27 October 2008

Working for the Man

Against the Employment Paradigm in Videogames

Videogames are often discussed under the concept of “play”, but this is not always how gamers themselves talk about their experience: they use instead vocabularies of desperate competition or violence. Take the very common expression of satisfaction after completing a game: “I beat the game.” What exactly does it mean to beat a game? You can’t have a meaningful contest against an inert digital artefact. From the game’s point of view, you did not beat it. On the contrary, you did exactly what the game wanted you to do, every step of the way. You didn’t play the game, you performed the operations it demanded of you, like an obedient employee. The game was a task of labour. From this perspective, playing a videogame looks as much like work as play. ((This is the paper I gave at the very awesome F.R.O.G. conference, Vienna 2008. It was subsequently published as a chapter in the book of conference proceedings, Edges of Gaming (Vienna, 2010). I also considered the alternative titles “I Got All the Fucking Work I Need“, and “Fuck You, I Won’t Do What You Tell Me“, but I wasn’t sure about the etiquette of swearing in the titles of papers for academic conferences.))

Of course work is a large component of many types of game. The professional chess player competing in a tournament game does not have the carefree, leisurely attitude sometimes implied by the term “playing”: she is performing massive amounts of cognitive work. Similarly with poker players or tennis players: they are not merely fooling around but labouring mightily. Because it has rules, a game is never just a game but also a system of coercion, freely entered into. This in itself is not surprising: as Johann Huizinga reminded us, the idea of play can comprehend, and is not threatened by, a fanatical seriousness. ((Huizinga, Johann, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1944; London, 1980).)) And the workload of videogames in particular is recognised in their description by some scholars as a species of “ergodic literature”.

But videogames seem more and more to resemble work in a different sense: working for the Man. They hire us for imaginary, meaningless jobs that replicate the structures of real-world employment. And this represents a surprisingly literal fulfilment of the criticism Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer advanced of industrial entertainment more than 60 years ago:

Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanization has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardized operations. What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time.

All amusement suffers from this incurable malady. Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain pleasure, it must not demand any effort and therefore moves rigorously in the worn grooves of association. No independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction: not by its natural structure (which collapses under reflection), but by signals. ((Adorno, Theodor W, & Horkheimer, Max, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947; London, 1997), p137.))

If games are supposed to be fun, Adorno and Horkheimer might have asked, why do they go so far to replicate the structure of a repetitive dead-end job? Increasingly, videogames seem to aspire to a mimesis of the mechanized work process. I mean by this something different than the external recruitment process observed in the phenomena of beta releases and the mod scene, where players become unpaid testers and then contributors to the profitable extension of the corporate product. ((See Sotamaa, Olli, “Have Fun Working with Our Product!”: Critical Perspectives on Computer Game Mod Competitions”, DiGRA conf. 2005.)) Rather, I want to point to the way that the classic single-player game already represents an “after-image of the work process itself”.

Shop till you drop

Today, the most common paradigm for progress in games, for example, is the idea of “earning”. Follow the rules, achieve results, and you are rewarded with bits of symbolic currency — credits, stars, skill points, powerful glowing orbs — which you can then exchange later in the game for new gadgets, ways of moving, or access to previously denied areas. The only major difference between this paradigm and that of a real-world job is that, whereas the money earned from a job enables you to buy beer and go on holiday — that is, to do things that are extraneous to the mechanized work process — the closed videogame system rewards you with things that only makes it supposedly more fun or involving to continue doing your job, rather than letting you get outside it. It is, you might say, a malignly perfect style of capitalist brainwashing. Even Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece, Metal Gear Solid 4, whose narrative is a satire of modern military Keynesianism and the global “war economy”, has you buy new guns from an arms dealer by earning “Drebin points”.

In a great many games, the overarching economic system boils down to a matter of shopping. New skills — whether they be new physical moves, spells, or the ability to transform into a demon — are acquired instantaneously and thoroughly through currency exchange. In this way, adding insult to injury, the player is cast as a wage-slave in her leisure activity as well as in her daily life.

(In the mean time the existence of real economies in online multiplayer worlds such as World of Warcraft or Second Life is widely welcomed as progress, as a sign that these games are really serious to the extent that they can replicate and extend real-world commercial systems, and offer the player “the pleasures of wealth and desirable commodities”. ((Molesworth, Mike, & Denegri-Knott, Janice, “The Pleasures and Practices of Virtualised Consumption in Digital Spaces”, DiGRA conf. 2005.)))

You are not the boss of me

Who, then, is paying the player’s salary? The characters we call “bosses” in videogames are the large monsters we have to defeat at the end of a level, but everywhere there are more insidious types of bosses, who better resemble micromanaging employers. The videogame designer often exerts his authority through a non-playable character, an ostensibly loveable sidekick who will bombard the player with increasingly heavy hints about what has to be done next. It’s not a suggestion; it is an order. We have all had the experience of arriving in an new area in a role-playing game, only to be greeted by a character who refuses to help us in our quest until we have collected the five pieces of her arbitrary amulet. Everywhere you go, you are told what to do.

Of course a comprehensible goal-oriented structure is a useful thing, to stop a videogame becoming a sprawling mess of undermotivated wandering and backtracking. But while the just-following-orders structure works acceptably in military-themed games such as Splinter Cell, which after all do pretend to be more or less “realistic” representations of the job of a counter-terrorist or special forces agent, where a commander delivers objectives and the soldier finds ways to implement them, the idea seems more rebarbative the further one strays from quasi-simulation into pure fantasy.

Apart from comic early representations of menial jobs such as in 1980s arcade games Tapper or Burger Time, some kind of military position was for a long time virtually the only real-life job represented in videogames (apart from the venerable genre of football management or the odd train-driving simulator). Yet what we are seeing now is an increasing labourisation of the game atmosphere: from the wry alternative employment market of GTA, to almost all modern racing games, games become structured around a fictional career.

Remarkably, the WipEout games, for example, even count points for your “loyalty” to a particular team, be it Auricom or Feisar. The idea of inculcating loyalty to an entirely fictional organization is fascinating. In the modern “flexible” labour market, where people may be fired on a whim and companies rename themselves or merge from one day to the next, it might be thought useful to train the population in an idea of “loyalty” that is instant, portable — and, of course, unrequited. Perhaps the predictable and reliable nature of the virtual jobs at which we work in videogames is a consolation for the increasingly unreliable nature of employment in real life.

Be loyal, keep your head down, earn currency. Nothing could be a more perfect advert for what is sometimes called the “American way” than The Sims. Buy a Sim a large mirror and she will be happier, by virtue of being able to gaze at her reflection. Buy him a new oven, and he’ll become more popular after giving dinner parties. Help your Sim climb the slippery pole of a career as a politician or scientist. This is a game in which the brutal rules of free-market capitalism are everything. More money makes a Sim happier; social dissidents are not allowed. Do you want to drop out of the rat-race, wear charity-shop tweed suits and spend your days playing chess in the park? Sorry. Such gameplay possibilities are ruled out by the political assumptions buried deep in the game’s structure.

