rules, by forcing you to remember a sublimely complicated and illogical series of actions. I Wanna Be The Guy gathers every rule convention from old-school console games and undermines them. That fluffy cloud which is normally a static, decorative image up there? It’ll fall and kill you. That area you visited before that was safe? A huge boulder will fall out of the sky if you return, and it will kill you. For no reason. You cannot get good at I Wanna Be The Guy, you can only remember it.
On the other hand, Cookie Clicker gives you one rule—get more cookies—and waits in hiding to see whether you’re gullible enough to keep doing so. And naturally you do, because it’s a game and it’s there to be played. Cookie Clicker is the bleakest, and funniest, manifestation of that age-old warning, from parents and non-gamers, that playing games is a waste of time. It is a game with no end, no reward, no reason, and yet you play it anyway. Not because it’s fun or rewarding but because you want more cookies; because you’re invited to get more cookies. It is the worst game of all time, but also one of the funniest.
When I asked my friend at work whether I should give Cookie Clicker a go, he said that I shouldn’t. He had an unpronouncable amount of cookies, a Lovecraftian amount of cookies. He told me not to play Cookie Clicker, yet he had been playing it for weeks.
He also said, “If you play Cookie Clicker you’re trying to escape something in your life.” I was two weeks from a deadline, and horribly uninspired. I visited the Cookie Clicker website and started clicking. I got a grandma. Later, an antimatter condenser, then a time machine so I could get future cookies. I played Cookie Clicker for a very long time. I played it into the billions.
And I was not having fun.
This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #22. Get your copy now.