hc6: David Surman, Losing the Game: The Guilty Pleasure of Games as Work

Losing the Game: The Guilty Pleasure of Games as Work

David Surman

In Game Studies, I am frequently impressed by the discipline with which some maintain the objectivity to produce coherent textual analyses, which provides insight into both game and gamer. Notions of research methodology are one of several key issues in contemporary game studies – exactly how might we study videogames for their textual complexity? Rather than confront this point directly, I wonder about influence of videogames on everyday life, and the challenge of research. I have a habit of playing games at work. To my right I have undergraduate marking, on the left the intermittent, accusatory glare of my colleague. Don’t get me wrong – I get stuff done – but the nagging temptation is just too great. In blurring that line between work and play, videogames have a lot to answer for. I have World of Warcraft installed on my office Macintosh, in addition to my home computer. Memories of other worthwhile videogames now trail behind the glory of travelling Kalimdor with my erstwhile guild companions, debating its various cultural and formal tropes.

An unspoken truth yokes the term ‘game’ to ‘play’ in videogames discourse, and yet in WoW my experience is one of predominant (simulated) work set against punctuating moments of play. In a fifteen minute breathing space between tutorials I jump into WoW to engage in the variety of activities found there. I would be addicted, if it weren’t for the valiant return of my postmodernist apathy in that dark hour. At the peak of play, now thankfully past, one could see a rapid deconstruction of the fabric of everyday life in the wake of that gameworld. Exaggeration aside, apparently this is a widespread experience of WoW felt by players; perhaps we could call it a gaming phenomenon – when everyday life and its gameworld counterpart enter a discordant mix.

Studying videogames is a complicated and nuanced affair; in my experience remaining objective about the text is much more taxing than in film or television studies, since it demands labour in such exacting ways. Aside from the ambiguities associated with videogames as a medium, I am interested in the sleight-of-hand between work and play that occurs in the gaming experience; rather than a binarism between these criteria, play and work form a continuum, with games experiences forming dynamic points on this spectrum. In WoW I work at building my character, ‘grinding’ to increase my level, crafting items and ‘skilling up’ to develop my ancillary talents. My efforts work toward the construction of an ideal player-character-subject, in command of its capacities, to be deployed in my contribution to a collective guild experience.

After a session has finished, the game is still played out in my mind; the laws of organised daily life suspended, I lose myself to the portfolio of guilty pleasures found in WoW. Like nested Russian dolls, the labours of ‘playing’ massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (mmorpgs) are work within work; spurring the player to delegate greater and greater time to the perpetual gameworld. The ideologies of labour are remediated through the gameworld in (albeit reduced but nonetheless) potent ways. Within the game, market trade is a split-second affair, in which the transportation of goods is effaced, and the arbitrary frame of an hour adds scope to the postage of a purchased item between player-characters. With the meaningfulness of economic and geopolitical consequence stripped from the act of trade, its iconicity remains undiminished. Along with the general poverty I seem to be in throughout my WoW days, there is a continual urgency placed on the player to work within this particular gameworld. To paraphrase Volker Grassmuck, gaming becomes a ‘joyful life of empty form’; a point of order arising in response to the complexities of contemporary post-industrial life. Perhaps I am responding to that organised chaos when I play WoW for such a substantial amount of time, and when I punctuate my working day with such ignoble ‘quickies’; the transformation of the complexity of the information society into a series of affective contours, across which distinctive pleasures and mapped and distributed.

While the indomitable mountain of administration sits stalwart in the real of my teaching life, achieving the heady heights of 300 trade skill points in leatherworking draws ever nearer in WoW. I rationalise my office play as work, though in truth the academic in me succumbs to the mindset of the gamer; I am working to facilitate progression in the gameworld, and perhaps only during my off-line reflections on this experience do the textual insights that form the basis of my research take place. There is no scholarship ‘in the moment’ for me, since at that time the gamer psyche rules the roost. Readily gesturing to the body of notes on a recent gameworlds research project, the conspiracy of silence between my colleagues during an unanticipated visit provokes in me the knee-jerk ‘but it is work, look it is even like work’, as I demonstrate the trading and auctioneering aspects of the gameworld. At home, when I play into the fragile hours of the morning, it is work, when quizzed by the nearest and dearest. Academic gamers like me are the New Victorians; guilty of playing, playfully working – the ‘digital dandy’ as celebrated by Christian McCrea, whose work and play are indeterminable.

