Why Do We Play Video Games That Feel Like Work?

Video games offer a utopian version of work: one where your goals are clearly defined and you're in control.

Timothy Kennett

Screencap: Simpsons Wiki

In 1995, Harper's Magazine sent David Foster Wallace on a Caribbean cruise in the hope that he would discover something about what Americans like to do for fun. He reported back:

A vacation is a respite from unpleasantness, and since consciousness of death and decay are unpleasant, it may seem weird that the ultimate American fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial stew of death and decay. But on a 7NC Luxury Cruise, we are skillfully enabled in the construction of various fantasies of triumph over just this death and decay. One way to 'triumph' is via the rigors of self-improvement (diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, Franklin Quest time-management seminars), to which the crew's amphetaminic upkeep of the [ship] is an unsubtle analogue. But there's another way out, too: not titivation but titillation; not hard work but hard play.

In short, Wallace finds that Americans' favorite leisure activity is working, of a kind—being productive. Were Harper's to repeat the experiment today, it would be better served sending Wallace to observe gamers playing Farming Simulator: in no other area of culture is the similarity between work and play more obvious than in video games, and, as we are often reminded, video games are kind of a big deal nowadays.

In video games, the player is often a professional of some kind, usually something exotic and exciting, like a space soldier or a sports star or a town planner. The fact remains, though, that the player is doing a job, and that job often requires following instructions, completing tasks, and earning in-game currency as a reward—currency which can then be spent on purchasing new equipment that will allow the player to perform the same task more efficiently in the future.

There is an increasingly significant subgenre of games, simulators, which allow the player to play as far less exotic professions: truck drivers, bureaucrats, farmers.

Weirdly, these games are very popular with people who perform these jobs themselves as an actual profession: farmers play farming simulators after a hard day of mucking pigs and driving around a tractor; pilots unwind by flying lighter, more fun aircraft with less computerised autopilot intervention on their computers; and soccer players warm up for the World Cup final with a game of FIFA.

This is how we found ourselves at 2 AM pretending to be farmers on our laptops

Simulators are representations of work, and as such they encode what we would like work to be. In simulators, work is efficient, productive, and fun; it is goal oriented, quantifiable, and successful; the player can always win. In real life, work is rarely any of those things: it is frequently unrewarding, tiring, unproductive, inefficient, and outside of the worker's control. In real work, most people end up doing things that other people tell them to do, and responding to situations that just sort of happen, and to circumstances that they can do nothing about. Simulators, on the other hand, give players a large degree of freedom within systems that make player actions consequential and powerful.

Simulators, then, are a utopia of work. They are a utopia that enshrines the values of efficiency and productivity—already, as Wallace points out, the values of American leisure time—above all else. Leisure time is increasingly spent simulating what we want work to be like—so increasingly our leisure becomes a kind of work.

Theodor Adorno, who is not known for being a fun guy, anticipated this in a 1969 essay called "Free Time." He contrasts "leisure," which is "the privilege of an unconstrained, comfortable lifestyle," with "free time," which exists only as time not spent working. Adorno argues that, because of people's inherent commitment to the values of work, "the contraband of modes of behaviour proper in the domain of work, which will not let people out of its power, is being smuggled into the realm of free time." The result is that "free time is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labour." This is how we found ourselves at 2 AM pretending to be farmers on our laptops.

There has subsequently been a big shift in conceptions of free time, driven by the change since the '70s from stable 9-to-5 jobs to increasing job insecurity, contract work, freelancing, and participation in the "sharing economy" of companies like Uber. The pull of being able to earn more money by driving a car or filling in a survey, and the push of less reliably being able to earn money at a regular job, have combined to assault free time. There is no longer time that is free from work, however unwillingly; instead, all time is potential work time. Free time is no longer free, but comes at the cost of whatever money might have been earned. If an Uber driver can make $15 a hour, every hour, then every hour she chooses to spend with her family, or cleaning her bathroom, or playing Euro Truck Simulator, has an opportunity cost of $15.

Simulators are performing a role in this shift. By reflecting society's general values of quantification, efficiency, and productivity, they de-emphasize other things that can be important: work-life balance, coffee breaks, stability, and human interactions. Video games—and simulators are no exception—remain far less effective at modeling social interactions than they are at modeling more easily quantifiable systems: witness the fact that players of The Sims, after optimizing all the basics needs, of their Sims, inevitably end up trapping them in the swimming pool just to see what happens.

The result is that our leisure activities are readying us to monetize our free time and replace it with more work time. The more we buy into the idea that our leisure hours must be productive, the more we will accept their use for productive work. The more we accept the primacy of productivity as a value, the more we will accept systems of labor, like those of the Amazon warehouse, that seek to dehumanize workers.

The editors of n+1 claim that we must be wary of such diagnoses—that these changes in work are happening in part because workers want them—because they can "disguise structural causes" as "human desires," creating a "self-fulfilling prophecy" whereby the assertion that workers to work uncertain hours for low wages can be used to justify further changes in the same direction: more productivity, more instability, more dehumanization, and less free time.

Warily, then, we can point to the dangers of our simulators. Warily, we can hope that no one mistakes our utopias of what work might be, written in code and sold on Steam for $2.50, for what work actually is. Warily, we can remind players that, though we can win the World Cup on Football Manager, we would not actually make good football managers and that, though everyone can be a success when they play at work, only a few will be so successful in real life. Warily, we assert that simulations should follow reality, and not the other way around; wearily, we come home from another unproductive day at work and load our hyper-successful save of Yard Work Simulator.

Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.