Featured Articles

When Work Feels Like Play


Videogames tend to thrive on bombastic action. Bursts of gunfire, the jarring rock of an explosion, and shouts of pain are commonplace, but for all the over-the-top action, sometimes it’s nice to retreat to comfortable tedium. Stat-driven games like sims and RPGs invite or even require a certain level of mundane tasks. Whether it’s level-grinding in a Japanese RPG, smithing in Skyrim, or seeing your Sims off to their day job after you’ve finished your own, unwinding with some “work” in our games is becoming a regular occurrence.

Skill is the centerpiece of the gaming experience for most players.

Minecraft is one high-profile example of a recent game that thrives on work. You have to dig for materials, sort and refine them, all by (virtual) hand. Then comes the time-consuming task of building your own structures, which can be as complex as you choose. Minecraft ostensibly has some combat, but arguably only as a tool to encourage making bigger and better keeps. Once automated processes become available, you may have already spent hours learning how to do everything yourself. It’s satisfying, in its own way — after hours of planning and execution, seeing the finished product is a monument to your determination.

Of course, not all work is created equal. Videogames are an active medium, so play-work that’s too mundane can be frustratingly dull. Skill is the centerpiece of the gaming experience for most players. You wouldn’t feel the satisfaction of a well-played shooter match if you hadn’t put the work into getting better at taking down your opponents. The more robust the system, the more difficult and satisfying it is to perfect your work.

Repetitive button-based tasks in games like the Fable series can therefore be off-putting to some players. Peter Molyneux may have been attempting to create a mundane work experience inside his game, but the result was boring and unsatisfying, even to players who enjoy work tasks in games. Quick-time events like the jobs in Fable 2 and 3 only feature a basic degree of skill, and that’s a turn-off to gamers who want to feel that their own practice pays off. If a task is too easy, or worse yet, if the difficulty feels arbitrary or random, it can be more dull and frustrating than not having any work to do at all.

Andrew Witts is a self-professed lover of in-game crafting, but says he wants the fruits of his labor to be usable. “I can’t say I enjoy chopping wood in videogames unless the result of it has some impact such as wood for a house, bridge, etc,” he said. “The jobs that I do enjoy in games are the ones that permit the player to have an impact on the game world rather than just coin in their pocket. Coin is nice but I don’t really want my games to boil down to a low-scale economic structure.”

On the other hand, Witts loves building his own gear, preferring it to loot systems that he compares to stealing: “Games are supposed to be interactive, and so seeing the result of my own creativity in the form of armor or a ring is engrossing. Games are about fun, but also about a degree of immersion.”

Part of that immersion is letting us experience things we never would otherwise. This usually manifests itself as players adopting the role of space marines or bloody swordsmen, but it can be as simple as life on a farm. The long-running Harvest Moon franchise includes more than 20 titles that invite players to experience the thrill of country living. You’ll buy seeds, invest in equipment, plant crops, harvest them, and then do it all again. The experience is a charming, simplified look at a quaintly simplelife, and players have sunk countless hours into what would otherwise be a fairly mundane exercise. Animal Crossing dresses a mortgage in a cute wrapper, but your goal is ultimately to pay off an angry landlord.

When it comes to massive social experiences like raids in World of Warcraft or similar MMOs, the satisfaction of teamwork comes into play.

Farmville has built on that concept and added a social element. Rather than planting your crops for the simple satisfaction of advancing the game and being a successful farmer, Zynga’s hit gives you the all-important bragging rights of showing off your bustling business. This is another important element of enjoying work in our games: We want something to show for it, but more importantly, we want someone to show it to. Insular experiences can be fun in their own way, but impressing your friends imbues it with a greater sense of accomplishment.

When it comes to massive social experiences like raids in World of Warcraft or similar MMOs, the satisfaction of teamwork comes into play. “I find knowing that 9 or 24 other people are relying on me to let them know what’s going on appealing,” said ‘Seran,’ a WoW raid leader. “I’m not just a regular raider – I’m going above and beyond to ensure that boss goes down.”

For some, though, the enjoyment of hard work in an RPG is a much more solitary experience. “I grew up playing games in the late 80s and early 90s when most console RPGs required a bit of work to be enjoyable,” said one role-playing fan, Calin Grajko. “I enjoy grinding levels in RPGs both to gain currency and stat upgrades. A lot of games can be fussy with level-ups and allocate stats on a range as opposed to giving static increases.” Citing classic RPG series like Shining Force and Phantasy Star, Grajko says he’s “more than content to stick with random chance and grind out another level or two” if the game makes its stat increases meaningful.

Appropriate feedback is a big part of the joy of raising levels. No one likes to work, in life or in a game, without feeling they’re making an impact. “Although I do enjoy the whole ‘getting stronger’ aspect of level grinding, there needs to be some sort of on-screen feedback as to how I’m doing,” said game journalist Pete Davison. “I’ll be less inclined to engage in constant combat if I don’t have, say, an on-screen XP bar reminding me how close I am to that elusive next level.” He also notes that level progress in some games, particularly Facebook titles and first-person shooters, feel “superfluous” to him.

But one series of games built almost entirely around superfluous work, The Sims, has had sustained popularity over the years. Once you’ve recovered from the naughty thrill of designing elaborate kill rooms for your simulated people — you sicko — all that’s left are the day-to-day hassles of regular life. You direct your Sims to wake up, go to work, keep fed and bathed, get married, and so on. EA has released several expansion packs for the game with their own focuses, such as medieval knights or throwing parties to spice up your virtual life, but the core of the game remains a Skinner Box of mundanity. We’re given a microcosm of real life work, compacted to the point that it speeds a lifetime along in a fraction of the time.

It does seem that enjoying work tasks fades for some with age, as real work and responsibilities take their place.

For those who still enjoy work in games, it pays to be picky. Fans of the tedium only like their particular brand of tedium, and find themselves frustrated with other games that step outside those bounds. “Profession grinding and farming materials is the worst,” Seran quipped. “Hours of flying around in a circle mining just so I can make some gold? No thanks.”

And even with one’s preferred work-task, games with work can get too redundant after you’ve been doing it too long. “It’s gotten a lot more boring,” he said. “My main job is calling out timers on abilities that are going to happen during boss fights – a verbal queue in case our raiders missed the timer themselves. However, with the state of WoW raiding, there isn’t much to call out. And when there is, it’s the same as the previous fight.”

Meanwhile, some gamers tend to reject the notion entirely. Downtime is too rare to be wasted on tedium. “When you overly regiment the experience by saying, ‘you have to do this X times in order to progress,’ you’re artificially lengthening the game and delaying the player from doing the genuinely interesting stuff,” said Bryan Carr. “The artifice is probably the biggest thing here. Developers are so pressured into making these huge, lengthy experiences that they come up with shorthand to do so.”

It does seem that enjoying work tasks fades for some with age, as real work and responsibilities take their place. At that point, our game time is precious and we tend to want to pack as many vibrant experiences into it as possible.

Voluntarily work tasks in a game, especially if unnecessary to game progress, would almost certainly seem like lunacy to those outside the hobby. Games are an interactive medium, and combine storytelling with the enjoyment that comes from accomplishing a goal. Some of us might invest more work than necessary, but it’s also a way to unwind. It may not ever catch on among the mainstream crowd that prefers a quick story and some corridors, but for those of us with the time and interest, playtime is nothing without a little work.

Steve Watts is a freelance writer, and firmly believes lunch is the most important meal of the day.

About the author