Cookie Clicker, an online browser game created by the French developer Orteil, took off in the August of 2013 and became an Internet cult phenomenon as it spread through 4chan, Reddit, Tumblr, and other various online communities. At first glance, Cookie Clicker is a deceptively simple game, welcoming new players with an interface featuring a giant image of a cookie and text stating that they currently have "0 cookies". When players click the cookie in the game's interface, however, their cookie count increases, encouraging players to click more. While the name "Cookie Clicker" for the game suggests that its primary goal is to click cookies, the game expands on its implicit goal of earning an arbitrarily high number of cookies by allowing players to purchases various upgrades that passively award them cookies: cursors that click for them, grandmas who bake cookies, even time machines which "[bring] cookies from the past, before they were even eaten". Despite the simplicity of Cookie Clicker and the seemingly empty nature of its premise (earning as many cookies as possible by menially clicking, buying upgrades, and waiting for those upgrades to generate cookies), Cookie Clicker manages to provide meaningful gameplay by combining its simple mechanics with a minimalistic but suggestive story.
One of the criteria of meaningful gameplay is that the player can discern the outcomes of their actions. As a direct result of its simplicity, Cookie Clicker draws very clear causal relationships between the clicks players make and the cookies they gain. Each time a player clicks on the giant cookie, they're rewarded with floating numbers that tell them just how many cookies they gained, which can range anywhere from "+1" to "+17,139,952.9" or more cookies per click depending on the upgrades the player has bought. If the player chooses to click more rapidly, each of those clicks is still counted, resulting directly in faster gain of cookies. Furthermore, the buildings and upgrades players can buy in the game using cookies as a currency allow them to gain more cookies just by keeping Cookie Clicker open in their browsers. As players buy more and more upgrades and buildings in the game, a highly visible stat called Cps or "Cookies per second" increases, plainly stating to players that, yes, those upgrades they're buying are permanently changing the state of their game in the goalward direction. And despite the passive nature of earning more cookies just by keeping Cookie Clicker open, by constantly rewarding players in the form of cookies, the game tells players that, yes, even just keeping a Cookie Clicker tab in the background while browsing various other sites is a meaningful task.
In addition to showing players that their actions in the game are visibly rewarded, Cookie Clicker relates all aspects of its gameplay directly into its central theme of advancing by earning more cookies. Cookie Clicker simplifies its system and removes currency as a potential intermediate goal by making cookies both the main currency of the game and the ultimate goal. Players of Cookie Clicker spend cookies to buy upgrades and buildings in order to earn cookies, creating a feeling that cookies are continuously growing themselves. The game also offers side features such as achievements earned for doing various quirky tasks or reaching various milestones in cookies made, buildings built, or upgrades bought. But, even these achievements contribute to the ultimate goal of improving cookie output by increasing a side statistic called Milk, which, in turn, increases Cookies per second. Another feature of the game is the presence of "Golden Cookies" which randomly appear on the screen and can give players temporary bonuses in Cookies per second. By being random occurrences, Golden Cookies encourage players to keep the Cookie Clicker game in easy view, helping to immerse players in the goal of maximizing their cookie production. One of the more detailed side events in the game, the "Grandmapocalypse", is triggered when the player purchases various Grandma-related updates and replaces the game's Golden Cookies with Red Cookies, which have worse possible outcomes for the player, including ones that temporarily halve cookie production or decrease the player's currently owned cookies. Although the Grandmapocalypse is riddled with themes such as demonic grandmothers who share "One mind" that seem unlikely in a game about earning cookies via clicking, the flavorful sidequest ultimately stays within the game's topic of earning cookies. Evil grandmothers are a negative factor because of their ability to decrease cookie production, and the solution to their wrath is to earn more cookies in order to buy the "Elder Covenant" upgrade.