Regarding the development of Fable (previously Project Ego) Peter Molyneux once said that games can be defined through the way in which they can manifest a unique sense of guilt in a player. Your actions as player-character have, at best, a direct corollary in the gameworld. In his landmark Black and White, knowingly neglecting an isolated village would solicit waves of guilt from an empathetic player like me in ways rarely manifest with such pertinence in other media forms. Sure, I feel guilty for Celia Johnston during her adulterous tryst in a movie like Brief Encounter, but that sensation is nothing like the direct and internalised sense of guilt I get from a videogame.

I should feel guilty when virtual work overrides real, but the work of play is a seductive. That simple model of labour found in WoW – hunt, harvest, manufacture, sell – reflexively comments on the conditions of the player. My vacuous productivity (I am a level 300 skinner and leatherworker don’t you know) highlights the ways in which play is never ideologically neutral, but rather (like any other textual component of the gameworld) constructed from the intersection of history, technology, desire and imagination. We have learnt to take deeply felt, and as-yet poorly understood, pleasure from the caricature of working life found in videogames. Douglas Thomas touched on this point in his recent work on ‘grinding’ in mmorpgs; as I rehearse the phenomenology of labour in my recreation time, when I play work during ‘real’ work, WoW highlights the characteristic and growing indeterminacy of our virtual and actual worlds. Am I working or am I playing? The videogame occupies a liminal space in everyday life – and not as portal, ritual, or magic circle as some have classified – but in much more down-to-earth terms, as a thing that cannot be easily classified and positioned within the established binarism of work and play. The contemporary game is viral, porous, polycentric, imaginary – not hermetic, centred and material. The conditions of play conspire with gameworld textuality to create new dynamics and penetrating meanings not determinable from either position in itself.

Every so often, certain games produce such an effect, in which a good month or so is lost in the service of its form. It is easy to classify them as addictive, but for me a covert congruence – between game form and a desire for a certain kind of configured developmental experience – takes place. Beyond the pleasures of storytelling, games are something more. The experiential pleasures of collection, organisation, exploration, mapping and growth compound those of narrative (and held together by the fixing agent of play) to produce at times a compulsive experience.

And yet, for all their immersive qualities and ‘addictiveness’, games often take an additional role, as a social mediator. In this picture, the videogame is preceded by two technologies, the Sony Walkman and the railway novel. Reflecting on the writing of the cyberspace epic Neuromancer, William Gibson reported that it was his experience of wearing a Sony Walkman that inspired his first foray into cyberspace, creating in him a sense of the hyperreal augmentation of the processes of everyday life, through the chemistry of music and the everyday. Likewise the industrial phenomena of the novel, bought at the newsagent or pharmacy to be read on the train, introduced readers to the imaginary possibility of romantic trysts in the eyes of those in the opposite carriage seat, as part of what Nicholas Daly has referred to as ‘sensation fiction’ emergent during the interaction of society and mass-industrial technologies from 1860 onwards.

Such subject positions are tempered by an opposing motivation, to interrupt the world rather than expand it. The social politics of the Walkman and the novel are revealed most clearly on public transport. A tube ride reveals the place these technologies occupy in effacing the world of distraction; the substitution of a favourably focussed experience in the place of an indifferently complex one. In videogames like WoW, the work of play can reach a point where the pleasures of focussed achievement become a critique of the broader everyday, highlighting the piecemeal nature of working life. Thankfully, at this point of saturation, when the game exceeds the place culture affords it, I de-install it.

David Surman

David.surman [at] newport.ac.uk

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