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On Work and Play at the Dawn of the Game Age

From remarks presented at the State of Play: Reloaded conference, New York Law School, October 29, 2004


A couple years ago I visited a construction worker named Troy Stolle at his worksite in Indianapolis. I watched him lifting and hammering boards in the miserable heat of a summer day, lifting and hammering, lifting and hammering, over and over. Then I went home with him and watched him at his favorite pastime, playing the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Dark Age of Camelot. This was a recent obsession, replacing a longtime fascination with the similar game Ultima Online. Laid off the year before, Stolle had found himself obliged to sell off his Ultima account and all its holdings on eBay, for the sum of $500, but he still remembered his Ultima career with fondness, and he told me a bit about his first great achievement there – becoming a grandmaster smith, a process I already knew from personal experience to be a perfect calvary of tedium and repetitive-stress injury. Essentially, grandmastering in smithy requires an almost endless routine of daily pointing and clicking, pointing and clicking, doing the same tasks over and over as the number indicating your blacksmithing skill slowly rises. Stolle had done this every day for months, coming home from his job to sit right down at the computer and work his smithy into the early morning hours. What on earth, I asked, had possessed him to add this second shift of grinding, grueling work to his already grinding, grueling work day? Stolle looked at me for a moment, not quite comprehending the question at first, and then said, as if explaining something obvious to a small child: “It’s not work if you enjoy it.”


Not long before I met Troy Stolle, I traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to witness a somewhat more aggressive blurring of the line between work and play. I went on the strength of a young California entrepreneur’s description of the way that he and his business partners, operating under the name of Blacksnow Interactive, were making a handsome living from the eBaying phenomenon surrounding games like Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online. In essence, I was told, they had created a sweatshop: In a rented Tijuana office, they’d installed a T1 Internet line and 8 PC workstations, and then they had hired 24 unskilled Mexican laborers to play these games around the clock, piling up valuable loot at a rate that more than justified the Third World wages Blacksnow was paying them. I never did see the sweatshop, so I can’t guarantee that it actually existed. But the business model was plausible enough, the descriptions were detailed enough, and the number of similar operations I have since caught wind of is great enough that I don’t doubt there’s been at least a small village worth of developing-world workers engaged in precisely this line of labor at one time or another. Did they enjoy it? Hard to say. I myself went on, in an experiment amply documented on my blog Play Money: Diary of a Dubious Proposition, to earn over $11,000 in the course of nine months playing Ultima Online. I didn’t entirely enjoy it, mind you, but I’m still not sure I would call it work.


In an essay on the relationship between work and play in massively multiplayer online games, psychologist Nicholas Yee proposes a thought experiment. “Given that MMORPGs are creating environments where complex work is becoming seductively fun,” Yee asks, “how difficult would it be for MMORPG developers to embed real work into these environments?” As one possibility, he suggests that the screening of diagnostic scans for cancer be outsourced not to low-wage technicians in India – as is routinely done now – but to MMORPG players who would actually pay to do the job, so long as it contributed to the advancement of their characters. The proposition is at least as plausible as the Blacksnow sweatshop, and implemented in a science-fiction world like Star Wars: Galaxies, it wouldn’t even disrupt the players’ immersion in that world. Undeniably they would enjoy it; undeniably it would still be work. Nor is Yee’s thought experiment entirely hypothetical. The multiuser online world There, as Yee points out, started out as a sort of semi-covert test-marketing environment, in which companies like Levi’s and Nike paid There to let its paying customers wear virtual versions of the companies’ products. There, Inc., has since renamed itself Forterra and shifted its focus to supplying the U.S. Armed Forces with vast, multisoldier virtual training grounds, an even more flagrant intrusion of productive work into the world of play. The military, of course, has long been ground zero for the confusion of play and productivity in Western culture, but lately it seems to be outdoing itself. Never mind the military’s collaborations with game producers to create marketably playable simulations like Pandemic Studios’ Full Spectrum Warrior. The rumor these days is that planners at the Pentagon have adopted as a kind of Bible Orson Scott Card’s science-fiction novel Ender’s Game – in which a small army of children believe themselves to be playing a sophisticated video game when in fact they are telematically leading a campaign to annihilate a race of ruthless space invaders. How many of these planners, I wonder, have read the sequel, in which the leader of these children spends the rest of his life atoning for the richly complicated sin of unknowing genocide? Is it still killing if you enjoy it?


