All Play is All Work

In the UK we live in an age of transient employment in almost every sector. We are told unemployment is at an all-time low, but those numbers may well be fudged by the change to Universal Credit, the Dole’s penchant for signing people off for brief periods for ‘training’ and the fact more people than ever are working more than one job just to stay afloat. We have the highest rate of in-work Poverty this country has ever seen and the number of Food Banks across the country has grown to its highest amount in history. Restaurant attendance is down yet the average amount of shopping in a grocery basket has dropped too, meaning we can’t even afford to eat at home. We have been in a process of wage repression since the 70s which means the average income has not increased with inflation, and this results in a reliance on credit so that every household has roughly tripled their debt in the last 20 years. Combine this with the fact that automation is going to continue to shrink the job market so that in the next five years alone one in five jobs will be automated and you have, in no uncertain terms, a crisis. Even the Humanities and Creative industries are disappearing, Art replaced by Content, Artists now Content Creators. People are working harder for longer hours for less reward.

Marx’s Theory of Alienation (Yeah you heard, Marx. Suck it up Peterson.) says that because of the increase in the Capitalist mode of production, as outlined above, we are alienated from the products we create. We are cogs in a machine and have no agency over our lives. Traditionally the solution to this was to have an even amount of time of work, rest and play. “8 hours work, 8 hours rest, 8 hours for what we will” as the old poster said. Conservatives like to boast about the fact ‘people are living better lives today than ever in history’ but this is purely based on the fact we are able to use credit to buy luxury products, like flat screen TVs and iPhones, made by cheap foreign labour. Working ourselves to the bone with no money for food while public services deteriorate under austerity measures is not an increase in quality of life I’m afraid.

But we have the internet.

Yes, hoorah. The internet. You can become a celebrity on the internet! An influencer! Have legions of fans buying your merch. Success is only a few likes and subscribes away so long as you keep that hustle and set up a Patreon account because fuck knows you won’t be subsidised. You just have to sell out and compromise any artistic integrity, so your work has a logo on it and doesn’t swear or have any vaguely partisan message and abides by a capricious algorithm, yet is totally 'you' and unique but doesn’t stray too far from what is on trend. The internet is an incredible tool and is where most people in developed nations (including myself) spend their entire lives. The younger generation (we don’t use the M word around here) are almost all freelance and almost all their work is online. But the internet is abstract, formless, ocularcentric, it is easy to create your own forms of reality in an abstract space. The ‘Post-Truth’ society is only available to a society that allows a significant proportion of itself to live in such an abstract world, but this is how we spend our free time. The real world is where we work, the internet is where we play.

It is worrying then that this digital realm where we play now, has been infested with an insidious culture of games that are based around work. It began with games like the Sims but now a huge industry has grown around the likes of Farmville, Trucking Simulator, Stardew Valley, Tapped Out, Fallout Shelter and thousands more all base themselves around toil and the maintenance of their world. People are forced to check in at every spare moment on their mobile games so they can work their field, feed their people, put all their villagers meters in the green and get back to work. Even if the videogame’s intention itself was not to be this way, Minecraft for instance is a ‘creative tool’, it doesn’t detract from the fact that players have to Mine for resources to create that world and then it requires development then maintenance of some kind. The mountains of ‘crafting’ games or games with crafting elements grows by the day, demanding you spend hours refining your home and ensure your character is well fed, hydrated, happy and in some cases, not insane. A quick glance at a site like the wonderful Shut Up & Sit Down reveals that Board games, the Analogue brother to videogames, is also weighed down by management sims and literal trade games that simulate THE MARKET and the forces that produce it, like Container, Century: Spice Road, Arkwright, Bargain Quest, Sheriff of Nottingham and many, many more. That is not to say these are not creative, artistic and escapist games but overwhelmingly the money and the audience is in these forms of work-to-play games. In short, the space we have carved out in our daily lives for “What we will” is now used to return to a form of work.

We have allowed work, or the image of a more arable, pastoral way of working, to become fetishized. We have romanticised this world of work from a nostalgic view painted by culture as being toil that is appropriately rewarded i.e. you grow a crop = you eat it, or you chop wood = you build a chair with it. Marx’s Theory of Alienation says that Capitalism has distanced us from this direct reward for our work because now we chop the wood and sell it instead of using it. These games create a reconnection with the source of a certain labour and re-establishes the idea of "honest-work". A more conservative mind would probably say this is what we should strive towards. Many do, in fact, demanding the reopening of coal mines and such like but I’d argue this recidivist mentality is damaging and dangerous.

As is often touted by conservative (and centrist) commentators, we have more free time than ever, and they would say this is spent doing all the wrong things i.e. playing videogames. Yet automation is going to continue giving us more and more free time so using these simulations to give us a form of validation and self-worth is an understandable extension of that if we are not given the opportunity to grow and develop ourselves as individuals. Though it is considered heterodoxy, work and toil is not the default position of humanity or nature at large. The insistence by governing parties that it is the “hard working” families that must be rewarded (with a pat on the back and a pittance of benefits) and that the wealthiest work the hardest and therefore should be rewarded with the most luxury is a myth. Not least because wealth is not accrued by hard work in a Capitalist system but by birth, but also because work as Lifestyle is a relatively modern invention. It is only since the industrial revolution the recontextualization of people in society defined the majority as The Working Class. The inherent implication of this class strata is that ‘They work, we don’t’, sowing class division by implying those that are unemployed are so of their own volition and the lack of work time is very different to an almost identical lack of work time the wealthiest in society possess. If we had the guilt of our free time removed, along with the absolute demand for the most amount of time possible spent working, I think you would see a drop off in popularity in these resource management games. With the ability to manage our own resources and develop ourselves so we are personally fulfilled and not just scrabbling to survive, we would not need to find justification in toil via a medium of play or seek to understand the inner workings of THE MARKET via game mechanics.

This form of Wage Slave Play that has developed, to me, is really unhealthy. We are having the idea that work is the only true validation reinforced to us in our free time that could be better spent not worrying we’re going to get fired from an imaginary job dictated by a game engine. There are LOTS of games I love and I love to play videogames and board games as often as possible (which isn’t very often as I have no one to play with *sad face*) but these are games that foster creative thinking, storytelling, abstract puzzle solving, atmosphere and so on. Not ones that demand my attention every few hours so I can maintain a fictional status quo. Some games are deliberately designed to be addictive through their reward system, akin to gambling and slot machines, so by engineering them to revolve around a form of toil that society should be moving beyond, it reinforces the idea that Capitalism and the world of work is a Good Thing and we should all be grateful for the world we live in. A good game should help you think and see outside of the world you live in, not re-establish your walls.