This fact ought to remind us that, even in what are commonly called God games, being God is still a job. You are not allowed to be the kind of God who makes up his own laws: there is no digital equivalent of virgin stone tablets on which to inscribe your own commandments. In a God game, God is still subordinate to the true boss, the game’s designed system of rules.

In Shenmue, there was a famous episode where you actually had to go and get a job driving fork-lift trucks within the gameworld. Perhaps that was an ironic acknowledgment already of the job-like nature of too many games. Possibly it is inevitable that, as products of decadent late capitalism, most videogames will, consciously or not, reflect the same values. You go through a period of training, and then it’s all about success and shopping, keeping your head down, doing what the system expects. Make-believe jobs, as Adorno and Horkheimer might have concluded, are the opiate of the people. Or, as Morrissey put it: “I was looking for a job and then I found a job / And heaven knows I’m miserable now.” ((The Smiths, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (Rough Trade, 1984).))

The critical site in contemporary games of this paradox — and its obverse — is Grand Theft Auto 4. The game’s structure leads you through a great many “jobs” or missions, while at the same time even the process of maintaining friendships becomes Taylorized, broken down into discrete, manageable, repetitive pieces. You have regularly to perform the chore of taking a friend to a bar or lapdancing club in order to assure his “loyalty”. The game even requires you to manage your life through a virtual cellphone, which, given the constraints of console cybernetics, is much less pleasant to operate than a real cellphone. We thus arrive at the absurd position where it is supposed to be fun to use a complex piece of technology to emulate badly the experience of using a less complex piece of technology. It is rather like performing keyhole surgery on an immaterial hunk of communications plastic.

And yet GTA4, like its predecessors, also allows the player to ignore its employment structure and just wander around the city. Indeed, there seems to be a significant minority of players who, after trying to follow a few missions, give up on the game’s demands and are content merely to do their own thing, considering the game worthwhile for the opportunity it affords as a sandbox: an arena where the player can really play rather than work. This aspect of the game is seriously limited — most buildings cannot be entered, and your interactions with others are limited as usual to acts of violence or commercial sex — but it answers to a desire on the part of players to, as an employer might generously say, write their own responsibilities. One player’s criticism of the “official game” within the game represents just such a call for more opportunities for real play:

Missions should allow for more freedom and room for creativity […] Make the failure requirements less arbitrary and allow me to experiment. […] The engine is built, have faith in it to produce fun moments without the need for scripted set pieces.

Industrial action

Alternatively, if games try to imprison us in jobs, there is always the option of industrial action. No doubt we have all at one time or another found ourselves doing something like the following. Recently, I was playing Race Driver: Grid, and missed a corner, spinning into the sand. Fed up with my imaginary team’s exhortations through the headset, I decided to spend the rest of the race seeing how long it would take to smash my car up beyond repair, noting with satisfaction the alarm of the spectators as I steered grimly at full speed into crash barriers, and parking myself in the middle of the track so that as many as possible of the rest of the pack crashed into me on their next lap. Part of the pleasure of such a bloody-minded interlude, of course, is breaking the game — seeing where its limits of verisimilitude are drawn. Since my team manager never commented on my outrageously dangerous behaviour, I decided they weren’t worth my loyalty after all. Many of us have probably also deliberately shot a non-playable character we were supposed to be protecting (for example, in Goldeneye or MGS4), simply because they were so annoying and incapable of taking the least precaution for themselves.

Of course, such defiant assertions of player freedom (or “transgressive play” ((Aarseth, Espen, “I Fought the Law: Transgressive Play and the Implied Player”, DiGRA conf. 2007.)) ) are only fleetingly satisfying, because you usually end up in a lifeless digital cul de sac, obliged to reload and try again. But arguably, moments such as these, when the gamer plays against the grain and refuses to do what the game defines as his job, better fit the definition of “play” than what the videogame actually expects of us. Here’s a famous distinction by Mark Twain:

Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and […] Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. ((Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), p23.))

On this definition, obediently following a game’s narrative or challenge-reward structure is nothing but work. Only when the player does something that isn’t mandated by the system can she be said to be playing.

Nintendo, in its Mario and Zelda series, has often made sure that its games contain “minigames” or activities that are not obligatory — for instance, fishing or catching chickens. But these do not exactly count as non-work either: they merely replace the game’s overarching instruction set with a temporary new one. For the time that you are playing the fishing subgame, fishing is now your job, with a parallel set of ironclad rules and rewards. A cunning subterfuge to keep the masses happy: you think you are on holiday from the game, but you are still caught within the system.

Smell the coffee

A more complex recent model in this regard is Nintendo’s game Animal Crossing: Wild World. On the one hand, this replicates the capitalist ideology of games such as The Sims. In Animal Crossing, the main purpose of the game is simply to earn money in order to buy nicer furniture for your house. Life revolves around the village shop, where you sell the fruit or fish you have collected, and can then buy a new armchair or rug. Gathering goods and trading them is the job.

On the other hand, there is a café in your village where you can go and sit on a stool at the bar and order a cup of coffee, prepared by a laconic pigeon. Drinking the coffee serves no purpose in the game — indeed, it even costs some of your hard-earned currency. And yet it is an example of pure play, at least on Mark Twain’s definition. You are not obliged to drink the coffee. Drinking the coffee changes nothing. And of course the coffee doesn’t even exist. You can’t smell or taste it. But you can drink the coffee whenever you like (subject to the café’s opening hours). And there is something mysteriously pleasurable about it. It is a gratuitous, interstitial moment, offering the player a chance to admire the scenery, perhaps listen to some Japanese electro-jazz, and meditate on nothing in particular along with her avatar, sipping an imaginary beverage.

If this is a kind of freedom, it must be acknowledged that it is a a limited one: it is a preprogrammed token of freedom, rather than the thing itself. But it represents a mode of videogaming that is removed from the usual paradigm of insatiable demand and control.

Can a fruitful alternative design philosophy grow from such seeds? Consider another observation about modern life, from the founder of Slow Food, the worldwide movement against accelerated industrial agricultural practices and the hurried eating of junk:

The culture of our times rests on a false interpretation of industrial civilisation; in the name of dynamism and acceleration, man invents machines to find relief from work but at the same time adopts the machine as a model of how to live his life. ((Portinari, Folco, “Il Manifesto” (1987), cited in Andrews, Geoff, The Slow Food Story: Politics & Pleasure (London, 2008), p30.))

What would videogaming look like if it rejected the machine as a model for play, if more games incorporated gratuitous moments of relaxation from their constant, accelerated striving? Or if more games did not treat us as employees but as autonomous co-creators? Scattered germs of this possibility are visible not only in Animal Crossing, but also in the surreal 1980s games of Automata such as Deus Ex Machina, and maybe too in Sony’s LittleBigPlanet. (In the latter, however, it can be argued that your job is now that of game designer, though one limited to working with the tools that the true boss has decreed available.)

