Video games are just work

Building a longhouse in Valheim (image: author)

One of the saving graces of the first Covid lockdown was a small personal Discord server I started to enable a group of my friends who lived across the eastern Australian states to connect and play games while stuck in their houses. Initially we used it for Tabletop Simulator, but over time we shifted to other games; we rediscovered our love of Overwatch, got caught up in the Phasmophobia hype, and then, like five million other gamers, succumbed to the siren’s call of Valheim. We rented a small server, built longhouses, went on sailing expeditions, and hunted mythical beasts.

After a long play session, I was regaling my housemate with the saga of my silver mining exploits. I’d found a vein on the side of the mountain, on an island not too far from our main base. I thought, I’ll sail to the shore nearby, drag the cart up the hill, fill it, drag it back down to the longboat, transfer the silver, and sail home with the loot. Easy!

The problems started on the trip up. The cart kept getting damaged because I was running it over rocks at too high a speed. No problem, I thought, I’ll just build a repair bench. So off I went to chop some trees. One I got back to the cart, it had been destroyed by wolves, and they now set upon me. So I killed them and skinned them, and went to cut more wood for a proper little hut, since you can’t build a new cart unless the repair bench has a roof.

With that little extra task out of the way, I started mining the silver (finally), stopping occasionally to empty my pockets of the ton or so of useless and heavy stone that was the by-product of such an endeavour, or fight off the wolves or drakes that occasionally tried to make me their lunch. Once the silver was all mined, I dragged the cart down the hill — careful to avoid the rocks — pausing occasionally to hack my way through the undergrowth with an axe.

The woods between the mountain and the shore were thick and dark, and I got easily turned around (while fending off hordes of Greydwarves, a sort of forest goblin). Growing ever more flustered, I somehow managed to drive the cart into a ravine full of water, only to find it hopelessly bogged. Fine, I thought, I’ll simply build another workbench and hut on the hill above the cart (more wood chopping), destroy the cart in the ditch and rebuild it on the hill, lug all the (very heavy) silver, piece by piece, into the new cart (all while killing more greydwarves), and continue on my way.

But the silver was so heavy that I couldn’t move more than a little bit at a time — that’s why I needed the cart, after all — so I got jack of this very quickly. Fine, I thought, I’ll just build a string of chests to the shore, and transfer the silver from chest to chest along the chain. But that needed more wood, so Fine, I’ll chop more wood, and the longboat was further down the coast because I’d got all turned around in the woods, FINE, I’ll move it…

My housemate had played plenty of Minecraft, but never Valheim, and on hearing all of this, simply said “I can’t tell if you’re enjoying this game or not.” And she has a point. I’m reminded of the one-line review another friend gave me for Stardew Valley when I asked him whether he recommended it or not: he just said “Dude, it’s work.”

A typology of games-as-work

A significant proportion of new games on Steam seem to demand some form of work. I want to suggest a new typology for thinking about these games, perhaps to power some future analysis.

These games might require you to maintain the body through hunger and/or forage mechanics, like in Minecraft, Valheim, Stardew Valley, Don’t Starve, The Forest, or any number of “survival” games. Let’s call these games ‘Labour simulators’, because what they simulate is what Hannah Arendt would call ‘Labour’ — work whose product is consumed at the point of production, and is bent towards the futile effort of fending off growth and decay.

Or, it might be the work of building and maintaining a large and complex production machine of some kind, like in Production Line, Eco, Factorio, or Satisfactory. Let’s call these ‘production simulators’, since they are concerned with the refining of goods into commodities to sell for profit, and treat the labour of simulated people like an exploitable resource.

Or maybe the game asks you to carefully manage a bunch of drones you can’t directly control, as in Dwarf Fortress, Banished, or Oxygen Not Included. Let’s call these ‘Management simulators’, since their core gameplay loop is about governing the behaviour of simulated people with their own simulated unruly needs and desires.

Finally, there are the games where you directly engage in a simulation the sort of behaviour that someone in the real world gets paid for, like in the bevy of simulators now available: Train Simulator, Farming Simulator, or Truck Simulator. We can best call these ‘Job simulators’, because they simulate real-world jobs, and also demonstrate James Suzman’s observation that what makes work into work isn’t the type of labour but the context you do it in. After all, gamers will apparently happily pay to pretend to do something that other people get paid to do. This sort of game is expertly parodied in the VR game Job Simulator, but the genre is already sort of self-satire.

Collectively we might refer to these four categories within a burgeoning genre as ‘Political Economy Simulators’, since they all simulate the decisions around how resources are allocated (and to whom), and thus simulate the politics behind those decisions. Some, like Oxygen Not Included, might be used to recreate chattel slavery, while most of the Job simulators (and of course the other pandemic hit Animal Crossing) are straight up capitalism simulators.

