All Work and No Play

All Work and No Play

Video games, like any creative product, reflect and refract the conditions of their production. Today, what they most resemble is twenty-first-century work.

(Guido Mieth via Getty Images)

When I was seven, my best friend Matt and I set out to create a video game. We drew elaborate levels, otherworldly scenes full of alien fauna and complex jumping puzzles; we cut handsome avatars out of construction paper to navigate them. For weeks, we met and planned the game, imagining treacherous scenarios, superhuman powers, challenges to unlock and master. We wrote down numbers and symbols, logging foggy statistics and win conditions. It was thrilling. The game world and our powers within it felt nearly limitless, confined only by our imaginations, our childish penmanship, and the ink in our magic markers.

A month into this process, Matt turned to me and said, earnestly, “OK, now how do we make this game real?” I was confused and hurt by his question. To me, we were already playing it. On some level I knew we didn’t have the ability to create an “actual” video game. We were pretending, though that seemed a meager word to describe the creative feats we’d accomplished. The joy was in our flights of fancy, in creating rules we broke seconds later, in the endless play of limit and resolution. The game consisted of imagining the game. But Matt hadn’t seen it that way. He was enjoying himself, but he believed that we would eventually transform our paper cut-outs into a functional digital playscape, that our play to that point had been merely preparatory, a prelude to something else, something real and rule bound. And he was disappointed, his face darkening, when I told him, “Matt, we can’t do that. We’re just kids.” Knowing it would hurt him, and suddenly wanting to, I added, “This is make-believe.” And that was the end of our game.

The critic Michael Thomsen compares video games to prayers. “They have the most promise when they are the least specific,” he writes. This dynamic reaches its most extreme form in what games journalists call the “hype cycle.” A new game is announced years before its intended release, often with a trailer containing no footage of actual gameplay. (Sometimes, as with a new God of War game anticipated this year, it’s merely a spare title screen with music.) The imaginative work is undertaken by the prospective player herself; YouTube comment sections fill up with delighted speculation about what the game might be—story, setting, mechanics. These fantasies are encouraged by game developers, who leak enticing little nuggets of info to advertisers, journalists, and Twitch streamers.

The hype cycle works because gamers enjoy it. Imagining the perfect game is pleasurable in a way that’s distinct from the pleasures of gaming. As Thomsen writes, “Thinking about games when they are still pristine and unsullied by actual play can be revelatory, inspiring future desires on the verge of becoming nameable.” For Thomsen, video games “promise various forms of wish fulfillment,” but more significantly, “they offer reassurance that wishfulness is still worthwhile, that some mechanism waits out there to receive wishes and will at least consistently respond to them.”

What, then, to make of those who actually design and develop video games? Are they loving gods, realizing our prayers, inventing worlds, and welcoming us to inhabit them? Or are they uncaring? Do they inevitably disappoint us? After all, designers are charged with a Sisyphean task: turning our wishes into functional, profit-making realities. At the end of the hype cycle, there is usually only a commodity, a game world filled with rote, time-wasting tasks and derivative mechanics, which pales in comparison to the dream—a disappointment that sometimes ignites resentment and backlash.

In his new book Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, Jason Schreier, a reporter at Bloomberg News and cohost of the popular gaming podcast Triple Click, conveys an altogether more prosaic truth: game developers are not gods. They’re people, workers, prayerful dreamers like Matt and me, navigating the often painful gap between their desires and their obligations, between work and play.

Schreier’s first book, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made, focused on the technical challenges of game-making. Press Reset is more preoccupied with the human cost. Its characters are designers, programmers, and writers working for major studios producing some of the most beloved titles of the past few decades (and contributing to the industry’s $150 billion in yearly revenue): the interplanetary survival-horror game Dead Space, the surprisingly innovative Disney/Nintendo crossover Epic Mickey, and the sub-nautical sci-fi shooter BioShock, famously set within a dystopian bathysphere designed by a Randian objectivist. A few sections are dedicated to the experience of renowned auteurs, but the focus remains on rank-and-file game workers, each responsible for some small but essential aspect of the games we love.

What unites these subjects, Schreier finds, is a deep passion for the creative rewards of game-making and a deep ambivalence about the conditions of their work. While many jobs in video game development are well-compensated, allowing workers to make ends meet in some of the most expensive cities in the world, the experience is also punctuated by periods of extreme overwork and an extraordinarily high degree of turnover. During a period known euphemistically as “crunch,” usually just before a game ships, 100-hour weeks are not unheard of. “In exchange for the pleasure of creating art for a living,” Schreier declares, “game developers have to accept that it might all fall apart without much notice.” (Even less tantalizing trade-offs are available to the Ethiopian miner unearthing the rare metals used to make motherboards, or the factory worker assembling PlayStations in China, or even the low-wage retail worker selling consoles at Walmart—but I suppose that’s another book.)

