Monday, November 3, 2008

Doing Work in Video Games

Via a link post, an interesting Steven Poole essay criticizing the way a lot of games set players up in an "employment paradigm." Favorite parts:
Today, the most common paradigm for progress in games, for example, is the idea of “earning”. Follow the rules, achieve results, and you are rewarded with bits of symbolic currency — credits, stars, skill points, powerful glowing orbs — which you can then exchange later in the game for new gadgets, ways of moving, or access to previously denied areas...It is, you might say, a malignly perfect style of capitalist brainwashing.
I had some thoughts along these lines working on a reimagining of Paperboy that I sort of lost steam on. It's an interesting idea, though.
Remarkably, the WipEout games, for example, even count points for your “loyalty” to a particular team, be it Auricom or Feisar. The idea of inculcating loyalty to an entirely fictional organization is fascinating. In the modern “flexible” labour market, where people may be fired on a whim and companies rename themselves or merge from one day to the next, it might be thought useful to train the population in an idea of “loyalty” that is instant, portable — and, of course, unrequited.
I don't know about other games quantifying loyalty like this, but it is bizarre how many games take the player's devotion to some arbitrary cause for granted, despite taskmasters who are not merely oblivious to the hero's efforts, but in many cases outright hostile. (Getting back to Paperboy, you'd think any possibility of loyalty to the newspaper would evaporate when the editor demonstrates a willingness use the front page to publicly shame former employees following their termination.)

One thought I had is that this kind of blind loyalty, which requires one to deliberately overlook the contempt in which an employer figure holds the player, might have a distinctly Japanese character to it. What values have a generation of Americans absorbed growing up in an environment in which the vast majority of games share assumptions about deference to authority rather than, for example, class solidarity?
Nothing could be a more perfect advert for what is sometimes called the “American way” than The Sims. Buy a Sim a large mirror and she will be happier, by virtue of being able to gaze at her reflection. Buy him a new oven, and he’ll become more popular after giving dinner parties. Help your Sim climb the slippery pole of a career as a politician or scientist. This is a game in which the brutal rules of free-market capitalism are everything.
Apparently this paragraph is from an earlier essay of Poole's, linked to by a commenter, on implicit political messages in video games. Good stuff. I think I'll start reading his blog.

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