Have games always been work?

Arguably, games have always represented other people’s jobs in some way — after all, ‘Soldier’ (Call of Duty), ‘counter-terrorism cop’ (Counter-Strike), ‘pilot’ or ‘race car driver’ (any number of racing or flight sims) have always existed as jobs. Ian Bogost certainly argues that to some extent, games are always work. But I feel like this is something new — a drive to simulate the most mundane and spreadsheety aspects of our world.

Shouldn’t the fact that a non-trivial number of gamers are happy to spend their limited leisure time simulating things that other people consider ‘work’ be shocking? I thought games were meant to be a respite from work, not a simulation of it. It is perhaps made all the more depressing by the fact that almost all of these games simulate industrial or market capitalism. Even in our leisure time we can’t escape the very thing that forces us to spend our days at work.

We should well ask: How and why did games get like this? Why are they attractive and popular to the people who play them (myself included)? What is it about their essential gameplay loops that draw players in? How can Satisfactory, a game with ostensibly no story or motivation beyond the rampant exploitation and pillage of a natural environment, garner “overwhelmingly positive” reviews on Steam that describe it as a zen-like experience? How can Farming Simulator, which sports a gameplay loop so repetitive that players are encouraged to hire workers to avoid doing it, capture its players’ devotion so thoroughly? What are the stakes here?

“The factory grows”

Reviews on Steam seem as baffled by these questions as I am. My favourite Satisfactory review is a Kafkaesque tale that ends like this:

“The factory grows. The purple fluids feed the globes to reveal new truths, beginning the vicious cycle anew, a neverending circle of destruction and growth that will only end when every corner of the planet is scoured clean. The factory grows. The planet will never be scoured clean. The factory grows. The planet is infinite in size. The factory grows. The game will never be over.”

Another review offers more of a hint: “This game is like pure heroin. It’s achieved the perfect balance between chill and relaxing, but not boring and not too intense, no time limits, you can build and just watch.” How can a game about industrial capitalism and the rapacious and destructive exploitation of a pristine alien wilderness be “chill and relaxing”?

Farming Simulator reviews are just as odd. They reveal a completely addicted playerbase that struggles to explain why they even enjoy the game. One player who has played the game for 1455 hours at time of writing opens their positive review with: “I’d never really understood the desire to play a video game about doing work. Car Mechanic Simulator was a fun gimmick, but Farming Simulator? That just sounds ridiculous… and it is.” Another positive review — this time with over 4000 hours — simply says “It ain’t much but it’s honest work.” A comparative newbie at “only” 600 hours suggest that you “Make sure you have loving and understanding people around you if you plan on purchasing this game — because you’ll find a sudden need to tell people around you about farming.” And then of course there’s the apparent 67-year-old farmer who plays this game in his spare time because it makes them feel like a 12 year old.

“Flow” vs. tedium

When I talked to my Discord server about this idea, one of the members was not terribly surprised. He said:

“Maybe playing tedious, repetitive work simulator games is enjoyable because, for many people, doing tedious, repetitive paid work is also enjoyable. I used to love spending hours fiddling around with massive spreadsheets, finessing formulas, validating data, formatting cells. I really enjoy a 10 hour ETS drive across Scandinavia because my active brain can switch on to autopilot, and I don’t have to concentrate like crazy.”

Another member picked up on this theme and pointed out that this state was called “flow”. I am fascinated by the way that the same activity can produce a zen-like state of calm focus in one context, or a frustrated sense of tedium in another. Perhaps that context is the difference between work and games.

One thing stands out in the Steam reviews’ difficulty in explaining what they like about these games, and my friends’ sense that ‘flow’ was part of the answer or that tedium could be fun. Ultimately, for enough people, these political economy simulators take all of the sting out of work. Crash your real truck because you didn’t sleep and you’re facing dismissal, repair bills and possibly court. Crash your virtual truck? Your jimmies remain unrustled. These games take that reward-effort cycle, strip it of its real-world consequences, and leave only the core gameplay loop behind.

So maybe that’s it — games don’t need to allow players to escape the confines of their world as long as they can lower its stakes. The advanced liberal capitalist culture we live in has made our day jobs into fast-paced cycles of effort and reward in a bid to keep us working. The problem is, the stakes are too high for this to be ‘fun’. In a world where most of us do ‘knowledge’ work that is frequently impossible to measure and perhaps unfulfilling because of it, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the most rewarding thing you can do with your leisure time is inhabit a fantasy of mastering work.

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

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