A lot of games coming out around now are Open World style, a result of Grand Theft Auto V making a billion dollars or so. Open world designs mean that objectives can’t be narrowly focused into “get from one end of this level to the other” or “beat this opponent” but instead you’re given an objective and frequently you have a small set-piece in which to accomplish that objective. Frequently this turns into a to-do list called a “quest list” that shows you your objectives in the open world, your progress toward completing them, where to go to complete them, and sometimes the rewards for doing so. It’s a pretty straightforward design that appeals to a lot of people and functions well in a logical system of checks, triggers and variables. Despite this setup’s obvious popularity, there’s always been a certain amount of criticism for the relatively robotic nature of enjoyment of these games, whether it’s criticizing the rote repetition of tasks or the arbitrary way these tasks tend to decide their completion. One of the larger issues with open world design is that the bigger the world, the more limited the things players can actually do in it begins to feel. Grand Theft Auto addressed this by stuffing its open world with all kinds of minigames, ownable properties, clothing options, a virtual stock market and so on. Other games are a bit more limited in scope, usually providing little more than a virtual treasure hunt or two on top of the typically combat oriented gameplay.
The reason this design is so popular – clear tasks, clear rewards, clear direction toward the next task – has a lot to do with how we set up our real world society. In an ideal presentation of life on planet earth, you’re born, you age a bit until you reach schooling, you’re taught certain things and then evaluated and typically rewarded based on your ability to remember or apply those things, then you graduate and move on into a position of employment where ideally you’re given a series of tasks and you complete them in exchange for money, or essentially the right to live, and to live well if you perform exceptionally well. This is the fundamental backbone of our society, from which all our ideology springs. And it’s not bad as a simulation goes! It works in games, no reason it wouldn’t work IRL. Except, of course, that life offers you endless potential actions you can take outside of your questlist, which is itself fallible because frequently your tasks are unclear, your rewards are uncertain, and the path to your next objective is totally unknowable.
What games do fundamentally that work and regular living and basically all of that fails to do is they give you a clarity of purpose, a set progression through a series of conditions that ends with you the victor, triumphant in your prowess (or else with you eventually getting frustrated or bored and moving on). The closest life has to offer you to that kind of clarity is schooling, and even that is subject to myriad systemic issues that prevent it from being as capable and objective as a machine executed series of rules that interpret your input.
So, games are work, yes, but games are an idealized form of work that cleaves more to the mental construct of what a good and functional society should look like. There’s a lot of stuff out there yammering about games as an escapist fantasy but rarely do they bother to really examine what folks are escaping into and what folks are escaping from. There’s a lot of writing out there too about power fantasies and it’s inarguable that this is a genre, but to what degree are these a power fantasy and why? Take Skyrim, for instance. You’re given a massive map full of kinda samey looking barrows and little medieval towns and you’re frequently employed to slay dragons and promptly rewarded for doing so. Meanwhile, as a digital avatar, you don’t need to eat, you don’t need to sleep, you don’t really need shelter, and diseases are cured as easily as tapping a shrine. You have a clear purpose: defeat king dragon and stop the dragons from destroying the world.
I’m gonna segue here a bit and talk about the gig economy. Presently a number of older industries are being upended by vastly smaller tech companies who can offer a similar level of service at vastly reduced cost by almost totally eliminating a workforce and handing the responsibility, and the profits, to other individuals who are doing little more than using an app. The app provides accountability and payment processing, the user provides the accommodations. It sounds great on paper because it frankly is great. With Uber/Lyft and their rating system, the companies have greater control over the conduct of its drivers than taxi companies ever did. With airbnb the prices are cheaper and the trips is way more authentic than anything a big chain hotel can deliver, all with little ratings-chasing perks that would be an upcharge in a cab or hotel.Consider the “employee’s” point of view, though. What relationship does this have to an idealized work environment? For one, the app buzzes and gives you a quest to go to a certain point on the map and drop them off, transferring your payment when you’re done. Similarly airbnb turns the job of the concierge, the bellhop, and the cleaning maid all into one role performed by the airbnb host for the duration of the airbnb renters.