Bridging Worlds: Workified Games III

Bridging Worlds is artist Eron Rauch’s ongoing series of in-depth articles on the curious places of connection between video games, contemporary art, and culture. This is part three of four of a long-form essay on workification.

Part 3: A Celebrating Spirit

The last installment of Workified Games explored how the tendencies to fetishize work in video games overlap deeply with definitions of workaholism. I also talked about how the moral mandate to be constantly productive permeates contemporary Western society, especially the technology sector. But what then precisely is the problem with video games’ focus on work? What is lost because of this obsession with accomplishment? After all, unless you’re of the radical anarchist mindset of Bob Black’s infamous call for “full unemployment,” most people, myself included, find doing a good job at work deeply fulfilling.

The increasingly common task-driven, perma-grind structures in video games are different though because they are not interested in any notion of “end” or “fulfillment”. Embedded in these workaholic strictures is an insidious way of thinking that implies that since doing a good job is fulfilling, then ever-more work is ever-more fulfilling. Instead of work as a part of our life, workification colonizes and distorts every other aspect of life to its limited palate. For a common example, many of us have been on vacation with someone fixated on trying to see everything listed in a travel guide checklist for that destination. In the frantic rush to earn 100% completion on the vacation achievement, that person makes it so that by the time the flight home lands everyone on the trip feels like they need a vacation from the supposed vacation!

Though free time is constituted as wasteful in the American workaholic mindset, and work is conversely lauded, the great philosopher Camus sharply observed, “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time… But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself.” The increasingly workaholic formulation of video games and flow is exactly this sort of “active wasting.” That is, as both creators and players grow more acclimated to this cycle of workification, it has begun to limit the other ways we can imagine interacting with games. Gaming comes to be synonymous with tuning out through doing efficient, mindless, work. Gaming is grinding. Play is confused with achievement.

While my initial observation about being burnt out on working in games was focused on my small group of dedicated video gaming friends, this creeping association with gaming as work matters so much because of just how much of society now plays video games. According to a number of new surveys, about 20% of Americans identify as game fans, but over 50% of Americans now regularly play games (with this number rising quickly with the explosion of smart phones and tablets). As artist Arjuna Newman pointed out, “The culture of today instructs the experience of tomorrow.” Which, in the simplest terms, means that a majority of Americans are being conditioned to inhabit and even desire workaholic video game design and play values.

Having devised a somewhat dark theory of the self-replicating workaholic system in video games, is there any alternative path forward? Is there anything we can strive for against this rising tide of workification? From the midst of this digitally-rendered vortex, if you are anything like me, it can be difficult to even imagine an alternative. Perhaps a good place to start would be looking for a word that we could put forward as a counter-ideal to “workaholic.” A word that, looking at all of the negative attributes of workaholism that I have previously listed, would mean: presence, involvement, tuning-in, beauty, an appreciation of play, openness, compassion, and a simple capacity for paying attention to what is immediately all around. We are looking for a term that suggests a refusal to mistakenly identify one’s self with the products of mindless activity. The term would need to also embrace the myriad of diverse ways that people can exist in, experience, and value the world. In a way, we’re searching for a word that is also the opposite of “efficiency.”

To digress for one moment, it is critical to note that while what I’m saying might seem purely like an attack, I am actually very concerned for what workification is doing to our collective capacity to appreciate the very things our hobby is built around: the video games themselves. Treating all video games as efficient work disrespects and drains ourselves, which I’ve shown at length, but it also leads to an idealization of ways of interacting with games that is very limited. A great example of this disrespect happened when I first started playing Guild Wars 2. I came to the game rather late, but it was with friends who had extensively played the original game and the sequel since beta testing. Muddling through the first zone after the tutorial, I was confused when I saw a large mass of players, including obviously high level characters in typical MMO glowing-spiked-winged-giant-sword-end-game regalia, looping again and again through the same five mini-boss events. My friends told me that repeating this circle was by far the most efficient way to level up and gather resources. Even for the most powerful players, any other way would double or triple the time needed to gain resources.

Treating all video games as efficient work disrespects and drains ourselves, but it also leads to an idealization of very limited ways of interacting with games.

