Bridging Worlds: Workified Games I
This feeling started to come to my conscious attention one cloudy Sunday evening last year during a video gaming group I help run. Our little group, Meats of Evil, had been meeting for almost a decade as a way for old friends from around the country to virtually hang out and keep up with each other, but we had been experiencing a lot of burn-out and no-shows over the past year, and even though we changed games and moved times around, this problem persisted. My friends and I were equally exhausted and one night while playing Guild Wars 2 I grumbled something like, “Why I am using my lone day off to finish a grinding reputation by collecting the same resource for untold hours to get my character fancy boots when I spent the pay I earned yesterday to replace my actual worn out shoes?” Everyone just kind of stopped and sat in silence for a long moment, then staticky affirmations started to come over the server.
We all took a break, got a refill on our drinks, and went back to our game on that Sunday, but looking through my Steam library afterward I got thinking about the menagerie of other games in my Library. Maybe I decide to spend my off-hours dawdling in Minecraft, digging ever downward in hopes of a rare ore, but as the name literally says, means I’m spending my free time mining, a very difficult occupation which kills tens of thousands of people a year. Maybe I’m leveling up crafting in World of Warcraft (WoW), making three or four dozen of the same leather belt and selling them for a tiny profit margin of a few silver, which is basically factory work. If I play X-Com: Enemy Unknown I’m working on trying to squash specified alien insect-beasts so that my bosses are happy at my progress. I mean, you may as well slap a giant fiberglass Chryssalid in a mouse trap on my drop ship, since I’m basically some sort of apocalyptic exterminator.
Perhaps I try to seem cultured and play some Civilization with building a compass as my goal for the evening. Yet that means I’m mostly means bashing against a spreadsheet like an accountant with a quill trying to figure out how to match purchase orders to the requests of the medieval IT team. I can get spastic and join the legions to play some League of Legends, but even then a huge chunk of the game is “farming” where I repetitively mercilessly kill small creatures like a fur trapper, to collect gold to buy better stuff than everyone else in the game. Maybe I’m going to go retro-old-school and play Pillars of Eternity, but even then I’ll be running around trying to collect some herbs for a lazy apothecary who must have the “Task Rabbit III” app in their wizard’s spell book.
This work-centric attitude in video games is so pervasive that it is almost impossible to see from within the video game community. It is not just the kinds of tasks, like making boots, but also the very roles we inhabit in video games that are often replications of work. If you’re a playing a game where you’re a member of the military, you’re doing the same job that someone in the real world gets paid to do (no matter how patriotic, they still get a paycheck and a pension.) Every time you play a police officer, bodyguard, pilot, witch hunter, mayor, hacker, private eye, farmer, assassin, train conductor, boat captain, thief, spy, alchemist, or drug dealer, you’re replicating what many people do to pay their bills.
In fact, every time you hit the dusty road with a trusty sword in hand you’re reenacting the exact entomology of a job that is the shadowy historical origin for the way many video games now get funded. “Adventure,” a word so often used in video games that it can seem meaningless, has medieval roots and specifically was used to describe the act of merchant caravans and their hired muscle traversing the often dangerous roads to make money by selling goods.( *If you want to journey down that historical rabbit hole, Michael Nerlich’s The Ideology of Adventure is a great, if a bit musty, read) Of course, we tend to talk about dudes with swords fighting off brigands and carousing with wenches in far-flung locations because it is supposedly a much more fun story to tell than the margins of profit of selling pots to villagers, but it was the merchant work that was the primary origins of adventure. Now, it has come full circle with the games we play termed “adventure” funded by “[ad]venture capital,” whose only danger is a yearly helicopter trip to Burning Man.
Insidiously, it is not only the kinds of tasks we’re doing and the kinds of job-roles we’re inhabiting as players that have become work-focused. As game design has become increasingly obsessed with data and metrics in all stages of development and advertising, even the manner that we interact with video game content has grown increasingly focused around workplace-like ideals of maximizing productivity and efficiency in a way that would make any tech efficiency expert giddy. Think of how often progress in role playing and action games is broken into a unending stream of small, measurable tasks—pick up ten of these items; kill fifteen of these monster type; haul these three items to a nearby place—all doled out with the moment-to-moment orchestration of an Amazon warehouse puller. Starcraft 2 might be the prime example of gaming as efficiency: unless you’re a top tier professional, the game is won by forcing a linkage between your hands and your subconscious to increase efficiency and speed through repetition, all, to be a bit glib, with the intent of making your mining resources higher and your factories produce more.
The increasing ubiquity of achievements in video games is also a big part of this growth of work-like gaming. Most AAA games, and increasingly even many indie games, have elaborate systems that tally and reward you for almost everything measurable, from stepping foot in new areas of a map, to killing 50 of a type of enemy, to completing a zone in a certain timefame. Completing each one of these tiny chunks results in a recorded “achievement,” which accumulate like a million tiny worker-of-the-month awards. Players in X-Box live can see the aggregate of their achievements on a master scoreboard, where they can compete against other players to finish more tasks. In fact, a common achievement icon in many games is a tiny representation of an old-timey pocket watch which is usually given out for playing long amounts of time. It is not a coincidence that businesses used to give pocket watches as a reward for spending a long time at a company.