Look at Troy Stolle’s late-night pointing and clicking, at Blacksnow’s sweatshop, at Nick Yee’s cancer-screening parable, at the military’s dreams of death-dealing games, at a website like Topcoder.com, where programmers compete in juried contests to win prizes for the best computer programs for a given task, while the site itself sells the winning programs at a profit. Look at all of these and you may feel, as I do, that we stand on the verge of a curious sort of industrial revolution, driven by play as the first was driven by steam. As steam did then, so now play lives among us as a phenomenon long ignored by the machinery of production, evanescent, vaporous, unexploited. And inasmuch as production abhors a vacuum, it was perhaps just a matter of time before it moved to colonize the vacant, vacuous space of play. The irony – or if you prefer, the tragedy – being, of course, that play has always been production’s final frontier, a realm so fundamentally opposite to work as to define it. The collapse of play into work is a meeting of matter and antimatter, and there’s no telling what may result from it. But we can take some educated guesses.


The legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, in his book Free Culture, draws a critical distinction between commercial culture and noncommercial culture. Through most of modernity, he argues, there has been a hard-won, healthy balance between the two, with many if not most of our daily acts of expression escaping the controls that make commercial culture function. But now technology, principally the technology of digital networks, has upset the balance, in theory heralding an unprecedented proliferation of noncommercial culture but in fact exposing much of our day-to-day cultural interaction to the restrictions of the commercial. And I would argue that a similar description can be made of the contemporary relationship between work and play. It is precisely because of the proliferation of play in the digital age – and of the peculiar compatibility of digital logics with the logic of games – that modernity’s longstanding balance between the productive and the ludic now stands threatened with undoing, the realm of work verging now on overwhelming that of play. What I’m talking about is more than just the curious possibilities of video-game warfare and MMORPG cancer-screeners. It’s deeper than that. How much deeper? Let us fathom the ways.


Social theorists have been examining the phenomenon of play for decades, several of them offering quite cogent accounts of the place of play and games in human culture. Brian Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play (1997) offers one such account. Roger Caillois’s Man, Play and Games (1958) offers another. But none has aimed so ambitiously at tracing play’s connections to the totality of human endeavour – including, especially, its more serious, productive realms – than Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, written in 1938. What Huizinga does especially well is to uncover an archaic cultural past in which the role of play was much more prominent than it is now, thereby highlighting the peculiarity of play’s relative marginality in modern times. Consider, for example, his account of early Greek legal contests as primarily a form of very serious play. “We moderns,” he explains, “cannot conceive justice apart from abstract righteousness…. For us, the lawsuit is primarily a dispute about right and wrong; winning and losing take only a second place…. Turning our eyes from the administration of justice in highly developed civilizations to that which obtains in less advanced phases of culture… [w]e are confronted by a mental world in which the notion of decision by oracles, by the judgement of God, by ordeal, by sortilege – i.e. by play – and the notion of decision by judicial sentence, fuse in a single complex of thought. Justice is made subservient – and quite sincerely – to the rules of the game.” Huizinga’s point is a subtle but incisive one, opening a window into a worldview in which play thoroughly infuses the productive arenas of society. And while there’s much to be said for modernity’s disentangling of this confusion (we are, after all, an enlightened culture largely to the extent that we’ve banished the notion of play from serious realms like law, war, and economics), there is also much that is lost, Huizinga insists. There is a grace, a charm, a vigor, in premodern cultures that flows directly from the seriousness with which they played and the playfulness with which they approached the serious.