The recent Echochrome draws a perfect allegory of the player’s usual relationship to a videogame. The wireframe wooden puppet character represents the player, led by the nose through a series of arbitrary contortions according to the artist-designer’s purposes, in a weightless dance that soon fades into nothingness. “Congratulations”, the videogame says at the end, “you adopted all the poses that were required of you. Now you can climb back into your cardboard box until the next time”.

This can’t be the only way. In replacement, we might imagine a new videogaming manifesto inspired by the Slow Food movement. It would speak of games where you really could choose your own adventure, but also where, if you preferred, you could just take time to smell the coffee, with no shadowy boss figure watching your clock and tapping his foot. It would be called Slow Gaming. Gamers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your boring virtual jobs.

  • Nick

    Long-time lurker, first-time poster.

    “Buy a Sim a large mirror and she will be happier, by virtue of being able to gaze at her reflection. Buy him a new oven, and he’ll become more popular after giving dinner parties. Help your Sim climb the slippery pole of a career as a politician or scientist. This is a game in which the brutal rules of free-market capitalism are everything. More money makes a Sim happier; social dissidents are not allowed. Do you want to drop out of the rat-race, wear charity-shop tweed suits and spend your days playing chess in the park? Sorry. Such gameplay possibilities are ruled out by the political assumptions buried deep in the game’s structure.”

    This passage sounded somehow… familiar?

  • Citing oneself is an important pillar of intellectual ecology in these challenging times.

  • Gerald

    The Dan Reeder song linked in footnote 1 is amazing – thanks!

  • James

    First-time lurker, first-time poster.

    I can remember one example in a half-life 1 modification called “Half-Quake” where the player had to sit in a train station for something like half an hour before proceeding. A literal half-hour, with little else to do but come up with your own form of amusement. I think for me i tried to see how fast and far i could bunny-hop.

    It seems odd to me, however, that you seem to say that the difference between playing for ‘the man’ or not is the absence of a game-reward. If i am interpereting your Animal Crossing example correctly, the absence of a game-reward makes the process of sitting down and spending currency on a coffee some sort of shift in design philosophy. So if that same mechanic had perhaps just a single added benefit in game mechanics, it would be just another system made by ‘the man’ to keep us in a consumer-loop. To me, that seems like a thin line and a grey area to begin with.

    To my own thoughts, it seems to me that one will inevitably be playing for ‘the man’ so long as the interaction between player and program is that of ‘man vs system’ or maybe ‘man in system’ would be more precise. I admit I have a hard time wrapping my brain around something that would still be called a video game, but not pit the player against a man-made system.

    Maybe I am approaching the problem/question wrong. Regardless, thanks for the transcription, it was a good read.

  • richard

    yes, in all particulars.

    I used to design games, and it hardly ever occurred to me that I should deviate from the mission-based model in solo play or the competitive resource-gathering model in multiplayer setups. It’s just so easy to make work models, and considerably harder to write (and sell) open-ended play environments. So called CRPGs allow for “free exploration” of the landscape only (which is generally composed of endless recombinations of standard elements, so it’s a self-limiting kind of entertainment), but then revert to work models as soon as the player chooses to do anything but walk. I can state from personal experience that even the designers fool themselves into thinking that there is some qualitative difference between short missions that the player can refuse and the long mission that leads to “beating” the game. I think the one thing that might round out your analysis is some examination of how players (are supposed to) extract value from games that supposedly allow for free-form and directed action.

    On which topic: Namco’s We Ski, for the wii, appears to offer open play, in the form of a set of skiing trails, although it’s loaded down with elective missions, too, and the reward for these, of course, is shopping, where the player’s labour pays directly for (mostly cosmetic) gear, “unlocking” it, in a system that’s rather less free than an open market. My question is, however, does an open, explorable ski run constitute a play environment? It has a set of assumptions about use built right into it, and skiing “successfully” is itself a form of labour.

  • James:

    If i am interpereting your Animal Crossing example correctly, the absence of a game-reward makes the process of sitting down and spending currency on a coffee some sort of shift in design philosophy. So if that same mechanic had perhaps just a single added benefit in game mechanics, it would be just another system made by ‘the man’ to keep us in a consumer-loop. To me, that seems like a thin line and a grey area to begin with.

    Yes: I do concede that it’s a “limited”, “pre-programmed token of freedom”, but I think it’s still interesting as an example of gratuitous virtual pleasure. (It’s interesting to compare with the example of smoking in the Metal Gear Solid games, which does actually have a useful function even as it lowers your health.)

    I admit I have a hard time wrapping my brain around something that would still be called a video game, but not pit the player against a man-made system.

    The player will be interacting with a man-made system, but does he have to be pitted against it?


    I think the one thing that might round out your analysis is some examination of how players (are supposed to) extract value from games that supposedly allow for free-form and directed action.

    Yes, this was the focus of some of the audience discussion after my talk. It’s difficult to know how to motivate a player if there is no employment path: why should he or she bother to do one thing rather than another? It was also pointed out that, if the game is really a sandbox of free creativity, then “being creative” becomes your job in the game, which some players might resent. (“Hey, you’re the designer: you’re supposed to be the creative one!”)

    My question is, however, does an open, explorable ski run constitute a play environment?

    Good question. One answer might be: Only if you have the option not to ski, but to dick around throwing snowballs at other skiers, etc.

  • Laurie Cheers

    Your rant seems to be against the very concept of “games”. Games are more or less _defined_ by being a goal plus rules for how that goal is achieved.

    If you take away the goal, what you have is called a “toy”. And there’s no shortage of these around – look up Line Rider, Falling Sand, Petz, Garry’s Mod, etc.

  • Your rant seems to be against the very concept of “games”.

    Er, no: see paras 2 & 3 again.

    (Sadly, it’s not so easy to define “game” either.)

  • Laurie Cheers

    Hmm… re-reading it, and I’m still not sure what your point is. What games _don’t_ you object to?

    To put it another way – if Race Driver: Grid resembles a job (professional race driver), then a game of Chess equally resembles a job (professional Chess player).

    Indeed, you can bring this full circle, and say Starcraft very strongly resembles a job (professional Starcraft player).

    How is this supposed to reflect on the game itself?

  • if Race Driver: Grid resembles a job (professional race driver), then a game of Chess equally resembles a job (professional Chess player).

    You can be a professional chessplayer, but the game of chess itself, if it resembles anything, resembles war (and of course a kind of war predating the establishment of professional militaries). There is no in-game mimesis of job/career structures, as there explicitly is in Grid.

    Plenty of racing games don’t resemble jobs in the same way either, eg Outrun.

    As for games called $craft, see this classic Onion story.

