Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

play as work


Peter Suderman writes about playing the video game Mass Effect: Andromeda,

The game boasts an intricate conversation system, and a substantial portion of the playtime is spent talking to in-game characters, quizzing them for information (much of which adds color but is ultimately irrelevant), asking them for assignments, relaying details of your progress, and then finding out what they would like you to do next.

At a certain point, it started to feel more than a little familiar. It wasn't just that it was a lot like work. It was that it was a lot like my own work as a journalist: interviewing subjects, attempting to figure out which one of the half-dozen questions they had just answered provided useful information, and then moving on to ask someone else about what I had just been told.

Eventually I quit playing. I already have a job, and though I enjoy it quite a bit, I didn't feel as if I needed another one.

But what about those who aren't employed? It's easy to imagine a game like Andromeda taking the place of work.

You should read the whole article, because it’s a fascinating and deeply reflective account of the costs and benefits of a world in which “about three quarters of the increase in leisure time among men since 2000 has gone to gaming.” What I love about Peter’s narrative is that it is sure to make video-game alarmists less alarmed and video-game enthusiasts less enthusiastic.

I have a thousand ideas and questions about this essay, but I’ll mention just one line of thought here: I find myself wondering how, practically speaking, video games got this way. Did game designers learn through focus groups and beta testing that games with a significant work-like component were more addictive? Or were they simply answering to some need in their own psyches? I’m guessing that the correct answer is: some of both. But in any case, there’s a strong suggestion here that human beings experience a deep need for meaningful work, and will accept meaningfulness in small quantities or in fictional form rather than do without it.


  • "One way of describing a game that has such pull on its players might be that it is fun. Another might be that it is addicting."

    I just finished reading Adam Alter's Irresistible, about addiction and technology. He covers this distinction between video games for enjoyment and video games that create a want or need to play them. From reading, my sense is that game designers mainly learned from other games that were successful (tetris, candy crush, WoW, and slot-machines) and followed suit.

    I do think this topic opens a window on the sense of purpose that is missing from many of our lives.

  • One of the most obnoxious examples of academic tics is the professor who goes 'very interesting, yes, although of course X said all this many years ago ...' That said, I'm evidently no stranger to obnoxiousness: for isn't this argument basically what Adorno and Horkheimer explore in the Dialectic of Enlightenment? Workers who work dull, repetitive jobs are provided by the Culture Industry with dull, repetitive music on the radio and repeated formulaic films at the cinema, by way of conditioning them to the repetitive, alienated labour Capitalism requires.

  • Adam, the A/H argument seems to me significantly different, in two ways, First, it abstracts a highly generalized account of dullness and repetitiveness which is then made analogically applicable to a range of situations. By contrast, the video games Peter describes track much more closely the specific forms of repetitiousness that characterize many workplaces.

    Second, and I think more important, for A/H the repetitiousness of our entertainments prepares us (as you put it, "conditions" us) for spending our lives in Taylorite workplaces, but if Peter's read of the situation is correct, these recent video games serve to replace the experience of work — young men play these games instead of working, and do so more readily because they intuit that what they're doing is so similar to what they would be doing if they had jobs.

  • And Glen, thanks for calling my attention to Irresistible!

  • I think one of the issues here is that gamers have, for a while now, been insisting they just want MORE. More places to go, more things to do. Particularly a large world like the Mass Effect games, players want to be the center of a secondary world, one they get to walk around in and do things in. But how will they get to know the people of their world? Turns out an easy way is to have these people tell you things to do, things that will make their lives better. And if you don't take the time and effort to make these things fun and adventurous, you are probably just going to make them like work, because it's easy to do that. You don't need to think that creatively to think of administrative tasks for your player to do. You have to think much more creatively to figure out how to make your quests into mini adventures.

  • There's an LRB essay by John Lanchester I often come back to, in which he relates his experience of playing a video game called 'BioShock'. He finds its gaming conventions difficult to master, and goes on to discuss how laborious actually playing is. This paragraph interests me especially:

    "As a video game, BioShock fully subscribes to the conventions of the medium, and if you as a non-gamer were to pick it up and give it a try, it is these you would probably notice most. Not just the conventions of which buttons and levers you press to move about the world of the game (annoying and hard to recollect as these often are) and not just the in-game mechanics, such as the ‘plasmids’ which you have to inject to give your character the powers he needs, or the tapes which are conveniently left around for you to discover and play back to hear the story of Rapture; but also the whole package of conventions and codes and how-tos which become second nature to video-game players, but which strike non-gamers as arbitrary and confining and a little bit stupid. Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all – and it’s not by accident, either. One of the most common complaints regular gamers make in reviewing new offerings is that they are too easy. (It would be nice if a little bit of that leaked over into the book world.)"

    I don't know the answer to the question Lanchester poses here: why, for example, the same students I teach who groan and grumble when they have to read a 'difficult' novel are the same kids who actively seek out 'difficult' video games, or complain that such-and-such a game is too easy.

  • Brando, that's a terrific comment -- and Adam, that's a great passage from Lanchester. I shudder as I write this, but I think that the phenomenon Lanchester is describing is precisely what makes some people think "gamification" is how you get people to perform difficult and complex tasks. But should you want to do such a thing, how would you gamify the reading of Ulysses?

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