My friends quite practically suggested the best way to do these loops in Guild Wars 2 was watching TV in a second monitor, pausing the TV only to dump the various bits of loot dropped on the auction house. I was appalled since all around us I could see endless magnificent vistas, sprawling towns, and shimmering NPCs loaded with floral language to explore. This was basically the starting zone, after all. But while all around there was a painstakingly created world, it was completely ignored by even its most dedicated fans. This would be like if the hobbits spent the second two Lord of The Rings books back in the Shire just avoiding the black riders and going to Bilbo’s party every night!

In a long interview about the struggle of making art in contemporary American society, Ann Hamilton insightfully commented on workaholic mindsets in an interview on the podcast On Being, “it seems like this whole efficiency thing… doesn’t work very well, because in fact, there’s this thinking that’s always going on inside the thing that you’re engaged with and, you’re not really having the experience if you’re rushing off to the next thing, right? So, even when you’re really, really compressed for time, how do you cultivate just being in the time you have at that moment?” We need to play and appreciate games for what they are, not just what comes next.

To return to my initial question of what word, what value, we might be able to propose as a new ideal to replace work, Josef Pieper, a German sociologist, wrote a book that seems to suggest an elegant word for the opposite of these workaholic game tendencies: leisure. This book is titled Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and came to my attention through the Brain Pickings blog. To quote at length,

“Against the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as effort, leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit. The inner joyfulness of the person who is celebrating belongs to the very core of what we mean by leisure… Leisure is only possible in the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself … but also he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity; it is not the same thing as quiet, or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.”

What better mindset could a fan of any art form have toward their passion than “considering things in a celebrating spirit”? Yet my gaming group could not have been further from this noble ideal then when we were completely exhausted, but still grinding away to complete tasks we hated late in to the night.

Though, or rather precisely because, work is so lauded in American life, leisure is conversely derided and dismissed as wasteful or for those without ambition. But David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who has dedicated his writing to exploring interfaith dialog and science, points out that “Leisure … is not the privilege of those who can afford to take time; it is the virtue of those who give to everything they do the time it deserves to take.” Leisure is about reclaiming the individual ability and agency to determine priorities and values. Rather than being rushed to finish one assigned task as fast as possible and then rushing to another task as quickly as possible, leisure differs from workaholism because it revels in the journey. It revels in the value of a simultaneous multitude of options for doing, not doing, watching, participating, resting, or exerting. Workaholism is an attempt to artificially attach our sense of self worth with some external structure of achievements. Leisure is an attempt to remember and discover who we are and how we connect in to the vastness of the world.

Maybe it is the workaholic video game structures that are helping encourage the behaviors of abusiveness that underlie so many video games communities.

If developing a leisure oriented-outlook on video games seems frivolous, perhaps it would be practical to consider how workaholism might well be impacting one of the biggest issues in video game design and fandom: how to deal with the rash of antisocial misbehavior and abuse by (mostly male) community members and players that drive vast amounts of potential new players (and hence purchasers) away from video games. As an example, Riot Games, maker of League of Legends, like every other major company producing multiplayer online games has spent countless millions of dollars and tens of thousands of work-hours trying to solve this issue. But what if it is the workaholic video game structures that the companies themselves are enacting and designing that are helping encourage the behaviors of abusiveness and constant simmering anger that underlies so many video games communities?

This linkage between workified games and antisocial behavior might seem odd at first, but as Klinger points out, to a workaholic, “Eventually, nothing or no one else really matters,” once the workaholism takes over. To reiterate Evenden’s observation about the ways games affect their life-long players, “habituation to play actually changes you.“ So if workaholic behavior usually leads to what Klinger describes as, “growing internal chaos [which] causes them [the workaholic] to try to control every action, and everyone around them,” it is a small jump to start to see these abusive antisocial selfish behaviors as a product of the video games’ values themselves. These domineering and antisocial attitudes are then compounded by the fact that workaholic behaviors are associated as positive traits in traditional definitions of masculinity.

Additionally, as researcher Robert M Sapolsky notes, stress is an inevitable product of mindlessness, overwork, sleep deprivation, and being in the midst of constant aggression. Workaholic behaviors, and their idealization, then contributes to rising stress, which itself has also been clearly linked to a reduction in empathy. “Stress literally and metaphorically narrows our field of vision; it tends to makes us less generous and cooperative in economic games, more xenophobic, more likely to interpret ambiguous expressions as hostile ones, and more likely to displace frustration and aggression onto those around us. As this new study on the biology of stress found, it also makes us less likely to feel someone else’s pain.”