With features such as the Grandmapocalypse, Cookie Clicker turns into a surprisingly flavor-filled game for its simplicity. Although the game does not have a highly defined story, as the player advances in the game, a constantly changing news ticker presents slugs of text hinting at the meaning of the player's actions in the game. When the player starts making cookies, the lines such as "Your cookies are popular in the neighborhood" appear. After the player buys his or her first Grandma, the line "'Call Me' — grandma" starts to appear later followed by lines like "'Indentured servitude' —grandma" or "'Absolutely disgusting' —grandma" as the player purchases more and more grandmas. Similar lines also appear in the news for the other upgrades in the game, such as "News : genetically-modified chocolate controversy strikes cookie farmers!", appearing when the player starts purchasing farms, "News : cookie factories on strike - workers demand to stop being paid in cookies!", appearing when the player starts purchasing factories, or "News : various historical figures inexplicably replaced with talking lumps of dough!", appearing when the player starts purchasing time machines. All in all, the game has over 100 of these flavorful slugs, continually being unlocked as the player progresses. Ultimately, these texts generally have little to no impact on the actual mechanics of the game. Factories in Cookie Clicker, for example, continue to maintain full production even when the news claims that workers are going on strike. However, these texts suggest to players that even their simple actions of clicking cookies and buying upgrades are having a huge impact on the world of Cookie Clicker. As players keep playing Cookie Clicker, they can see their cookies go from "popular in the neighborhood" to "[having] achieved sentience" until the game finally starts telling players "it's time to stop playing" when they've achieved the milestone of over 10,100,000,000 cookies. Descriptions of upgrades and buildings in Cookie Clicker also are laced with humor and insights into the seemingly bizarre world of the game. The Alchemy Lab building in Cookie Clicker purportedly "[turns] gold into cookies", suggesting that in the Cookie Clicker universe, cookies are valued much more highly than gold. Other examples include the Farm building which suggests to players that they can "[grow] cookie plants from cookie seeds", and the Shipment building which claims to "[bring] in fresh cookies from the cookie planet". Ultimately, the flavor of the game suggests that Cookie Clicker happens in a world that is humorously centered around cookies, giving the player a sense of significance despite the silliness of the premise of clicking cookies to advance.
In the end, the addictive nature of Cookie Clicker largely stems from its gameplay which invites players to constantly keep Cookie Clicker open in their background and to constantly check on Cookie Clicker while it's open in the background. Cookie Clicker rewards players just for having the game passively open once they start buying upgrades, giving players a sense that they are missing free opportunities if they do not keep the game open. After all, a game that rewards players just for having it open is low commitment while still managing to create a sense of accomplishment. However, Cookie Clicker further entices players by allowing them to buy more upgrades with the cookies they've earned. Players know that the earlier they buy upgrades as they earn the cookies required to buy them, the more cookies they can earn with time. Thus, Cookie Clicker creates a sense of lost opportunity when a player has waited too long to buy new upgrades, encouraging players to do more than just keep Cookie Clicker open; they should also constantly check back to buy new upgrades. Finally, the ability to click the cookie in order to produce more cookies in the game remains ever present which rewards players who want to further maximize their cookie gain for taking a more active approach to playing the game. In this way, Cookie Clicker presents itself as a casual low commitment distraction which allows players to give it their full attention from time to time.
Despite having only been released a month since the time of writing this essay, Cookie Clicker has already spawned numerous Youtube videos, including a humorous episode by the famous Youtube gamer Nerd3, a Wikia wiki containing 51 pages of information detailing the features of the game, a subreddit on the Reddit site with over 1,500 subscribers, and an entry on the Internet phenomenon documenting site, Know Your Meme. Cookie Clicker is a little more complex than its parody-like title suggests, featuring sidequests like the Grandmapocalypse, numerous achievements, including a handful of hidden achievements, and many humorous flavor texts. However, the game is regardless, ultimately an experience of a player giving his or her attention to relatively empty task of waiting or cookies to be gained and, as the title suggests, clicking on cookies. Ultimately, through the creation of meaningful gameplay via its mechanics, flavor, and story, Cookie Clicker shows that video games have the ability to make even the most mindless of tasks such as repeatedly clicking a static image or keeping a tab open seem significant.