Steven Poole’s essay on video games as work
Posted by voidmanufacturing on December 26, 2008
Working for the Man: Against the Employment Paradigm in Videogames1
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.
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.2 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.3
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.4 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”.5)
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.”6
The critical site in contemporary games of this paradox — and its obverse — isGrand 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.
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”7 ) 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.8
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.9
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.
- 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. «
- Huizinga, Johann, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1944; London, 1980). «
- Adorno, Theodor W, & Horkheimer, Max, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947; London, 1997), p137. «
- See Sotamaa, Olli, “Have Fun Working with Our Product!”: Critical Perspectives on Computer Game Mod Competitions”, DiGRA conf. 2005. «
- Molesworth, Mike, & Denegri-Knott, Janice, “The Pleasures and Practices of Virtualised Consumption in Digital Spaces”, DiGRA conf. 2005. «
- The Smiths, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (Rough Trade, 1984). «
- Aarseth, Espen, “I Fought the Law: Transgressive Play and the Implied Player”, DiGRA conf. 2007. «
- Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), p23. «
- Portinari, Folco, “Il Manifesto” (1987), cited in Andrews, Geoff, The Slow Food Story: Politics & Pleasure (London, 2008), p30. «