  • richard

    I wonder why I can’t read any comments here past #4. I can see that there are 10 comments, but I seem to be locked out when I try to access them. Weird.

  • Laurie Cheers

    All right… I think I’m starting to get it.

    So you object to games with any kind of currency (whatever they may call it) that you can collect and spend?

    Does that include or exclude a game like Banjo Kazooie, where there are hundreds of things to collect, but nothing to “spend” them on?

    Or a game like Doom, where you collect guns as you progress, but there’s no intermediate currency used to “buy” them?

    If Doom allowed you to barter one gun for another, would that be a form of currency?

    I’m just wondering where a game would become “too much like a job” for you. :)

  • Interesting that you should quote Mark Twain about work because I think you completely missed his point. In “Tom Sawyer”, Twain’s title character famously convinced all his friends that painting the fence was not only fun, it was a privilege they should pay Tom for.

    Work is however a person perceives a task. It’s not defined by its similarities to real work “jobs” nor is it defined by how many rote actions are involved and it’s definitely not defined by the fact that there are rules.

    Second Life is a great example of a true God game. It has not rules and no objectives and guess what? It’s not fun.

  • richard

    Second Life …has not rules and no objectives and guess what? It’s not fun.

    To answer that we’d have to have a theory of fun, and if one exists, I haven’t run across it yet. I recall (ie I’m too lazy right now to look it up) some research that suggested that when people hook up for the first time, their main neuro/psychological payoff was all in the area of goal acquisition – the implication was that the romantic notion of “falling in love” (as opposed to the equally romantic idea of “loving as a long-term commitment”) was appreciated in the same way as “success” or “winning.” This might be fairly close to a definition of fun, as gamers usually describe it.

    But then, given the continuing popularity of The Sims, endless solitaire games, monopoly and MMORPGs including Second Life, I can’t help wondering if looking for the fun isn’t entirely missing the point. It seems to me there’s a lot going on in games, that has a bearing on a game’s “stickiness” and user-value, that has nothing to do with fun and is not experienced as such.

  • Richard,

    Well, it’s not a scientific theory in the academic sense, but there is in fact a book entitled Theory of Fun by Raph Koster (http://theoryoffun.com) which very much describes rules as being the very definition of games.

    Also, you’re right that “fun” may be the wrong term entirely. Much research has been done on the term “engagement” instead and also heavily reference the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s work on “Flow”.

    (PS A little irritated at my own misspelling of “not rules”. Doh)

  • Chris

    It seems to me that at the beginning of this article you discuss games as “work-like” or that they “replicate the structures of real-world employment.” I agree with you on this point and it seems that games are doing this more completely and more often. But by the end of your article you talk as if games are work. To follow the rules of a game is not to perform labour in any of the senses that we traditionally think of labour. The act of playing a game is fundamentally non-exploitative (except possibly in the cases of user generated content as in e.g. MMOs or LittleBigPlanet) because you are not producing anything. There is, therefore, no value for the capitalist to usurp. I think that this gets you into trouble later when trying to define what counts as a game and what counts as work. The easy way out is that it doesn’t matter, the big problem is that the principles of capitalism are being reproduced in games, not that this reproduction turns them into work. It would be interesting to see games that incorporated a fundamentally different economic system. What would a game that took the gift economy as its philosophical underpinning look like?

  • What would a game that took the gift economy as its philosophical underpinning look like?

    Great question! Actually, there is already a sort of pseudo-gift economy running in parallel with the capitalist system in Animal Crossing: Wild World, as NPCs sometimes send you gratituous presents along with letters, and you can reciprocate if you feel like it. It would certainly be interesting to see that pursued further.

  • richard

    There is, therefore, no value for the capitalist to usurp.

    Mais non! Gold farming aside, the player produces some sort of value, in that they engage in an activity for which they are willing to pay cash, buying the game. Admittedly, this is a far cry from waged labour, but there is still a direct relation between the player’s work and the publisher’s profits.

    Perhaps gamers’ bragging rights get us closer: they seem to replicate a kind of potlach system that the capitalist can exploit. One player devotes labour to acquiring in-game tokens and can then display those tokens to other players in order to challenge them, generally to a greater expenditure of labour (and, often, to an incremental increase in cash expenditure, in pay-to-play systems). The first such system I can think of is the persistent high-score board on the old Space Invaders consoles.

  • Richard

    Interesting post. Playing Fable II recently has had me thinking about this too.

    The reconstruction of the role of landlord (did they think also of including a bank manager and mortgage broker? or are the games masters, with their gambling, the nearest we get?) and the wood-cutting, blade-hammering, pint-pulling minigames reinforce capitalist thinking.

    However, somehow, they are also fun. One way they achieve this is by subverting the reward structure. In real life, however good you were at chopping wood, your salary would not rise as fast as it does in game.

    It is difficult to think of a game, or indeed virtually any other experience, that does not depend on a reward structure. Even acts of pure altruism contain the reward of feelings of virtuousness. Humans need rewards for the actions they carry out.

  • Patrick Xavier

    Re footnote 1, the etiquette is to refer, but not recite. My personal favourite is a paper titled “Evidently chicken town”, footnoted to refer to the publication of John Cooper Clark’s poem of the same name. Only on sourcing the publication did the title’s choice become comprehensible. (Of course, now there’s Google….)

  • jp

    some hopefully constructive criticism (sorry about the disruptive parentheses, i’m trying to be specific):

    you have an interesting point with the idea of games-as-employment, which seems to be about beating levels to open new levels and gathering points to receive rewards. but given the looseness of your central concept of a ‘system of rules,’ you end up overstretching the analysis. (ex- a lot of minigames are basically boardgames, and you already said you’re taking issue with something specific with contemporary board games. as for littlebigplanet, any game that allows for creativity would give you a particular set of tools, [as would any medium] and so long as it involves level construction, would make you a level designer) The result is that it becomes unclear at what level games are necessarily rule-bound and at what level there could be room for a different ‘paradigm’. (ex – Even if you could make your own laws in a God game, presumably the game would still have rules ordering the types of laws you could ordain, as well as their parameters.)

    You also invite Laurie’s confusion and response.

    The bits were you discuss literal employment as symptomatic – careers in the racing games and values (and resulting constraints) in the Sims – are interesting, but these are hardly representative (never mind reflective, i’ll get to that in a second) of post-Fordism or “free market ideology.” Vanity, consumerism, and career-climbing were around long before the 80s. animal crossing doesn’t reflect ‘capitalist ideology.’ there’s no capital involved in it’s economic system… no one is investing money into production to make more money. if anything it’s hunting and gathering economy only with currencies. Aside from the improper use of economic concepts, you border on saying (following Adorno and Horkheimer’s brand of Marxism, knowingly or not) that both the employment or earning paradigm and these more literal elements are reflections of some aspect of ‘Capitalism’ rather than of some aspect of contemporary mainstream American culture (say the corporate world, or the rat race) that is of course related but not collapsable to large economic transformations.

