Game Studios turns play into work
New Years Day day, Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda issued an open letter. In it, he professed his love for blockchain technology and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), joining Ubisoft, Peter Molyneux and Tracker 2 developer GSC Game World in equally popular interventions. He said he hoped technology would become a “major trend in gaming in the future.” The letter went as well as you might expect.
Commentators have pointed out that Matsuda’s letter is incomprehensible, coated in muddy tech jargon. He makes a telling distinction, however. In Matsuda’s eyes, there is, on the one hand, play for fun, or “‘play for fun’ …,” and on the other hand, “play to contribute”, a pursuit that should be nurtured. by “explicit inducement” – namely, money. The former, Matsuda seems to suggest, is incomprehensible and strange; the latter is intelligent, normal and productive.
Matsuda equates games with work, especially salaried work. And framing them that way, in terms of productivity and worker empowerment, is a gamble in gaining acceptance for technologies like NFTs. You’re going to be subjected to this a lot more in the years to come, as some games become really indistinguishable from jobs.
Since we often describe games as work, using terms like grind and reward, take care of farms in Agriculture simulator, logging in to complete “daily quests” etc., critics have inevitably wondered if what we do in video games is play.
Of course, the game and the work are reflected. Their distinction is both ostensive and personal: killing Silver Knights all day on the steps of Anor Londo to get Darkmoon Blade is work because I hate it. But some maniacs may do it for fun, just as we pursue leisure activities, such as fishing, for which other people are paid. Academics have called modding a form of unpaid labor; it might as well be considered a hobby, like painting. Game designers often distinguish between intrinsic pleasure (playing Halo for 100 hours because you like the feeling of getting headshots) and extrinsic reward (do the same because you want to upgrade your battle pass for a camouflage weapon skin). The latter taps into what anthropologist David Graeber has called the “propensity of humans to calculate,” and it’s often maligned, but social scoring isn’t inherently bad or antithetical to play. Really, I think the average gamer doesn’t care if a game comes close to working principles or not.
NFTs push this desire for extrinsic reward to its logical conclusion: a financial incentive. The idea is ostensibly convincing. After all, games have an infamously lucrative savings. You play all day by paying for Gabe Newell’s extended vacation to New Zealand, but, unless you’re a lucky streamer, you only get loot boxes in return. Academics often talk about the unpaid “intangible work” of logging into Facebook and having your preferences exploited for advertising dollars. Isn’t the game similar? You can follow this logic: developers unionize, why not gamers? Developers should treat gamers like businesses treat workers. We ‘play to contribute.’ We are productive. Just as gamers demand fairer progression systems, they should also demand hard cash payments.
Infinite Axis, a blockchain-based video game where players collect Pokémon-like pets, linked to NFTs, shows how these ‘play to win’ systems work. Players pit their Axies against each other to earn cryptocurrency tokens. In 2020, someone paid $ 130,000 in cryptocurrency for a particularly rare. My colleagues have pointed out that this is fundamentally a capitalist simulation, and some people have indeed gotten out of poverty by playing along.
But the game is different from our day-to-day jobs in several extremely important ways, and those differences pose serious problems, says Tom Brock, senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan. Game companies don’t have to treat you like workers to begin with. “Work is more than getting paid,” he says. “It’s also about various forms of financial, pastoral and cultural support – being part of a union is part of that, as is having certain protections and rights.”