COOKIE CLICKER SITS open in my web browser. I have baked three quadrillion cookies and clicked two-hundred eighty golden cookies. I haven’t turned off my computer in 350 hours and I don’t plan to do so any time soon. I am hooked.
Here is the game: Click a chocolate chip cookie to produce cookies. When you get enough cookies, spend them to hire a grandma to bake cookies for you. Hire more grandmas. Buy farms, factories, mines, shipments of cookies from outer space, alchemy labs (transmute gold into cookies!), portals to other dimensions to steal their cookies, time machines (which look like the one in H.G. Well’s The Time Machine) to retrieve cookies before they were eaten, and antimatter condensers (to condense antimatter into cookies, obviously). Upgrade your grandmas and other units of production. Buy new types of cookies which increase production. Buy cursors which automatically click your cookie. Click the cookie yourself, sometimes furiously, sometimes lazily. Click the randomly occurring golden cookies to get bonuses. Click the cookie while skyping your boyfriend, watching TV, calling your mom. Click.
I think the point of the game is to amass amazing amounts of cookies. I say I think because I am constantly bothered by the nagging sensation that there has to be something more. I know there’s a lesson about capitalism and greed in here somewhere. I don’t want to confront it. I’m concerned about this compulsion to constantly be clicking and watching, but I don’t want to confront that either. I want to click cookies.
A news feed constantly updates, and as I purchase new things, the headlines update. “News: cookie farms suspected of employing undeclared elderly workforce!”
Guilty, I have 185 Grandmas working for me, have extolled the health benefits of cookie fad diets; I have been warned that towns near portals have been known to disappear, reported on cookie purists who shun alchemy-made cookies, and suggested that my cookie factories are contributing to global warming. The Grandmas say things like “You could have stopped it” and “We rise.”
My cookies have taken over this world and its Media. Clearly, I need to deal with my corporate greed and my insatiable need to produce more cookies faster, but I don’t want to. I keep clicking.
Miners have died in chocolate mine collapses and floods of chocolate have destroyed towns. My factories have been linked to genetic mutations, and soon, I have a kitten work force.
In this world, teens have started sniffing chocolate chips and unsettling creatures are emerging from portals—All because I want the number on my screen to keep increasing.
And it is increasing. The number goes up and up and up. I can buy more time machines, more anti-matter condensers, more upgrades.
The grandmas have turned into grand-matriarchs, evil cult witches with sagging skin and red eyes, because I have bought them too many upgrades and made them too powerful. My screen now red, has attracted giant bugs called wrinklers that eat at my cookies-per-second production rate. I click the wrinklers (who release all the stolen cookies, with interest), the golden cookies, and the giant cookie with mania. I feel something resembling guilt. But not enough to stop.
I need to achieve all the achievements.
Suspiciously, the number of all-time golden cookie clicks is always 16 ahead of me, unachievable.
In this game I am sucked into, there is a perception of low effort for moderate reward. Extremely low effort. My brain thinks that all I have to do is keep my browser open. What actually happens, however, is that I keep the browser open and my eyes on the browser, constantly looking for golden cookies. My roommates have been caught clicking the cookie when I am out of the room. It is not low effort. It is a stress inducing, constantly on alert effort, and it is negatively impacting my ability to function. I cannot even browse Facebook anymore, because I am so distracted by the prospect of golden cookies going un-clicked.
After a bad day, I lop off monster heads, pop balloons and fight wars. While killing giant, obviously evil, hairy spiders in an MMORPG is easy, I know I don’t have the guts to kill them in real life but instead gently sway them into a soft Kleenex which I carry through the house quickly and throw out the front door. My avatars are, if possible, objectified and sexy as hell with bulging muscles and revealing armor, distracting me from what I hate in the mirror.
Building a six story mansion, complete with glass windows, statues, and furniture I crafted myself, in a two dimensional world so that each NPC and my own character can have their own luxury apartment and the zombies won’t eat them at night, distracts me from the fact that I live in a tiny white cell called a dorm where I have no control over my environment and where I am often very alone. Wielding a double-headed battle axe distracts me from my social anxiety in aggressive situations–because who needs to argue when you have a huge weapon?
Cookie Clicker distract me from my fear of failing. In games, the ratio of risk and reward has been drastically altered from the ratio of real life–the risk is almost non-existent (reset to last save point), and the reward is as great as we can make it.
I can never truly fail if I risk nothing. Clicking cookies and unlocking achievements distracts me from my terror of never actually achieving anything meaningful.
I have poured ribbons and trophies into the void, searching for the achievement that will finally be enough. Unlocking achievements in a game will never make me say to myself “I am good enough,” but I will click cookies. And when I do, I substitute the trivial for the meaningful, and it is soothing, satisfying and utterly boring. It is a palliative, a band-aid.
I know this, yet I continue to click. I continue to pop balloons and fight monsters. Desperate to hold the monsters inside me at bay, I click and click and click.