‘We made computers to work for us, but video games demand that we work for them’ – Nick Yee, The Proteus Paradox.
In the not-too-distant future, humanity may have progressed to a point where it has automated 95% of jobs currently taken up by human beings. In this potential utopia, people will be left at home twiddling their thumbs as their office job is ran by an AI. This is the future in which Pippin Barr’s browser-based game It is as if you were doing work takes place. You take the role of a displaced worker, who once worked 9 to 5 sat at their computer, sending off emails, clicking through textboxes and persistently pressing ‘OK’.
However now you are stuck at home. Bored, as you fondly remember the days in which you mindlessly worked your way through a never-ending to-do list on your computer. But don’t worry! Pippin Barr has created a game just for you; one where you can repeat those same tasks again and again and again in an attempt to rekindle that feeling of meaningless productivity.
IIAIYWDW was released back in July 2017 by game designer and Assistant Professor at Concordia University, Pippin Barr. The game is an interface-based experience that immediately looks familiar to those who used Windows 95. In the game, you, the ‘player’ (or more appropriately, the worker) will sit at your desk, whilst waiting for pop ups to appear on their screen. These pop-ups, in the guise of e-mail browsers, work alerts and checkboxes, will ask you to complete them; one after another after another.
The more e-mails you successfully send (don’t worry about the content of these e-mails, just tapping away at any button on your keyboard will fill in the words for you), the more draft e-mails will be sent to you to complete. The more checkboxes you tick, the more checkboxes will pop-up on the screen for you to check. For every one task you complete, there will be another two to take its place.
And then… TING. You’ve been promoted. Your work has paid off, and where you were once a Data Inputter, you’re now a Data Technician. Well done you.
And then you repeat.
TING. Promotion to Technical Advisor.
TING. Promotion to Big Data Specialist.
TING. Promotion to Assistant Digital Developer.
The work never changes. Your e-mails are still all pre-written for you. The text boxes are still one or two clicks away from finishing. Just like in the real-world, your job title changes, but your work continues to be the same old bullshit.
But hey, at least you’re not bored doing nothing anymore. Right?
The game is strung together with this narrative of a post-work era. One where 95% of work has been delegated to robots. In this world, Humans are looking to engage with computer work simulators in an attempt to fill the gap in their lives that has been taken away by AI doing their jobs. Without work, how can we fill the human need for productivity?
The game may be light-hearted in tone, but it offers up serious questions about how the human psyche will react once today’s jobs are automated and humans are left to twiddle their thumbs. By offering up a virtual work environment with all the busywork of a stereotypical office job, IIAIYWDW proposes that videogames could be the future solution towards fulfilling a need to be productive that many of us have in our everyday lives.
According to game designer Jane McGonigal, videogames have been doing this for years. In fact, McGonigal argues that using a game-based medium is a strikingly appropriate way to approach notions of productivity. In her 2012 book Reality is Broken, McGonigal discusses the psychological impact of games and how they replicate feelings of productivity.
Using MMORPG’s as an example, McGonigal notes that games can offer a certain satisfaction in doing work. ‘Work’ in games commonly take the form of quests, or objectives, which the player is asked to complete. On completion of these tasks, players can be rewarded through experience points, better armour, and in particular, more quests. This constant repetition of easily completable tasks, and increasingly common rewards, drives home a feeling of productivity in the player.
Constant work, constant self-improvement, constant achievement.
Games therefore don’t necessarily make people increasingly unproductive, as is so often claimed then. Rather, games can make the player feel more productive, albeit emotionally.
Don’t get me wrong, your grades will suffer if you play Final Fantasy XIV when you should be revising, as psychologically your brain is constantly getting enough of a regular dopamine drip feed to satisfy any urges to work you may have. As such, video games offer the potential to satisfy a desire for productivity we need in our lives, in both positive and negative ways. In a world where 95% of work is automated, and there is a gap in our lives that needs fulfilling, this is great. Of course, we’re not in the future yet, and as such this can have a detrimental side-effect where we feel less of a drive to be productive outside of videogames, but hey ho.
In their study on World of Warcraft, researchers from Indiana University coined the term ‘blissful productivity’ to describe the feelings players get as they level up their characters. The quests in WoW are relatively simple to complete. Go here, kills this thing, deliver this item back to someone, profit. But the rewards for these quests are often plentiful, and the process of ticking off a box in your quest log is addictive.
Furthermore, once you complete one quest, and there are 3 more quests in your logbook to help you do the same. And this is the players true reward; more opportunities to do more work. The cycle is relentless, and more importantly, relentlessly addictive. And thus, the player continues with their next quest, blissfully clicking away on the nearest monster to tick that next box.
Indeed, because of this psychological trickery, game designers are often referred to as ‘happiness engineers’. They can literally use tricks to keep a player earning regular dopamine kicks as they constantly earn better experience points and loot.
It is as if you were doing work offers the antithesis of happiness engineering. A ‘blissful productivity’ which is anything but blissful or meaningfully productive. Yes, your character will receive a job promotion after you’ve completed a set number of tasks, however any title you are given is hollow. You never receive new abilities, or ways to interact with the game. The tasks given to you will always be the same repetitive tasks, for better or worse.
The game thus becomes a way of simulating work, when there is no need to.
But in a world where even the most basic of tasks is automated by computers, perhaps this will be all we need? The opportunity to type away on our keyboards as a fully written e-mail appears on the screen; and that little hit of productivity that triggers in our brain as we send it away.
Over the next week, this author is going to continue his post-story grind on Destiny 2, a game that has mastered the art of empowering it’s players with blissful productivity. And in the future, when we have programmed all the Exo’s to wipe out any Hive breakouts without our personal input, he will wish he could go back to the old days of headshotting Thralls on the Moon.
What video games make you feel particularly productive? Let’s chat in the comments!
Also, play all of Pippin Barr’s games here. He’s great.
Follow Cleon on Twitter. He currently has 7 followers, and most people probably think he’s a bot. Help him out by proving his social media account hasn’t been taken over by robots yet, even if his job has.