The week of January 31, 2016

Cookie Clicker, the Internet’s most pointlessly addictive game, is also its most subversive

By Roisin Kiberd

As I write this, I am producing 11.584 billion cookies per second. I employ 150 grandmas to bake my cookies, along with 100 farms, 101 factories, and 83 time machines that import cookies from the past. All day long I dream about cookies. I click, relentlessly, to produce more. Sugar cookies. Madeleines. Stroopwafels. Cookies rule everything around me.

This is the world of Cookie Clicker, a browser-based game whose name pretty much sums up its gameplay: Clicking produces cookies. That’s it. And the more cookies you spawn, the more tools you can buy to produce even more cookies. Early on, that means a grandma who’ll bake more cookies for you. Later, you’ll get a farm, a factory, and a cookie mine.

This virtual, nearly pointless production is highly addictive. At first, there’s a direct correlation between your labor and its output: one click equals one cookie. Then the multipliers begin. Soon you’re producing millions of those sweet little discs without clicking anything; the sole task then becomes deciding how to spend the sugary loot. Eventually, physics itself will bend to the cookie cause: You can buy a prism which converts light into cookies. The numbers rise, too quickly to fathom. You will gaze into the cookie, gently heaving as though alive, and lose hours of your day to free-market cookie-nomics.

Cookie Clicker is an addictive ode to the enduring appeal of sugary baked goods. It is also a parable about how capitalism will destroy itself.

• • •

Cookie Clicker was created in 2013 by game designer Julien Thiennot, also known as Orteil, who was then 24 years old. He wrote it in a single evening, then posted a link to 4chan, where it attracted 50,000 plays in its first few hours.

For fans, the game is both pleasure and pain. It’s probably the best-known incremental game (also known as “idle games” or “clicker games”), in which repetitive action (usually clicking) advances the player through currency and upgrades. Such games offer undemanding distraction with minimal effort—and a stream of virtual rewards. The ratio of effort to reward makes Cookie Clicker addictive.

And, within the game at least, there’s no way to break the addiction: There’s no way to “finish” the game. Yet as Cookie Clicker progresses, there’s less and less for the player to actually do; buying more tools increases the rate of production, but all one can do with those cookies is… buy more tools, to increase production. This “idle game” breeds idleness in the player: As you shift from labor to capital, your involvement decreases until you’re left vacantly staring into the screen, watching the system grind out its cookies. This goes on until you make a conscious decision to walk away from the game. Even then, if you ever come back, Cookie Clicker will be there, waiting to pick up where you left off. Even the most committed players dream of an ending as a release from cookie bondage.

The game has inspired an almost cultish following, with players compiling spreadsheets of their cookie production and sharing how the game has entered their dreams. Like the guilty bargaining of an addict, one user wonders if players leaving their computers on all day are contributing to CO2 emissions, and if it would be more ethical simply to cheat. One asks “Isn’t Cookie Clicker bad for the environment?” Another replies, “That’s nothing compared to work hours lost.”

This question of wasted time comes up a lot with Cookie Clicker. Alfie Bown is an academic and author of the blog Everyday Analysis, as well as the book Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism. He argues that because we feel alienated at work, we turn to the “simulated feeling of career satisfaction” offered by many games, in which our actions directly cause particularly outcomes, and in which positive results feel “earned.” Many players lack that feeling of accomplishment and recognition in their working lives; ironically, Bown suggests, most games reiterate our definitions of “success” in the workplace, only in an idealized form. Those idealized beliefs about career satisfaction then get carried back into the workplace; games, then, offer a distraction that can “prevent us from facing our dissatisfaction and thinking about it (which could at least potentially lead to organised opposition and revolt).”

But Cookie Clicker, Bown says, does something different. It doesn’t reiterate norms about success and accomplishment so much as gleefully (and subtly) explode them. It ticks away in a background tab, demanding attention. It travesties work, inflicting repetition on players for a darkly pointless cause. “It seems to be mocking the idea of wasting time,” Bown says. “It’s telling you to forget time, to forget what you should be doing, to dedicate an unreasonable amount of hours to this. It’s a big ‘fuck off’ to capitalist structures of time in general.”

In fact, it replaces conventional measures of gaming “success” with something much more familiar: the half-attentive clicking of the office drone trying to look busy. And there’s no end in sight. If clicking is a form of manual labor (as the rise of click farms suggests it is), in Cookie Clicker “success” would seem to be escaping such labor by getting others to do it, then reaping the rewards. But there’s little relief in automating production and becoming a “cookie tycoon”—by then you’ll be hooked on just watching the numbers. Nor can you compete against your friends: Unlike, say, Farmville, Cookie Clicker has no social component. Instead, it alienates the player with hours of masturbatory clicking.

History is filled with examples of “dream job” games, from the Hotel Tycoon board game to Football Manager to the Deloitte Business Simulation Game. But Cookie Clicker takes this conceit further by positioning itself as a lifelong pursuit: Close and reopen Cookie Clicker and your empire will resume, having silently harvested millions more cookies in the meantime (presumably thanks to the magic of browser cookies). But the lack of skill required to gain them is a poisoned chalice: The cookies become an uncomfortable reminder of how long you spend on the Internet, engaged in entertainment so mindless that you could abandon the game for weeks at a time and still technically be “playing.”

“It seems to be mocking the idea of wasting time … It’s a big ‘fuck off’ to capitalist structures of time in general.”

