Saturday, April 30, 2016

On Employment

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 inside the larger world 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 verbs players can perform begin 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
  • you graduate and move on into a position of employment where ideally you’re given a series of tasks
  • you complete them in exchange for money
  • Eventually after progressing in your career to a senior position and becoming old you retire with your accumulated rewards and enjoy a period of time before your death
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; a questlist that itself is fallible because frequently your tasks are unclear, your rewards are uncertain, and the path to your next objective is unknowable.
What Video Games do that Work fails to do is provide a clarity of purpose, a set progression through a series of conditions that ends with you the victor, triumphant in your prowess. 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 proficient and objective as a machine-executed series of rules that interpret your input without bias or precondition.
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 thinkpieces and video reviews out there framing games as escapist fantasy but rarely do they bother to 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 samey-looking barrows and little medieval towns and you’re frequently employed to slay dragons or zombies 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. The power granted to you is immortality, invulnerability and clairvoyance, a suspension of the normal insecurities of reality. The ability to slay a dragon pales in comparison to run up and down mountains and across plains and though vast fields without pause, shot like an arrow toward your well defined goals.
I’m gonna segue here a bit and talk about the gig economy. Presently a number of older industries are being upended ("disrupted") by relatively miniscule tech companies who can offer a similar level of service at miniscule cost by almost totally eliminating their workforce and handing the responsibility and to technically unemployed 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 airbnb the prices are cheaper and the vacation experience is 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. With Uber the cars arrive faster, cleaner, and friendlier than cab drivers have ever had incentive to be.

In many ways this is because the apps come closer to that idealized experience of Work that we expect from life. The app buzzes and sends you a quest or a list of quests to choose from, with a clear destination or guest to care for. You're rewarded almost immediately on a quest by quest basis. The ratings system provides you with instant feedback so you always have a sense of how well or how poorly you're doing the job. Currently the system lacks a real sense of progression, but there's already opportunities present to be "featured" drivers or airbnb locals and access a better pool of clientele. In a lot of ways these apps "gamify" work. It'd be great if it weren't so thoroughly tied to our ability to live. Folks who are bad at playing these new games don't just progress more slowly, they "lose" the game and get kicked of the app, putting themselves at risk of homelessness, starvation and death.

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