    This also suffers from excessive jargon of a ‘Theory’ variety, meaning it’s impressionistic and trendy (used to fit into an academic register so as to legitimize the article – vague neo-Marxist cultural critique, check), rather than precise. (ex – “in-game mimesis of job/career structures,” faulty use of economic concepts, “console cybernetics,” “transgressive play” [not yours but emblematic])

    Your insights suffer and it can be difficult to follow your argument because the writing could be tighter and the concepts sharper (and ideally more subterranean, though this is an academic piece. as in the Lanchester piece on videogames that quotes you.)

    Main point is well taken, though.

  • jp

    for the record, i have no problem with cultural analysis of video games. it can be quite insightful. i’m just wary of analysis informed by critical theory rather than by empirical social science … it reads in too much too loosely, because it uses highly abstract and flexible categories, and often suffers from the trendyness problem discussed above.

  • animal crossing doesn’t reflect ‘capitalist ideology.’ there’s no capital involved in it’s economic system… no one is investing money into production to make more money. if anything it’s hunting and gathering economy only with currencies.

    That’s not exactly correct, eg you can invest in a fishing rod and then sell the fish you catch back to the shop.

    The terms “mimesis” and “cybernetics” long predate what I assume you mean by “Theory”. Perhaps this is relevant.

  • IB

    Long time, long, long time.

    I enjoyed this post. However — to try to extract non-partisan conclusions from jp’s long post — I agree that this post serves, like much popularly exhibited criticism today, as mere *invitation* to re-read older criticism in a newer context. Moreover, I agree that the author could have more clearly defined video games and yet another form of literature, as *text,* though I don’t find this omission to be a mistake. We have meta-discussions on everything now. And Critical Theory consumes every piece of “meta” discourse out there. So what!

    Regrettably enough, all I’d like to do here is stretch the invitational aspect already present in this essay and following discussion, perhaps to counter the “finality” in the tone of some of the replies.

    The dichotomy (and the terms I use are provisional and meant only to give names to the different categories of games) of Play game features and Work game features resembles that of Realist literatures and SUR-realist literatures. Well, this dichotomy reincarnates in many different forms in many different critical discourses. The bottom line is that we read (or “play” or “compete against,” whatever the case may be) a text based on our (mostly) societally-sanctioned systems of interpretation. Idiosyncrasy rarely enters — and even more rarely is it noticed to do so — when the rules are pre-defined.

    To be blatant and put it in a Marxist way, you might say the more free (or more *rich*) will read more surrealistically, and the more challenged/dependednt (or more *poor*) will read more realistically. Being members of the middle class, able to afford *some* video games, we read with a mix of both, though not necessarily an even mix. To continue with blatant ideas, I’ll say that, in a pre-programmed system, I’m skeptical as to what “freedom” there can ever really be. And Adorno and Horkheimer, with their “brand of Marxism,” are indeed quite furious, but not about this. They’re furious with the use of text as de-motivational promoter of a present condition as incontestable “norm” (see SMOKESCREEN or AMERICAN IDOL). And this is precisely where Capitalism and American Culture melt together and become one and the same thing. Part of “norm” production is telling people what they want. “Gosh, I don’t want to be a Marxist,” as loose as the term may now be, “I don’t want to get into trouble or seem stupid, so I better do what that reactionary guy says I should do so that nobody notices me.” But then, what are we all if not reactionary? The term “reactionary” itself no longer defines “reaction” as much as it does “conservative jerk.”

    But I digress.

    At preset we can’t help the rule-based, pre-programmed nature of video games. Computers are not so autonomous — and we aren’t so interested in exploring the chaos of autonomous play (i.e. interact *with each other,* frchrissake!), nor, for the most part, are we able to. We are very quickly overcome either by boredom or by fear, or by both. So, whether more Free or more Work-oriented, games are limited by their rules. But there’s an initial comfort in that. It gets us into the text, shows us how to open it and put ourselves inside.

    Still further, like a book (ancestor to today’s video game) a game also invites us to interpret it. Once we’re inside, it can spoon-feed us a message, or it can give us several conflicting messages, or it can give no obvious message and force us to search for messages, or it can do a combination of varying levels of these imperatives (and by “message” I mean any plot-line or set of goals to be accomplished or concepts to be clarified or universes to be seen more fully or time to be more thoroughly spent drinking make-believe coffee, etc.) Of course, we must remember that some texts give, among other messages, a message and its obverse at the same time. Much of this is done in the spirit of dispelling the “norm,” shattering the thought that there’s a perfectly intelligible but un-*interpret*-able crux at the center of our general experience. For instance, clarity. What the hell is clarity anyway? Can you not read these words? Can you not read the author’s words?

    But, again, I’m going on and on. Perhaps I’m making none but the obvious points. Or perhaps I’m being totally “incomprehensible.”

    In any case, I’d like to thank the author again for this enlightening preamble and the participants for their fascinating critiques.

  • IB

    In my own first paragraph: instead of “AND yet another form of literature,” I meant, “AS yet another form of literature.” Video games AS yet another form of literature.

  • Well, I don’t think they are. (I do enjoy the generous spirit of your contribution, though.)

  • IB

    You have a good point. However, I absolutely do not mean to say that video games are made with the intention that they be engaged with *intellectually.* “But,” you might say (re the link), “what do you mean by ‘intellectually’?” Let me see. Is “academically” a better term? How about “HarvardYalePrinceton-academically”? Or how about the more ambiguous “being smarter” (“a better person”) sort of intellect? I do not mean to disambiguate these terms.

    It’s exactly the same with books as with video games. Nobody, whether in fact or in appearance, becomes smart simply by reading. Both books and video games are after all just things. Yes, we have our odd practices surrounding these things, but, as you might correctly say, you can pick them up and read/play them at length and not in the least end up a “better person” for it.

    But are video games “literature”?!

    Well, I define literature as something, some “text” — and you could argue that a person or a musical phrase or a sock is a text — some *text* that we’ve taken the time and patience to read critically and affectively, and to make interpretations and predictions about, and to test and to question regarding our interpretations and predictions, interpretations and predictions that we also question and test, over time. In short, we’ve developed a culture, which this “literature” reflects and *in which,* if taken up and read and discussed, this “literature” interacts. So, literature is only “intellectual” based on what we’ve made of it. Literature doesn’t by itself “make you smart.” Neither books nor video games on their own can do that. I was not trying to suggest that they can.

  • No indeed; I didn’t read you as claiming so.

    I suppose that if we define “text” very loosely as “something that we can constructively interpet in words”, then videogames are a “text”; but (as I trust my link showed) I am wary of conceding the term easily because I disagree with a lot of videogame criticism that is too obviously rooted in or dependent upon literary study (though that was my own field once upon a time).

