A quick response to Zimmerman & Clark’s presentation

A quick response to Zimmerman & Clark’s presentation

Wow, I’m starting to really hate missing the actual talks…notes and slides are great but I’m afraid I am probably missing nuance.

Zimmerman is typically on-target, but I’m wondering about this (paraphrased?) passage from his presentation with Naomi Clark, taken from notes from an attendee (thank you, Tiny Subversion):

“Why is there a rise in games of labor? It is linked to contemporary culture. In industrialized 21st century cultures there are new lifestyles that are mirrored in these games of labor. We are taught to want and to work for the fantasy of labor. You don’t really have a desire to make a virtual farm until the game explains to you that that is what you want.”

This seems like a red herring to me, frankly.  The schema of “farm” is a labor-related mental schema, to be certain, but does the actual gameplay represent labor any more than level grinding does, or the constant babysitting necessary in The Sims?  I’m not sure at all that “labor” represents the compelling aspects of these games for players, any more than they are expecting to really run a pet shop in a pet-shop-running game.  Further, sitting a different schema on the same game – which has happened, repeatedly – would theoretically disrupt this argument, despite changing little more than visual cues.

More, it seems like a reflection of what I was talking about before – that real life is already structured in a gamelike fashion (a fact not missed by those who titled the “game theory” area of study well before video games) (or, vice versa?) – and games have always reflected fundamental human requirements, desires, and cultural gambits.  All action is work, in a way; the difference is which actions we enjoy and to what degree.

  • mary
    Posted at 14:33h, 01 March

    interesting take on the fundamentals of labor, katie. What is labor, anyway? If we use the historic games/work dichotomy, that’s one thing. But if we use the historic definition of the term, Farmville may have more labor than we think:
    (love 2 etym: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=l
    c.1300, “exertion of the body,” from O.Fr. labour (Fr. labeur), from L. laborem (nom. labor) “toil, pain.”

    The verb is c.1300, from M.Fr. labourer, from L. laborare, from labor. The verb in modern French, Spanish, Portuguese means “to plow;” the wider sense being taken by the equivalent of English travail. Meaning “body of laborers considered as a class” (usually contrasted to capitalists) is from 1839.

  • Naomi Clark
    Posted at 18:06h, 01 March

    Hi Katie! I noticed your post (via googling for people talking about our talk) so I thought I could clarify: when we talked about “games of labor” we definitely didn’t mean “games that represent labor visually or narratively,” although we touched on that idea briefly at the beginning of our talk. The definition of “games of labor” that we presented was basically that “labor mechanics” are those that involve investment of time for success or progression or reward, as opposed to skill or chance.

    Some examples we gave for games of labor, or games driven mostly by time investment rather than other deciding factors, included single-player RPGs, MMOGS, and sim games (where you can usually fast-forward the time investment, unlike on Facebook where you have to pay for a fast-forward). We think all of those tie into a similar kind of driving mechanic and connect to some underlying cultural fantasies and human needs — much as you say, life is gamelike and games reflect life (and often, imagined alternatives) in a lot of different ways.

  • katie
    Posted at 18:40h, 01 March

    But Naomi – isn’t that virtually all games other than those of truly pure chance? Even a board games such as Monopoly fit your definition of rewarding an investment of time with progression.

    I guess I’m not exactly saying that I think you’re wrong, per se, I’m just not seeing where the discussion is going. I do personally find it interesting to draw comparisons between fields like behavioral economics, psychology, ethology and games, but it seems to me like you’re just restating a basic fact about games (time investment = reward) by calling it a labor mechanic.

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  • Naomi Clark
    Posted at 07:29h, 02 March

    Hey katie,

    Well I’d say there’s another category — skill, from that classic dichotomy of skill and chance, right? And of course few games are entirely run by any one mechanic. Darts is mostly a game of skill, roulette almost purely a game of chance, and poker has some chance (luck of the draw) and some skill (bluffing and betting strategy). Because it’s useful for discussion to be able to talk about “games of chance” and “games of labor,” that’s just about which mechanic tends to predominate.

    So Starcraft is an interesting example. It takes time to beat an opponent or beat a level, but skill plays an even huger role; otherwise there wouldn’t be huge skill gaps between players, some people can wipe out an AI or human opponent in minutes, others struggle through many replays and losses. Otherwise Starcraft couldn’t have become the e-sport that it is. Most sports are similarly skill games, as are many classic arcade games — almost any game which plays in discrete sessions, although many of them have random mechanics too.

    You might wonder about the fact that it takes time investment to ACQUIRE skill, but I don’t think it’s quite the same as the game rewarding time investment directly. This is most starkly illustrated by this essay of Dave Sirlin’s, where he’s ranting about labor mechanics predominating over skill mechanics in some games — he sees it as a pernicious influence:

    And he says “Time invested should count for nothing in a fair game. It might take me 1 hour to learn a few nuances and gain a certain level of skill and you 1000 hours. The hours don’t matter; only the knowledge and skill matter.”

    (I don’t necessarily share his view of skill vs. labor mechanics, but I find it REALLY illustrative.)

    So this is interesting for several reasons:
    a) there was always some time invested to PLAY a game and to reach its conclusion, but until relatively recently in modern digital games, there were few games where sheer time investment is more of a deciding factor for success than skill. Games where you’re not likely to see a “Game Over” screen on your way to the goal line unless you really screw up. The RPG is an interesting example, especially since Japanese RPGs foregrounded labor more and made losing harder. “Leveling” is a classic skill mechanic, and the more “grindy” players say a game is, the more labor-oriented it probably is.
    b) It’s hard to say exactly where the tipping point is, but you can see labor mechanics infiltrating all kinds of games, and skill-oriented gamers protesting. For instance, the ability to level up in some recent FPS’s and earn better gear, the ability to target more easily, etc.
    c) These games cater to very different tastes and lead to wildly different community structures — hierarchies of skill that tend to look like power law curves, or much more flat “anyone can reach level 80 over time” communities where people pool at the ends and beginnings, where it’s the fanatics who devote all their time to a game that have the most extreme progress, but aren’t necessarily the most skilled.
    d) And I think these mechanics point to really different cultural fantasies about what participation and success in a game provides us with psychologically. That’s a lot of what the talk is about.

    I’ll stop rambling about our talk now! But I definitely wouldn’t say that “time investment = reward” is a basic fact about games. It’s just become increasingly common. :)

  • katie
    Posted at 19:59h, 03 March

    I think I decided you’re right; you were not necessarily stating this is a new phenomenon, but trying to develop terminology for discussing it more clearly. Which I am all for.