In this way, Cookie Clicker entrances even as it breeds resentment. Its players are drones but remain capable of clicking. It’s commonplace to note that technology has blurred the line between work and leisure time. We check our emails before bed. We embrace “quantified self”-inspired numbers fetishism, using wearables to measure hours of sport, leisure, and even sleep. We spend our off-hours mechanically scrolling through Facebook (and producing free content for the company to monetize). Meanwhile, the modern workplace has become “gamified” with rewards systems and perks, imploring the worker to stay overtime in order to “do what you love.”

Cookie Clicker suggests, then, that this blurring of work and leisure has also complicated our ideas of what fun is, by saddling it with ideas about success, achievement, and productivity. (Workplaces get gamified, after all, because it leads to more productive workers.) It’s worth asking whether this implies capitalism is in crisis, or whether its greatest triumph will be leading us to confuse leisure time with work. Or to conflate the two realms until there is no meaningful difference. (Consider the Silicon Valley vanguard, working on bucolic campuses for top-dollar salaries yet infantilized by companies that take care of their every need—in order to keep them working. This is not new, either; Douglas Coupland captured its essence in his 1995 novel Microserfs.)

The game uses its own form as a critique of the larger structures of expectation and reward. Its pointlessness has a point. “I had Cookie Clicker down as a new version of Hotel Tycoon, or Sim City,” Bown says over Skype (in the background I can hear his own frenzied clicking, playing the game). “But there’s a crucial difference, in that failure in those games implies a failure to follow capitalist principles. In Cookie Clicker success and failure are the same thing, and if you successfully follow the principles of capitalism it leads to apocalypse.”

Your rise from humble cookie clicker to cookie baron is based on exploiting resources both human and natural.

It’s an apocalypse foretold every step of the way. Buy 100 factories and you earn the “Global Warming” achievement badge. Double your factory production and you get the “Sweatshop” upgrade, while 100 mines gets you the “Hollow the Planet” badge. Your rise from humble cookie clicker to cookie baron is based on exploiting resources both human and natural, a history that the game refuses to let go unacknowledged.

In later stages, the dystopia grows clearer. The news panel brings dispatches from a world of outlandish appetites, a nation of overstuffed Augustus Gloops. “Genetically-modified chocolate controversy strikes chocolate farmers!” “Doctors warn mothers about the dangers of ‘home-made’ cookies.” “New cookie-based religion sweeps the nation.” The antimatter condensers cause a black hole, which swallows a town and its inhabitants. The portals release unidentified “creatures” upon the world, while speculation surrounds a secret ingredient in the cookies: kitten meat.

It’s a dark world, and maybe one deserving of a cleansing fire. But in Cookie Clicker, even the apocalypse can be bent to serve the market. Buy too many upgrades, produce cookies too quickly, and you’ll usher in the “Grandmapocalypse”—a workers’ rebellion among the grannies. The screen turns molten red and the central cookie is attacked by phallic “wrinklers,” monsters that gnaw at your cookies. The Grandmapocalypse can be remedied by buying them off with the “Elder Covenant” upgrade, or you can sell off your entire workforce, breaking the rebellion. But if allowed to continue, the Grandmapocalypse does not end Cookie Clicker—it only slows down production. Regardless of how much your grannies suffer, regardless how broken the system, this “endgame” is not an end but an ongoing state.

• • •

The first time I played Cookie Clicker I refused to turn my computer off for a week because I wanted to keep clicking. I became a viewer-drone glued to the screen, like a victim of the “Entertainment” from Infinite Jest. Eventually my own greed ruined the game, but also saved me from its clutches. I found a cheat page and put it to use; production escalated so quickly that I lost track and stopped caring about my cookie empire.

While writing this piece, I revisited Cookie Clicker. I also installed on my laptop two programs, called WhatPulse and RescueTime. Marketed as productivity tools, they measure the fabric of my online life: which programs and websites I spend my time on, how many clicks and keystrokes I make. They claim to know how much of my time is wasted, and how much of my time is “fun.”

My stats for the week are largely meaningless: According to RescueTime, today I had two hours and 23 minutes of “productive time” and nine minutes of “distracting time.” I spent 90 percent of my time on “design and composition,” 4 percent on “news and opinion,” 2 percent on “social networking” and 1 percent on “entertainment.” The most staggering numbers, for me at least, were these: 204,420 keystrokes and 22,246 clicks. (Neither program tells me how many of those were on Cookie Clicker.)

For a certain kind of a professional worker the click is a fundamental unit of labor, the most rudimentary measure of what we’re doing. We are clicking. Clicking away in hopes that our clicks are effective—that they will produce something, even if it’s just virtual cookies. Cookie Clicker could only exist, and be appreciated, in such a climate—one where we keep clicking for work and play, and in order to know we are alive.

And yet this is how Cookie Clicker slowly, incrementally radicalizes its players: It makes you painfully aware of wasted time. No matter how inexplicably addicted you feel, around 100 trillion cookies in, you start to question what “fun” is. You start to notice how distractions keep us from breaking the cycles we resent. To all appearances the game is a political statement, fostering a community of dedicated idlers. Orteil has even made public a set of instructions for building DIY idle games, for his followers to create their own weapons of mass distraction.

Bown agrees that Cookie Clicker demonstrates a lesson through its chaotic endgame. “We like to think the end of capitalism will be humanitarian left-wing change,” he says, “that we will create an alternative to capitalism which is fairer and more just. I think that’s very unlikely. The end of capitalism will be pursuing it into its own internal collapse. And I think Cookie Clicker gives you that: the argument that capitalism will end by following its own principles to such an extreme that this will cause disorder from within.”

Perhaps the right thing to do, then, is to keep wasting our time in protest. To keep compulsively clicking, to disseminate the game to friends and grandmas, and to enjoy the cookie while it crumbles.