    Going back to your previous comment, I think that your analogy
    “work/play” : “realist/surrealist” could be quite fruitful; but I will need to think more about it.

  • IB

    Yes, I agree with you about the danger of concessions. Also, I find both distinctions — work vs. play, realist vs. surrealist — very interesting generally, though I’m going back on rich vs. poor. The interests of socioeconomic groups vary so much culturally that I don’t think my analogy extends there.

  • Big Nerd

    The coffee in Animal Crossing does have an effect. You’re incrementally more likely to find money in trees after you drink it. Of course, the game never explicitly tells you this. It’s just a bit of cleverness built into the code.

    I also think AC is a particularly interesting case in that it has a reward structure (and all reward structures end up being work) but that structure is like an advent calendar.

    Assuming that’s a game, how do you play an advent calendar? You look at the art, pop out the chocolate, and think longingly about the future. You can ‘finish’ an advent calendar in 3 minutes, but you’ll feel guilty about robbing yourself of the full experience.

    That’s a very ascetic kind of fun. Most games are 10 pound sacks of chocolate.

  • paul

    Hmm, I’ve always liked games. By this I don’t mean computer games, I mean board games and card games. I like the fact that they have rules. In fact, I don’t really like Pen & Paper Role Playing Games for this reason. Not that they don’t have a lovely and intricate set of rules, but that their structure encourages people to ignore the rules, at which point I’m not playing a game but having a bizarre conversation with some people.

    I don’t dismiss the ideas of computer games as following work paradigm, let’s take two games I had in the past, one I am fond of and one I am not.

    The first one is Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. What did I like about this game? Well, a few things, I liked being an agent of an ancient and evil Vampire conspiracy better than my dull day job. I liked the fact that I had more than one option to complete a challenge, and I could play the game with more than one set of rules. Mainly, I liked the fact that I got to spend the game mostly doing things I wanted to do, rather than doing things I didn’t want to do.

    There was another game I bought, mistakenly, that came out before V:TM:B, called Enter the Matrix. This is one of the few games that I actually got rid of by selling it to a used games store (I’d rather give a game away than sell it for a pittance, usually, and I often do). What was it that killed the game for me? Well, they decided to mix gameplay up. If I liked one aspect, eventually I’d be forced to do something I didn’t like in order to proceed. In my case it was the driving section. I didn’t like it, it wasn’t a good driving section, and I resented having to do it to proceed. It sucked, and it made the game suck.

    The “games as work” paradigm comes when you are forced to complete a challenge that you don’t want to complete in order to proceed in the game. Often it is some badly done part of the game that they’ve made unskippable. If I’m having fun, I’m not working, whether I’m drawing a paycheck or not. The reason was that if I was no longer paid I’d still be doing it. (The same reason my retired mother still volunteers at the library. Why go back and do a job you used to get paid for for free? Because she enjoys it.)

    I don’t see sandbox games as intrinsicly better than linear games if they aren’t fun. I’ve had a few like that, True Crime: Streets of LA comes to mind. I really didn’t like it, and I ended up playing “transgressively” after a while because I didn’t. Then I stopped playing. On the other hand, I always enjoy Mega Man games that follow the tradional Mega Man style, because that’s fun for me. Finding the pattern, getting new weapons, shooting things. Don’t make me suddenly switch to a 3d macrame contest, and I’ll be happy. If I have to unlock Gutsman’s level by doing such a thing, I’ll be cross.

    Work is stuff you do whether you like it or not because you are forced to to survive. Even the worst game has the “walk away without any consequences” option, I wish real employment was like that but it isn’t.

    As they say in Futurama, “You gotta do, what you gotta do.”

  • Boris

    I found this article fascinating and inspiring. As an individual who spends massive amounts of his time playing video-games, I often feel addicted or that sometimes playing video-games is out of my control. I have aspirations of being an independent game developer, but I spend far too much time playing games rather than working on them. There are times I would rather be creating but I play because it is easy. This article serves as great motivation for me to do those things I’d rather be doing. After all, if video-games are like work then I’d rather be working and providing financial stability for my family – if I can have fun doing it too. Last night, after reading your essay, I avoided random meaningless games and instead worked on an open source project I’ve been letting lag behind. I received much greater satisfaction through working on something than I would have from playing the same old games. Thank you for writing this essay and opening my mind to new ways of thinking about video-games.

  • Clint Emsley

    Hey, great read, but a bit depressing as I was about to play Animal Crossing after a long day’s work, but now I just feel like I’m going to work after a long day’s actually-pays-money-work. Thanks for that, BTW.

    Anyway, that aside, I will say there are a few games with very little structure that don’t really fall into the same category of “progression” and “goals” as most.

    Noctis IV is a great (and is possibly the most pure) example of this. There’s really no goal, nothing to gain materially (you are given all your tools the moment you start the game) and nothing to tell you what to do. What you CAN do, however, is travel in a huge galaxy (something to the tune of 7 billion stars) and find planets, visit them, then go back to your spaceship and name the star/planet(s) and make notes about them. Essentially a game about being an interplanetary cartographer. But there’s no reward for doing this, other than personal satisfaction; no count is made of how many planets you’ve explored or named, and while the names of planets and notes you’ve made are uploaded to a great server for others to read, your name is not attached to it even. Essentially a game of exploration and personal growth. Pretty Zen.

    Sadly, the interface is horrible and it hasn’t been updated for something like 5 years, but still, great game.

    Endless Ocean is like that in some ways as well, with the goal mainly being “explore stuff you like,” but with more emphasis on gaining tools by finishing missions so that you can do that. Feels a bit more work-like, but still very relaxing and free form.

    Both games have taken criticism to some extent for not really being games or “fun” in the standard sense, which is understandable. I think everyone’s definition of fun varies. But as far as good examples to make your point…there you go.

  • ejh

    I only just came across this (via John Lanchester’s LRB article) and I wondered….did you ever read Jean-Marie Brohm, and if you did, did you find him helpful?

  • Adam

    Your comments on transgressive play remind me of something I haven’t thought of in years – the fact that I used to play Missile Command on the Game Boy, when I was a teenager, in the most pacifist way possible: when the planes flew over the screen and dropped bombs, I would deliberately shoot only the bombs and not the planes, because the planes had pilots in them, and I didn’t want to kill these imaginary pilots. The weird thing is that I could do this in Missile Command, refusing to kill characters whose existence could only be inferred from context, but would then go and play Mortal Kombat on the Mega Drive and cheerfully rip-out characters’ spines in glorious technicolour. Presumably this ethical inconsistency made some kind of sense to my fourteen-year-old self, but I’m cattled if I can work out what it was from my current perspective.

  • Missile Command is a really apocalyptic example of the work paradigm: there’s no future in this employment, but you have to keep at it anyway till you drop.

