The full epigram from which the title of this article is derived says, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” But in the contemporary world of games, what’s play for some is work for others.

Lee is a hardcore massively multiplayer gamer. For the past year and a half, her game of choice has been Blizzard’s popular World of Warcraft. She logs in almost every day, usually for a couple of hours on weekdays and longer on weekends. These sessions typically add up to about 20 hours per week – a few more than the average player. She has two characters at the current level cap. One is a dwarf Hunter she has developed and equipped for solo adventuring, the other a night elf Priest for group play. In addition, she has a few “alts” (short for alternates, it’s the slang term for secondary characters). Her Rogue and Mage are for variety, and she also has another Hunter and Priest she uses when playing with members of her guild who have lower-level characters on the same server.

For Lee, playing World of Warcraft is a hobby. She does it because it’s fun. Depending on her mood, she sometimes goes exploring or hunting on her own, but a lot of her enjoyment has a social component – joining up with friends, meeting new people, hanging out and chatting, etc. She’s not especially fond of having to pay a monthly subscription fee, but deep down, she knows it’s a great bargain for the many hours of enjoyment she receives.

Li also plays almost every day. He puts in even more hours, usually eight to 10 per day, frequently in a single, long session. In an average week, this means he plays two to three times as long as Lee. So, it may be a bit surprising to learn that he only has one level-capped character, a gnome Mage. However, there’s an explanation: He has actually had several others, but he sold those accounts.

For Li, playing World of Warcraft is a fulltime job. He does it to make a living. Most of the time, he “farms” gold; in the argot of online gaming, this means his main purpose is simply to maximize the amount he harvests per hour during his working day. Consequently, he does little exploring, seldom meets anyone new, and never just hangs out. He almost always plays with the same people whose characters complement his in a party, and they invariably go to the same few locations and kill the same few enemies over and over – with no real challenge – since getting killed costs time. His sole focus is his yield. He sells his “crop” to an online brokerage, which takes delivery in the game and pays him real cash outside. This company then resells the gold to consumers after adding a healthy markup that can approach 500 percent. He sold his characters the same way.

Although not having anything to do with Li, another interesting type of sale involves power-leveled characters. You create a newbie of whatever race and class combination you like, pay about $250 and provide access to the account. Three weeks later, during which time you can’t use the account, not even to play another character, your puny level 1 is now a powerful level 60. It’s not as quick as buying someone else’s level 60 character, but it’s less expensive and a tiny bit more personal.

Many online gamers are vociferously disdainful about all the participants in such transactions: The original sellers, the middlemen and the final purchasers. Nonetheless, millions of people now play MMOGs. Even if only a small minority is willing to pay cash for virtual gold and characters, they still represent a sizable market. It has been calculated that the size of the virtual economy in a popular title exceeds those of many small countries. Although only a portion actually gets monetized, it’s certainly enough to support many individuals like Li, who lives in a part of the world where making a few dollars a day is enough to live on.

The line between work and play may be even fuzzier when it comes to poker, which has skyrocketed in popularity during the past few years. Most people who have started or returned to playing are like Lee. They play as a form of recreation. Naturally, everyone wants to win. Some even study to improve their chances. However, they don’t depend on poker for their livelihoods. In fact, quite a few people continue to play even though they’re losers over the long term. It’s impossible not to win once in a while, so an element of reinforcement theory undoubtedly applies. Occasional rewards, especially when received on an irregular schedule, tend to perpetuate the associated behavior. Another consideration is that some people don’t really mind losing, provided the amounts aren’t particularly significant relative to the enjoyment and other subjective rewards they receive.

For an example we can look at a Texan named Andy Beal. Several times over the past couple of years he has challenged a group of the world’s very best players, collectively known as The Corporation. If you play poker or even just watch it on TV, you’ll know names like Doyle and Todd Brunson, Phil Ivey, Ted Forrest, Jennifer Harman and Howard Lederer to be among the poker elite. Beal plays them heads-up, one at a time. The game is Limit Hold ‘Em, a variation where the size of the bets is predetermined, not the better-known No Limit where you can bet all the money you have on the table at any time. Nonetheless, since they play with blinds (mandatory bets) as high as $100,000, the amounts won and lost can be substantial. Overall, the pros, who pool their funds and rotate different players in and out, are well ahead by perhaps $10 to $15 million. So far, that hasn’t deterred the amateur Beal, whose net worth may exceed $1 billion.

There are many other players like Andy Beal, although on far lower scales. Even though poker is a negative sum game (because the casino or online site takes a percentage), there is still room for plenty of people to be overall winners. Accordingly, the boom has allowed thousands to play it fulltime. You don’t often see them on TV because most prefer to play online. The primary reason for this is the ability to play multiple tables or tournaments at one time, which actually offers two benefits: Obviously, more tables means more simultaneous sources of profit, but by playing multiple games against opponents a step or two below you, it’s possible to make more money with less risk than by playing one game appropriate to your skill level.

Some top internet players have shown they’re quite capable of holding their own in live tournaments and games. However, most online pros plug away far outside the glare of the TV spotlights. After hundreds of thousands of hands, they know that they average a certain amount of profit per table, per hour. So, it’s not unreasonable to compare them to Li. Like him, they play almost every day, often eight to 10 hours. Also like him, they can be regarded as farmers, just with cash as their direct crop.

Poker players who, like Li, live in areas of the world with low average incomes, even have an option that requires the investment of time but carries no monetary risk: “Freeroll” tournaments, which poker sites offer to attract and retain players, cost nothing to enter and pay cash prizes. The amounts are generally small, but a successful fulltime freeroller can win hundreds of dollars per month; in some places, that’s enough to live on.

I’ve even seen a number of believable (albeit unverified) reports of players making money by selling passwords to private tournaments. Such individuals are certainly held in disdain by most other players, but here, too, if there’s potential for profit, someone is probably doing it.

So, what does it mean when the line between work and play becomes hazy, or even disappears altogether? Does Li enjoy playing World of Warcraft as much as Lee? And is poker still as much fun when you know you have to put in your 35 or 40 hours a week rather than only playing when you truly feel like it? In both cases, when play becomes work, can it still be play too? I’d like to think so, but am I sure?

Richard Aihoshi blurred the line between work and play in another way. Several years ago, his hobby, computer games, turned into a career writing about them, primarily the massively multiplayer and roleplaying genres. An online poker player for about a year, he claims to be ahead overall but admits he makes far too little even to dream about playing for a living.

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