Bridging Worlds: Workified Games II

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 two of four of a long-form essay on workification.

Part 2: The Grind Has Become The Feature

In the previous installment of this series I charted how video games have become entangled and infatuated with work. It might be easy to explain these predilections simply because work is a major part of many peoples’ lives. Or inversely this work-obsession could be video games striving to provide rational rewards as an antidote for lack of control at our day jobs. Similarly, not all games break when you try to approach them with exceptional or novel ways of playing (the now-infamous solo eggplant run in Spelunky being a fantastic example ). Still it remains the case that a large majority of games are obsessed with replicating work roles, structures, and attitudes.

Games’ obsession with work matters a great deal because as Michael Evenden pointed out so eloquently in his recent essay about what he has learned by coming to video games later in life: “if playing these games feels natural, it’s an acquired nature… because habituation to play actually changes you. In particular, you become desensitized to some elements of the game fictions and highly sensitive to others, including the rewards and energetic stimulations of play. You become crafty at the kinds of problems games put forward; it comes to affect your rhythms, your imagination, your way of processing things.“ (Emphasis mine.)

In returning to Zizek’s Plague of Fantasies, he takes things even further and suggests that, “A fantasy constitutes our desire, provides its coordinates; that is, it literally ‘teaches us how to desire.’” As video game players, many of us spend all day at work (or school, which trains us for work) then come home to spend the evenings exploring sophisticated worlds that are obsessed with replicating work structures and goals. With the collective fantasies of video game fans so populated with work, what are we players being taught to desire?

Before we continue, it is important to note that this habituation and desire for the trappings of work, grind, and efficiency is not an abstract force. Even in the biggest markets, this desire produces very real effects. Overwatch, possibly one of the most anticipated games of 2016, which is produced by one of the most successful video game companies in the world, Activision Blizzard, recently shut down their beta test for extensive revisions. Alongside the typical polishing that happens before publicly launching a game, a large part of the stated reason for the hiatus was because the beta testers overwhelmingly clamored for some sort of “progression” system that gave rewards for playing more. Blizzard had already firmly stated that the game would never have purchasable characters or in-game items like traditional MOBAs, so this added “progression” element will not affect the actual gameplay in any way. That is, the dedicated video game fans that inevitably make up a beta test audience demanded to have a system added that gave them superficial achievements based directly on spending more time in the game and completing more arbitrary metrics! The grind has become the desired feature.

Is there a word for the obsession with the grind? Is there a term that describes manically moving from task to task, with an unending desire for measurable status achievements through work? As I said in the first part of the series, I definitely work too much. In fact, if I’m not careful I don’t just do too much work, but I also talk about work too much, I orient my life around work, and even think about work while I’m not doing work. Lately I’ve doing some reading trying to parse some of my own bad work habits. Reading about how to have a healthier relationship to work and play is one way I try to keep these tendencies under control. One day, I came across a passage which not only seemed to perfectly describe that moment of exhaustion my gaming group felt at being asked to spend increasingly more time grinding for slightly better magic boots, but also many of the other work-like ways fans now interact with video games:

“These driven men and women live a Gerbil-wheel, adrenalin-pumping existence rushing from plan A to B, narrowly-fixated on some ambitious goal or accomplishment. Eventually, nothing or no one else really matters. They are obsessed with their work performance and hooked on an adrenalin-high. Bent on self-aggrandizement, these ego-driven folks reach one goal, and immediately set another more ambitious one. Staying at the same level of accomplishment is considered a failure.”

Workaholism is not an obsession with money, or even the sheer number of hours worked, but it is a fixation on the direct relationship between work and achievement.

This was not some article I stumbled across on some philosophically oriented video game theory site such as Critical Distance or Offworld, but a summation of work written in the popular magazine Psychology Today by Barbara Klinger, PhD, describing her seminal research on workaholics. Her research shows that workaholism is not an obsession with money, or even the sheer number of hours worked, but it is a fixation on the direct relationship between work and achievement. A desire for one to directly leads to more of the other. It was eerie to see the grind, achievements, stickiness, freemium, and the whole complex of work-obsessed games summed up so succinctly in the description of a common psychological problem.

But where might these workaholic tendencies embedded deep in video games and the surrounding fandom have come from? When pressured, most commercial game companies fall back to claiming they merely produce what video game purchasers want and the previous example from Overwatch is certainly one of those cases. But it isn’t fair to blame all of this on the vagrancies of video game fans. In the essay “The Eroticism of Uselessness” Lana Polansky points out that this facet of gaming culture is part of a much broader trend in Western culture. “We’re conditioned to valorize unnecessary labour in real life and that comes back to bite us in games, which are often plagued by what feel like needless, often boring, make-work tasks that artificially lengthen time spent playing.”

