I recently visited a friend who had just been laid off from his job. When I arrived he was sitting on a couch in his living room dressed in boxers and a T-shirt with a few days worth of stubble on his face.
“What have you been up to?” I asked.
He grunted and waved a half-eaten chicken leg at his TV, which showed the pause screen of Animal Crossing. Evidently he’d been spending most of his suddenly unfettered time frolicking with forest creatures and fulfilling his consumerist impulses by stuffing his digital house full of all the things he could no longer afford in real life.
I asked him how much he’d been playing the game. He wasn’t sure exactly, but judging by the sheer compendium of crap he’d accumulated, he’d been treating it something like a full-time job.
I could sympathize. When I was put out of work by the Hollywood writers’ strike about 18 months ago, I rediscovered my old friend Baseball Mogul and dedicated myself to the game. The number of hours I put into it suspiciously approximated the number of hours I put in at my previous job.
One of several general manager simulations available, Mogul puts players in the front office of an MLB club where they manage free agent signings, trades, drafts and finances. It’s like fantasy baseball but without the prerequisite that you bore people about it at cocktail parties. It’s also a perfect game for the unemployed, because it mimics the duties of a real life profession (however inaccurately).
It soon took over my life. Searching for a job offered only a string of disappointments: a lot of effort put toward the hint of a future reward so distant as to seem intangible. Reading books, taking walks, cleaning, exercising and doing all the other things I finally had a chance to do proved even more unappealing, spoiled as they were by the perpetual notion that I really ought to be spending that time scouring job boards instead.
But with videogames, the regular rules don’t apply. Games, with their constant and measured stream of information and stimulation, distort and supersede the very idea of time. Every hardcore gamer has experienced that exhilarating and frightening moment when the urge to urinate becomes so strong that he finally pauses his game and looks up from his TV or computer screen only to discover that six hours have passed unnoticed, the sun has started to rise, he has to go to work soon, he completely forgot to do laundry last night and is currently inhabiting his final pair of (questionably) clean underwear. Without a job and the punishing regularity it provides, this moment can be repeated daily with no ill effects. Or at least, fewer ill effects. And by degrees, rare epic sessions become ritual.
So it was for me. I would rise in the early afternoon, have a pot or two of coffee, check my email, lamely skim a few Craigslist posts describing jobs for which I was spectacularly over- or under-qualified, then start in on Mogul and carry on for most of the rest of the day. It felt more like work than did the job search, because unlike a job search, videogames are actually rewarding. They’re designed to be. And their system of challenges and rewards, unique in media, at times approaches the feelings of day-to-day employment. Nabbing Mark Buehrle for a handful of iffy prospects? Felt just like getting promoted at my old movie theater gig. Leading the fiscally-troubled Florida Marlins to four consecutive World Series? Not all that dissimilar, neurochemically speaking, to helping save my department’s budget when I worked for the Rutgers University newspaper. Baseball Mogul provided me with a sense of having done something with my day, a sense of progress and self-worth that the generally degrading and depressing job search just couldn’t compete with.
The experience is hardly unique to me. There is the aforementioned friend who played Animal Crossing, who declined to be interviewed for this article on grounds of crippling embarrassment. Another friend, Phil, went through a stretch where he devoted his days to Runescape, the immensely popular free MMORPG, alternately known as World of Warcraft for cheapskates. At the time, if one was sufficiently committed, one could make a pretty bad living off the game selling equipment and characters on eBay, presumably to the same sorts of people who buy bowling trophies for themselves. (This seems to be policed rather more effectively now.) But Phil was too pure a player to sully his love with money.
Yet another friend, Chris Muller, recently lost his job when the teacher he’d been filling in for came back from her maternity leave. His school system couldn’t find another spot for him. He now plays Fallout 3 several hours a day.
“When I had a job, I played a lot of Rock Band,” Muller says. “It was a good stress reliever, good way to get the aggression out. Now I have a lot more free time, so I found something more in-depth, more story-involved.” He admits he sometimes feels a sense of accomplishment while playing. “Today I freed a bunch of captives from supermutants.” How can a job search compare favorably with that?
My brother, also named Chris, had two sizeable stretches of unemployment both before and after law school. The Civilization and Age of Empires series filled most of his time.
“Civilization 3 takes a good eight hours to play,” explains my brother. “That’s a full work day. It’s basically designed for unemployed people. No one who has a job has time to play a game straight through.”
I’ve started to wonder if the games we choose when unemployed say something about our work aspirations, like a careerist Rorschach test or that old high school guidance counselor question about what you’d do with your time if you had a million dollars. Under that principle, my Civ-obsessed brother should have sought a career in conquering. (There being little money in that these days, he settled for law.) Maybe for Phil and the millions of other MMORPG clickers, assembly line jobs are in order, ones where they perform repetitive tasks and get plaques after 20 years congratulating them on their millionth widget and apologizing for the carpal tunnel syndrome. (The plaques, ideally, would be shaped like level 99 battle axes.)
As for me, does my attraction in troubled times to statistical minutia reveal a secret inclination toward government bureaucracy? Might my earlier Lemmings infatuation signal a bright future in corporate management?
I knew the positive feelings I garnered from Baseball Mogul were false and illusory. But as long as I was playing the game, I was too engaged to think about it. Whenever I finished a marathon session, I tried to reassure myself that at least I wasn’t wasting my time with even more useless pursuits like vigorous pornography appreciation or philately. Mogul, I reasoned, kept my mind sharp, and maybe even helped prepare me for future work by offering substantive challenges with which to hone my problem-solving skills. Of course, I cheated relentlessly at the game, restarting from previous save points any time one of my players was injured for what I felt was an unreasonable length of time. So I’m not sure I learned anything, apart from how to manipulate an environment to my advantage. The program, for its part, rewarded my ingenuity by marking an asterisk next to each of my various virtual careers in the “Mogul Hall of Fame.” I was as tainted as Barry Bonds, except in my case, no one knew or cared.
Eventually, my savings ran dangerously low and I was forced to get a bit more serious about finding a job. The break I finally did receive came not from any effort on my part, but from a friend’s referral. Soon I was back at work, Baseball Mogul was uninstalled from my hard drive and I was left only with memories of what had been my most satisfying job ever in all respects except for salary.
Roger Taylor once deduced from several weeks of playing Shenmue that he might like to drive a forklift for a living. He has settled instead for freelance writing and odd jobs.