It is quite possible to see this emotional desolation and limited empathy not just amongst community members, harried and tasked to their limit, but in the end-products of the infinite crunch and ruthless focus on metrics enshrouded in the video game production companies themselves. Lana Polansky links ideals and end-product in “Against Flow” since, “Flow works both as the desired affective experience for most games, as well as an aesthetic container.“ Is it anything but unsurprising that the most important aspects of life, friendship, love, connection to community, and authentically realized diversity (both of points of view and representation) are so barren when video game fans and creators have become subsumed by equating work as progress, measurable metrics as success, and an infinite achievement loop as the end goal?

One only has to look at the reputation systems in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or Final Fantasy, to see how poorly the achievement- and efficiency-focused ways of interacting with the world are able to explore one of the biggest, most important, issues in human life. The stories themselves often glorify friendship, wax poetic about romance, and extol the bond of communities. But then immediately reduce them to rationalist systematic interaction with outcomes that have success guaranteed for work done. Especially in the recent trend to add “dating systems,” workified games can make relationships resemble most closely the actions of pickup artists, itself another group which has insidiously valorized efficiency and achievement as end-goals to be celebrated above all else (and eerily they call their actions “the game.”)

The ways that stress and workaholism reduce anyone’s capacity to view the world through the eyes of others might also at least partially explain the lack of video games which feature people of different genders, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, body types, and other artistic and narrative richness. By being immersed in a constant state of workaholism and stress, then idealizing it, both video game fans and creators are accidentally building “video games” as a social space that is every-more battered from a maelstrom of an all pervasive “status anxiety” (to use Allan Debertuos’ wonderful formulation). Without leisure as a core value in video games, without understanding there is value outside of the grind of dealing with constant stress, and without freedom from demands from constant efficiency, video games workify, and become precariously close to embracing the very xenophobia born of this unhealthy obsession with work as status. Advocating for leisure as a core value becomes a way to combat these tendencies, to open up the possibility to have and appreciate more nuanced and diverse conversations.

This is precisely why games which seem to relish in leisure can seem so radical and controversial to some of the core fans who currently make up the target (workified) demographic for AAA video game marketers. Just think about how many complaints are leveled against games like Proteus, The Gathering Sky, and Gone Home for having no point. Personally, I always thought that I didn’t understand this knee-jerk reaction against leisure in art, against space, against the pastoral, and against the ambient. In fact, I’ve been publicly deeply dismissive of such criticisms. But in writing this article, I realized I do have a very concrete way to comprehend this phenomenon. At a very personal level, while it is embarrassing to admit, I almost always have a panic attack the first night I go on vacation. Living in a near-workaholic mode, in a workaholic city, suddenly being unplugged, unstructured, and so-called unproductive, those first moments I am left with just myself, standing in the midst of a world without any metrics, I freak out.

Alt games, indie games, art games, walking simulators, digital toys, interactive stories, and the whole spectrum of other sorts of video games, often seem combative and disorienting to people trained on workaholic games because they are spaces that, however briefly, arrest the workaholic structures that artificially or not, have given players a clear armature for their sense of self-worth. But while these positions come from a knee-jerk reaction, it is instructive to note that after my first day of panic on vacation, the world does not end. In fact, I not only calm down, but in fact come to feel more like myself, more in control of my thoughts, desires, and body.

Leisure reminds us that self-worth, and our love of video games, shouldn’t be built on getting a gold border for accomplishing some task 15 times.

Similarly, an orientation around leisure in video games, even if challenging or unfriendly at first, is so valuable because it reminds us the very things which makes life interesting, meaningful, beautiful, poignant, and strange are almost never able to be entered in a spreadsheet or compartmentalized into a series of five minute tasks. Leisure reminds us that self-worth, and our love of video games, shouldn’t be built on getting a gold border for accomplishing some task 15 times. To end by returning to Josef Pieper, what better mindset could video game creators and fans try to encourage to combat the hostility and selfishness which has plagued the scene in recent years than a new focus on leisure which is, “…not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go.”

For the final installment of Workified Games, the series will examine some of the complex, and surprisingly friendly, relationships between work and play.

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