    Big Nerd: thanks for the information on coffee’s utility. I love your advent calendar simile: that seems exactly right to me.

    ejh: I’m not familiar with Brohm. What do you recommend I read?

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  • Crispy

    You mention fishing or catching chickens in Zelda as an example of optional minigames that still constitute temporary ‘work’ because they are still goal-driven. There is an example in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening that comes back to your ‘breaking the game’ comment.

    It is possible to steal from the shopkeeper in the main village by walking round him repeatedly until he cannot keep turned to face you, at which point you can leave with the item you were holding. There is nothing in the game that indicates this is possible or even insinuates it could be accomplished, no part that tells you the rules of this game, the consequences for failure or the end goal, but if a player is inquisitive enough they can discover this minigame.

    That’s just an aside. I, like some others it would seem, have found the opening proposals in your article interesting but the overall proposition flawed. I agree that games can seem like work sometimes, but I don’t think that makes them any less of a game. Someone mentioned the toy vs. game argument, and it’s perfectly valid. A toy is a tool for freeform play; its form may indicate a suggested use, but there are no rules to toys, they can be used any which way.

    A game is a type of self-inflicted challenge from which you gain enjoyment either through the act of taking part or by some sense of accomplishment. Now, this may sound like ‘work’, but the main difference for me is that work is something deemed necessary, it’s something you do according to a survival instinct. If you didn’t work you’d be eschewing yourself from the vast majority of social groups and perhaps all sustainable social groups. On the other hand, games as an activity are not broadly essential to survival, especially not videogames.

    And if you don’t like my definition of work vs. games, perhaps you’ll prefer Jesper Juul’s:

    “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to inluence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the outcome are negotiable.”

    I do agree that games are getting more work-like. But I think it would be more interesting to look at why that might be rather than trying to extend it to profeer that today’s games are work. For instance, games are beginnning to depart from the abstract and are approaching virtual reality. Could this give a clue as to why they are beginning to resemble real-life work?

  • Like Wittgenstein, I think it’s a forlorn effort to try to come up with a precise definition of “game” that satisfyingly describes everything we normally call games and excludes everything we normally don’t.

  • The problem is that we’re using an old term – “game” – to describe something that’s entirely new. A game generally implies that there’s some sort of a method of winning and losing defined by the players; a video game has its intent created by the game designers instead. It’s a different model.

    For instance: if I have a deck of cards, I can choose what to play. I can play solitaire, which has predefined rules – or I can practice magic tricks. I can throw the cards at people. Because cards have a physical nature, I can do whatever I want with them. Similarly: basketball has defined rules, but if I’ve got a basketball and two hoops I can play any number of games that’ve been socially defined, or I can make my own. In that sense, the closest program to that definition of “game” isn’t the game itself but the game maker. You’re given limitations based on the GUI and the language and you can run free and make anything that you want.

    The problem that I find inherent with this article is that you don’t discuss what it is that gamers get out of these work-like conditions. Perhaps some people muddle through games without understanding why, yes, similar to those people who work ceaselessly at mundane jobs without point. Just as some people derive joy from work, however, so too do gamers get something meaningful from their interactions in games. I personally find joy in well-made controls: games from Valve and Nintendo satisfy me with the craftsmanship of their work. Take, for instance, Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii. It’s collection-driven, yes; it’s limited by specific bounds. It is not openended in the least; yet, I take joy in going through the levels for the interactive pleasure of going through such well-made worlds. I’m pleased by the game’s craftmanship as I would be pleased by a well-crafted physical bauble. I don’t use the “beat” metaphor, either: it’s usually just “I finished” the game. That’s more healthily applicable, is it not? I have participated in this virtual world; now I am finished.

    You miss, in things like Grand Theft Auto, what non-game-related rewards there are to be found. The music in GTA. The stand-up acts. The virtual Internet. These were the things I found interesting, that and the recreated city. They weren’t game-specific rewards in that they didn’t further the game, other than to make this interactive world more fulfilling. But on their own I enjoyed that you could see Ricky Gervais and Robin Williams stand-up routines through the game.

    Now, The Sims seems to be something people either comprehend or they don’t. I dislike its being compared to other video games, because it’s a primary example of changing the paradigm in gaming and to treat it like a win-loss game is doing it an injustice. The Sims is just a doll house. Yes, it adheres to capitalism, because it was made in the U.S.A. and that’s the country its systems are most modeled around. You need a model. You can’t just have dolls. If I have two characters in a room, and I make them talk, I need something that says, “Here is what they like, here is what they don’t like, this is how their dialogue will play out.” If there was no model, they would stand and talk and there would be no positives or negatives. To blast the game for offering incentives based on money is ridiculous. Unlike a doll house in the real world, the idea here is to offer something that interacts with you, and that requires a model. (For the record, you can go out and panhandle on the streets. You can play chess with other old men. The Sims 2 added aging, city travel, and moneygrabbing inherently in their mechanics.)

    The rewards of The Sims are done superbly. This isn’t a “do this and you’re rewarded.” You can do whatever you want. You can torture Sims, you can starve them, or you can make a family or try to become rich or try to learn everything. The rewards come not from specific goals being reached: they come from your learning the mechanics of the game. Learning to cook lets you make new meals, and each one follows a separate kitchen process. That’s a reward, getting to see that. When you work out you learn to do yoga. Logic lets you meditate, I believe. Smaller things: the work-based items you get; the paintings that appreciate in value; the clown that magically appears when you get depressed. Nothing that you are told to do, just things that happen when you experiment.

    Think of it through the lens of video games as an art form. There has to be a limit. That’s inherent in the nature of creating; there’s necessary for art to have any meaning at all. From that model, it makes sense that you can’t “break” the system (though, again, in a game like Half-Life you can abuse the physics engine to win levels in absurd ways; I know for certain that I beat a level of Portal in a way that was absolutely not meant to be done). Rather, the process of playing a game is one of discovering inherent rewards to your actions. It’s seeing that the designer has anticipated what you’re going to do and given you something in return for your effort.

  • A game generally implies that there’s some sort of a method of winning and losing defined by the players; a video game has its intent created by the game designers instead.

    The criteria for victory in Scrabble are not defined by the players; they’re defined by the designer of Scrabble.

    you don’t discuss what it is that gamers get out of these work-like conditions

    I’ve done that at great length elsewhere.

  • Alex Denham

    I think it is the basic human condition to succeed, triumph, etc. However our definition of what constitutes a ‘win’ is so limited.

    I think games that reflect the work ethic are succesful because it is easier to define goals, and acknowledge the players completion of these within a game structure than it is to reward less binary achievements such as ‘creativity’, ‘awesomeness’ etc.

    For example: I write music, and perform it. I of course get pleasure from the simple act of writing and creating, but I must admit that performance is my greatest thrill. Not because I like people to say ‘you performed that really well’ – a game could feasibly assess my competence in this respect; but because I like people to say ‘I enjoyed that song; did you write it? It made me feel good’ etc.