In this way, the video game industry is part of the much larger tech industry, which is notorious for putting their workers through permanent “crunch,” which is work weeks of 50, 60, or more hours. The video game and tech industries are notoriously for companies asking their employees to work for free at the behest of the investors. Even “good” companies have mandatory crunch during the last months of a game release, and they are considered “better” because they often have couches and break rooms for employees to sleep in at work that rather than employees sleeping on a jacket under a desk. Video game companies and the tech industry as a whole are so fixated on work that they have brought us the phenomenon of the EA spouse, which is a term for marriages that break up due to company cultures built on workaholism.

Moving up the chain of command, industry leaders, people who own many companies in many different markets, brag about how little they sleep and how much they work. The major investors that fund these leaders demand ten-times returns. They demand absolute accounted efficiency with how their money is being spent, as well as continuous growth from their investment. Even a company making good percentage increases in profits and sales year to year can have their stock prices punished by missing expectations by a few tenths of a percent in a quarter. Company leaders and advertisers demand ever more concrete metrics for every tiny advertising choice. Ultra-targeted ads on social media are increasingly the norm. Focus groups are utilized at every step of making decisions about what product to ship.

An industry which thrives in a permanent state of workaholism tends to make products that resemble their workaholic values and their work-focused lives.

Even in the seemingly creative side of the field of video game production, rational, functional, efficient tools are the norm. That is, much of “Game Design” (now often pushed to the more bureaucratic sounding desk of “Systems Designers”), which includes all the data for how items perform, how much enemies attack for, how much gold is given, etc. is done in spreadsheet systems not dissimilar from the same Microsoft Excel that any company’s accounting department uses. If the old adage “write what you know” has any credibility, is it any surprise then that an industry which thrives in a permanent state of workaholism and quantifiable achievement tends to make products that resemble their workaholic values and their work-focused lives?

Returning to Barbara Klinger’s research on workaholics, this merging of player behaviors that approach workaholism and game structures that are designed to reward workaholic tendencies leads to a very curious, and possibly troubling place. What does it mean that “crunch” is defined as working more than 50 hours a week, and an average video game fan has no trouble working 40 hours a week and then (easily, if they are anything like me) spending 10-30 additional hours playing video games that replicate work? It means that video game fans are being run through permanent crunch; that fans are basically working a part time job on top of their regular work.

Returning to the hallowed halls of video game creation, one of the most wildly popular design philosophies is called “flow.” This philosophy idealizes game creation choices which are structured so a player loses themselves into the regular rhythms of the game. This is accomplished by assigning work that is sufficiently challenging to be engaging but not so challenging as to be frustrating, in discreet small chunks, then rewarding the player for finishing each of those chunks. This pattern of accomplishment and reward triggers a biological response of dopamine. Games with good “flow” are considered ideal within the industry because those quick dopamine hits are, at least in the estimation of game publishers and marketers, what keeps players playing.

Lest you think I’m merely implying the old boogie man of “video game addiction,” it is critical to understand that video game production and gaming culture are but an intense example of work obsession. These observations reflect a broader tendency toward workaholic behaviors and their effects in American society. To reiterate, work invading imagination and free time is hardly unique to video games, but it is particularly intense in video gaming because of certain values within both production companies and the kind of media fans have come to desire.

So in a self-selecting manner the video games the industry tends to prefer are those with the most regularized ways to give targeted dopamine hits; that is, they try to make games with an obsessively direct link between work and achievement. Which, to remember, is the very complex that Klinger identified as underpinning workaholic behavior. This linkage makes sense given that the dark origins “flow” was as a way for factory managers trying to figure out what is the ideal amount and skill level of work that a worker can do during industrialization. So flow, or at least its popular use in video game design, is simply a chemical doubling-down on workaholic structures of imagination where anything but granular, regularly rewarded progress is treated as failure.

Video games can look like companies that we as fans pay to work for in some sort of convoluted pyramid scheme.

From this angle, is it any wonder that many outside of video game fandom see this world as strange and a bit brutal (or at least highly demanding)? To riff on the old World of Warcraft meme, yup, I pay $20 a month to make boots for virtual elves in my free time to get away from taking photos of shoes to sell them in my day job. Indeed, from a casual glance, or in a moment of self-aware punctuation born of exhaustion, video games can look like companies that we as fans pay to work for in some sort of convoluted pyramid scheme.

The seemingly inevitable and unlimited gain from more and more work (and more work), pervades mainstream American life. Companies like Uber, Lyft, Easy, and Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” program constantly exhort us to “monetize free time.” What these tech companies, companies we are regularly told are the creators of the future by the media, are at their core trying to sell to the squeezed middle and lower classes is that “free time” is otherwise wasteful and should be converted in to a measurable resource or achievement (of which they will take a cut). And what is grinding gold or ore in a video game but another form of this imperative to monetize our free time?

In part three of Workified Games I’ll examine some of the possible interesting alternative ideals to workaholic tendencies in video games and the ways that culture tends to minimize their importance in life.