Achievements such as “kill 50 zombies in 5 minutes,” might seem different on the surface from the Starbucks corporate guidelines about how many coffees need to be made in 5 minutes by baristas, but even leaving out the obvious joke about those in need of caffeine [i.e. me] and zombies lusting for brains, they are the same in intent. They are ways to structure someone’s time to most efficiently accomplish the most work. Corporate controls of employees like preferential scheduling, rotations, break structures, job title improvements, tips, demotions, mandatory meetings, performance bonuses, and overtime pay are regularly all used in different guises and under different names within video games to structure the player’s experiences. It is no coincidence that our gaming group was starting to feel burnout trying to relax in the midst of the rise of lockouts, tiered loot drops, assists bonuses, titles, epic cosmetics, grinding, dailies, gating, and the ever-ravenous beast that is freemium gaming.
All of these internal work-like structures of many video games (whose origins I will speculate about in the other two forthcoming portions of this piece) are not happening in a vacuum. These work-like structures are bracketed onto an ever-increasingly sophisticated science of how to advertise games and make those games “sticky.” Stickiness is explicitly the science of how to make players spend as much time and money as possible within any given game ecosystem. Most freemium games, from Hearthstone to League of Legends, will let you grind for in-game money, but only in a currency that is unusable outside of the game.
So in my initial grumble, my frustration is not only because I have to accomplish many repetitious tasks to get some imaginary currency to pay for new boots for my plant-elf-mage-fighter-thing. But additionally the company who made the game has spent their vast resources to make me want to continue working toward those boots, but just frustrated enough that I’m always on the edge of wanting to plunk down real cash from my real job to skip the grind and buy them. This constant squeezing of the player from all sides seems a bit too close for comfort to the history of the company store, which were exploitive shops owned by the employers in fields like mining, whaling, or lumber. These stores gouged the isolated workers since the company, which as both employer and supplier, could set both pay (often in some sort of company-only scrip) and determine the prices for necessary supplies for doing the job, letting them profit doubly at the expense of their workers, who would then have to work extra hard.
What is particularly perverse is that while many games have begun to feel more like work than play, the contemporary marketing language of games often make vast claims for the open-ended and multitudinous ways we can engage with their game. But as history has shown us, these choices tend to be basically false starts. Whether it is World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, Final Fantasy, or Terraria, most games, both as story and as geography, can only be traversed and explored through grinding, repetitious work. Working to finish specific tasks and progress are equated. Even the language used in most major open-world games, like “percentage of completion,” highlights this task-oriented way of existence is deeply embedded in the subconscious or understructure of the game.
Though there are invariably hints of other ways to approach playing if this rigid way of understanding the game as work-in-progress-out isn’t used, the fullness of the “open” or “dynamic” world is invariably locked away. Which Zizek points out in A Plague of Fantasies: systems which want to control us do so by giving us an illusion of choice. But he also notes that it is possible to see just how limiting those systems are by how disruptive actually following through with their proclaimed bevy of choices would actually be. That is, to be attractive to participants, rigidly controlling systems, are “…compelled to allow for possibilities of choices which must never actually take place, since their occurrence would cause the system to disintegrate.” Similarly in many video games, the virtues of the open-world, non-linear, dynamic, and interactive are extolled, but are regularly non-starters as legitimately different ways to interact with the game worlds in a non-work manner.
While there has been a recent boom of players trying to beat games with (often humorous) self-imposed rules, such as only eating vegetarian power up items, these attempts to play video games in those “open” ways that the marketing promises have only ended up highlighting just how little choice most games really provide. One of the most instructive examples of what happens when a player tries to play in the fantasy realms of World of Warcraft as a “pacifist,” trying to kill no enemies and not facilitate any of the fictional wars in the game world. These attempts are theoretically possible and fascinate the community. Once this criteria is used to approach the game, it first and foremost means refusing to complete almost all quests. But even further, pacifist players basically have to abandon overwhelmingly large chunks of the game’s areas and story to do so, since they would have no items and be instantly murdered almost anywhere in the game, given that the game is mathematically designed to be lethal to players without certain levels of weapons and armor.
These pacifist WoW characters rely even more on base economic and work functions, like harvesting and crafting thousands of items, to get experience. Then once at maximum level, there is no in-game content for these characters, since without grinding items (the supreme measure of progress at end-game) which invariably requires repetitious fighting, they can’t access or participate in any of the higher-level content that is available to regular players. If any significant portion of players decided to play this way, the economies, dungeons groups, guilds, banks, town populations, and ultimately the user base, would be catastrophically harmed as markets would flood with items no one could use, servers would bog down as the few pacifist safe zones were overwhelmed with players, and the already difficult task of finding players to meet the criteria for higher end content would be hopelessly arduous and unpredictable.
Many games overtly rely on players doing tasks that are work-related, in the fictional guise of a job, all with the same control structures born of workplace efficiency. But even sandbox or open world games set up as alternative to "normal" games—as having more freedom—aren't really that different when it comes to being oriented around work. Tasks are hunting, gathering resources, building, finding or making food, getting rid of pests, claiming more land, and then increasing the efficiency of all of these tasks.
Yes, there certainly are some differences, but those differences might best be equated to being an independent contractor (or a small business owner) in the sandbox games or an employee of a large company in a “regular” game. Whether farming gold in League of Legends, or building the next tier of pick in Minecraft, the end result is the same: playing the video game requires some degree of thinking and acting within the terms, structures, and goals we typically associate with work. Work has colonized, and in many places supplanted, play in contemporary imagination of video games.
Next installment, I’ll discuss some of the causes for work-obsession in video games, and a potentially surprising diagnosis for us regular video game players.