    A game cannot (currently) reward me in this respect. It cannot recognise my achievement. This is a pretty basic example of course – but even to use the example you have previously – drinking a cup of coffee – there is some recognition to that, and benefit – sensory, taste, nutrition – win win win. I would argue again that until a game can produce comparable benefits to such an excercise, it’s existence as a ‘game’ is limited. I don’t really have a conclusion to draw though. It’s a tricky topic!

  • MPAVictoria

    Interesting article. However quote Mark Twain

    “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and […] Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

    Video games are not like work because you are not obliged to play the game. Unless someone is holding a gun to your head, you can just walk away. Where does the “obliged” part come in?

  • Mack

    Thanks (I think?) for writing the article I’ve wanted to for a while now.

    What immediately came to mind regarding transgressive play was what I had heard Shawn Elliott talk about on the now defunct GFWRadio: hardcore GTA San Andreas Online servers where every gamer role-played a set ctizen and, contrary to GTA’s typical “wry” career path, diligently upheld the law. Scratch that harcore – these people were straight edge! Enter Elliott and his compadres who gleefully refused to follow the server admins’ rules much to their (the admins’) chagrin.

    It’s interesting to note that this was a doubling of effect; Elliott was transgressively playing a transgressively played game. These straight edge gamers were allready transgressing GTA’s mo before greifers showed up to show them up.

    As an aside I feel that Garry’s Mod for Half-Life2 is the best current example of free play. Sure there are behaviour limitations programmed by Valve Software but many of these are user customisable. The most felt restraints are ones imposed by a. the users available processing power and b. the game’s physics modelling. The first is uncontrollable across all games and the second is easily ignored due to our own experience of enslavement to the laws of physics (favorite Of Montreal lyric: “physics makes us all it’s bitches”).

  • TB

    The obligation of the game comes in only once the player has decided to sit and play the game. He is of course free to stand up and walk away, just the same as a person is free to stand up and walk away from his job, whatever it is.

    What is obligated is what the player “must” do to play the game (once they submit to actually sitting and playing the game). While someone is free to do anything but accomplish the prescribed goals of a game, that is what Steven meant when he mentioned breaking a game. To race around the race-track is an obligation, and meeting it is work. To crash the car and wreak havoc is breaking the game–and hence undeniably play.

  • Raj

    Hi Steven,

    Loved this post. I had the exact same reaction when I tried The Sims and virtual worlds like Second Life.

    I disagree with the poster about Wii Ski, a game I find to be very free and nonwork. Points, ski equipment and the side games are not on the critical path of the game and are totally superfluous to the main action, which in my case (as in real life) is to go as fast as I can, ignoring everyone else and stopping to see the scenery where I like.

    As in real life unless you wish to make these things a priority there is no pressure from the Gods to behave in such ways. Also unlike games like Tiger Woods Golf there are no product plugs for equipment on the slopes and no pressure to compete in anything.

    It’s quite relaxing play without the cost of lift tickets and cold toes.


  • Serich

    If you think a particular game is work, then simply stop playing it. I didn’t read the second half of your article, but from what I did read, you obviously are not playing the genres you would probably like most.
    Do you think fighting games in any sense are like work? They are competition to overcome another in skills, most of the time, and in no way can you call competition work. Why would people play sports or games in the first place if they were work? There are different reasons, and not that one. Now with professional sports, those people are probably grateful for what they do, simply overcoming opponents. Perfecting skills at something isn’t a job, hence that those “workers” are called professional athletes, but absolutely not workers.

    Now the main reason behind your theory of work was of the currency and reward systems. These merely produce and facilitate strategy (whether in huge or trivial amounts), and give players a choice–of what to use the currency on. Let’s consider MGS4. What if they had no costs, but still all of the weapons? You would acquire all of them, infinite ammo–right there, the game is broken. Could you possibly see that far? Well, there is indeed more to it–it could be like MGS1/2/3’s system, which I am sure you would enjoy so much more: the player needs to come across weapons, whether hidden in cardboard boxes or other places needed to be searched. This does not allow the player to use the weapons he wishes to, no? In this fashion, the developer must predict which weapons the player should like to use next, which doesn’t work out.
    What could Snake possibly be doing to “work” for these Drebin points? I don’t remember performing any particular mind-numbing tasks, the game can be therefore labeled as pure entertainment, not that it’s perfect (it’s far).

    Although if that work is amusing enough to keep the player playing, how could that possibly be work? Now there are admittedly other games where the player actually does work (The SIMS, some poor strategy games (multiplayer online games with stat grinding))–these are unmistakeably NOT computer games, however. They are computer simulations of what the player wants if they continue playing them). These I refer to as “garbage.” I don’t know why, maybe it’s the same reason I call some “literature” garbage, the type where you must stare upon masked words for minutes and examine the “hidden” backstory. Fun stuff.

    Okay, that being said, my view toward those games that I enjoy has not changed in the least bit, and if yours has, then maybe you’ve realized you were not receiving what you paid for? These many people–non-“gamers”–that hold that very philosophy may continue and froth happily in their other ways of life. I could speak more of this, but this holds sufficient enough for my time.

  • Zack Spec

    This fact ought to remind us that, even in what are commonly called God
    games, being God is still a job. You are not allowed to be the kind of
    God who makes up his own laws: there is no digital equivalent of virgin
    stone tablets on which to inscribe your own commandments. In a God game,
    God is still subordinate to the true boss, the game’s designed system
    of rules.

    If the only way to play a game such that it is not a job is to make the rules, then the only real games are game development systems. Many of which are in fact sold as games: Garry’s Mod, Tabletop Simulator.

    But actually that doesn’t seem to satisfy you: LittleBigPlanet gives you the “job” of being a game designer. (“Arguably,” but still. No backsies.) So, with the breadth you’ve given “job” in this essay, it appears you do not actually believe that play exists. Even chess and tennis have clearly defined win conditions that you’re expected to strive toward or you’re not really playing.

    This is an absurd position to hold, but if it isn’t yours, then I have no idea what is.

  • erikb85

    The article seems to assume that play as defined here (changing nothing, achieving nothing) is the ultimate goal. But what if it isn’t? I’d say the moment we realize something is without purpose we stop doing it because it’s boring. In the mentioned GTA4 there are many activities you can do that have no purpose. You do them once and consider them funny (fulfilling the purpose of learning to know this part of the system). But after doing it twice nobody will do them again, because this part of the system does not provide any further purpose. The path is explored and it doesn’t help us improve -> ignore it.

    Going a step further I’d even say that “play” as a purposeless activity is quite a new phenomenon. It’s not that at some point in the past we had a lot of play time and only needed to work when we started to get hungry.

  • Anouar
  • Vasko Genev

    An interesting article! I think we all talk about the same thing.
    The difference is that we are talking about different states of “play” or “work”. Just as the game can become work, work can become a game.