Two decades after Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens, the cultural anarchists who called themselves the Situationist International took up the thread of Huizinga’s analysis and flipped it, turning his nostalgia for the premodern into a critique of the modern, complete with a radical agenda for the return of play to its once central position in culture, made possible by the emergence of a postwar, postindustrial society of leisure. “The central distinction that must be transcended,” they wrote in the brief essay “Contribution to a Situationist Definition of Play,” “is that established between play and ordinary life, play kept as an isolated and provisory exception…. Ordinary life, previously conditioned by the problem of survival, can be dominated rationally — this possibility is at the heart of every conflict of our time — and play, radically broken from a confined ludic time and space, must invade the whole of life.” The Situationists were a big deal in the 1960s, it’s no surprise to learn. So, for that matter, was Johan Huizinga.


What ever would the Situationists make of the state of play in contemporary culture? In some ways it might seem that the ludic utopia of their dreams has come to pass. Games are everywhere, their proliferation fertilized by the endless versatility of the microchip. Videogames now vie with the movie industry for domination of commercial culture, and perhaps more significantly they have a credible intellectual claim to being the defining cultural form of the emergent century. Yet games pervade the present moment in an even more fundamental way, and it is far from clear that they do so with anything like the liberating subversiveness the Situationists hoped for. From the dawn of the modern political economy – sometimes still referred to as capitalism -- its critics have observed that much of its strength, as well as much of its troublesomeness, lies in its tendency toward the abstraction, the dematerialization, of once concrete practices and forms. “All that is solid melts into air,” wrote Karl Marx, with a mixture of awe and dismay, in his “Communist Manifesto” of 1848 – and since then gold-backed money has melted into zeroes and ones, commodities have vaporized into the most abstract of derivatives, industry has given way to branding, and in the spread of digital and network technologies generally, big thinkers like Manuel Castells make out the culmination of the dematerializing drift that Marx first flagged. But what the contemparary ascendancy of games makes clear is that this dematerialization could just as well be called a ludification. There is a peculiar affinity between the logic of games, the logic of the digital, and the logic of 21st century capitalism in general. They are all, in some sense, about make-believe, about creating virtual realities through a delicate intersection of rules and play. And so, when we witness the 21st century’s proliferation of games, when we witness the accelerated blurring of the lines between production and play, it’s hard to say whether this is evidence of play’s invading the whole of life – as the Situationists would have liked it – or of play’s assimilation into a productive order that has finally, fatally learned play’s tricks. If I had to wager, it would be on the latter.


And so, as another old Communist once wrote, what is to be done? It’s not as if the problematic I’ve been describing couldn’t be put in less pretentious terms. Those of us who study and/or play massively multiplayer online games are familiar with Joe Gamer’s version of the critique – the endless complaints about the worklike treadmill players must walk to advance their characters or about the mercenary ethic of the eBay trade. And as a question of design theory, it’s always welcome to hear proposals for games that address those complaints through their architecture, as for instance Randy Farmer’s eBay-proof children’s game does. But if we step back and observe the larger picture, it becomes clear that broader strokes are called for if we want to salvage what is most vital about play from the incursions of the productive. At the State of Play conference on law and games in New York in November 2003, economist and games theorist Edward Castronova called for a law that would preserve that magic circle of play within which ludic activity remains a pristine end in itself, untouched by the instrumentalizing forces that elsewhere reign supreme. Yet I would argue that it’s too late for that. The confusion of work and play is already, on so many levels, so thoroughgoing as to leave no hope except, perhaps, that of the Situationists: that play break out of every box or circle we try to put it in and infect daily life in the most unsettling of ways. It’s a vague hope, I know, and it has the unnerving effect of obliging us to look for play in places where it may be difficult to recognize. But maybe – just maybe – we’ll still know it when we enjoy it.