Schreier is principally concerned with what happens when video game studios close, which they do, we learn, with startling frequency. “Chat with anyone who’s worked in video games for more than a few years, and they’ll almost certainly have a story about that time they lost their job,” Schreier writes. In one particularly well-reported chapter, we learn about 38 Studios, a doomed gaming venture founded by former Red Sox pitcher (and later Donald Trump enthusiast) Curt Schilling, which fell apart after receiving a $75 million loan guarantee from the state of Rhode Island. When the spendthrift studio abruptly shuttered, employees were denied their final paycheck, received no severance, and those who relocated for the job were charged thousands of dollars by moving companies Schilling had stiffed.

But 38 Studios is far from unique. As one industry veteran told Schreier, “With all the layoffs I’ve dealt with, I get a PTSD-type thing whenever there is an email for an all-hands meeting in an office. . . . I’m sure it’s a common thing among other developers.” Indeed, studio shutdowns are so frequent in Press Reset that the individual stories and characters in the book begin to run together. Variations on the same trajectory occupy multiple chapters: employees crunch to finish a game; it ships; they celebrate; soon after, there’s an ominous meeting; everyone is fired; the gut-punched coworkers enjoy a funereal beer at a nearby bar, before heading home to update their resumes. Some decide to go “independent,” making less ambitious games over which they can wield more creative control; others quit the industry altogether. Workers—despite their indispensability to every part of the game-making process—are treated as disposable parts of a profit-making machine. “Volatility,” Schreier writes, “has become the status quo.”

Schreier declines to provide much analysis of the structural features leading to instability. (For a more vivid picture of the gaming industry’s labor and production processes, see Jamie Woodcock’s 2019 book Marx at the Arcade.) The excuse offered by business leaders is that the industry operates on a boom-and-bust cycle, conditioned by the release of new hardware. Investing in gaming is high risk, high reward; some massively expensive games flop, while others turn billions in profit. And major publishers are constantly buying and selling smaller studios—often, though not always, in the wake of such failures—leading to layoffs and relocations.

But a few of Schreier’s sources provide a more frank explanation: the bosses have all the power, and they don’t give a shit. Zach Mumbach, a longtime employee of Electronic Arts (EA), noticed that while he and his coworkers crunched for game after game, the C-suite executives were going home every day at 5 p.m. “I’m tired of working eighty-hour weeks so that people like [former EA exec] Patrick Söderlund can get a new car,” he told Schreier. “It feels like these guys are playing games. They’re playing games with budgets; they’re playing games with revenue; they’re playing games with overhead. They cut people just to hire people back because it looks good for this quarter or that quarter.” Without an organized say in the industry—hardly anyone save a few voice actors in SAG-AFTRA are unionized—workers’ priorities just don’t matter.

As in other creative industries, gaming bosses and managers exploit their employees’ passion to silence dissent and coerce consent for unfair conditions. Schreier describes an “underlying sense that people should feel lucky” to be where they are. “There’s a belief in the games industry that working in it is a privilege, and that you should be willing to do whatever it takes to stay there,” Emily Grace Buck, a former employee of Telltale Games, told Time magazine in 2019. Game workers are encouraged to think of their jobs as the fulfillment of their childhood fantasies. They get paid to create dream worlds and grant wishes. Isn’t that enough?

As Sarah Jaffe observes in her new book Work Won’t Love You Back, this dynamic is an essential disciplinary mechanism of the modern workplace. Instead of conceding to workers’ desire for stability and work-life balance, game studios, like other tech companies, provide amenities that seek to collapse the division between work and play: free food and bunk beds during crunch time, ping-pong and foosball tables in the office, and whole workdays dedicated to playing the latest titles by their competitors. “Fun is at the heart of what we do,” one studio proclaims on its website, encapsulating this approach. “We know that if we want to make fun games, we also have to have fun making games.”

Despite his evident sympathy for his subjects and anger at their misfortunes, Schreier more or less reifies the notion that game designers are in the business of producing “fun.” “Video games,” he writes, “are designed to bring joy to people, yet they’re created in the shadow of corporate ruthlessness”—as if that’s any kind of contradiction. The notion that “fun” workplaces generate “fun” products may be boss propaganda, but it contains a hidden truth: video games, like any creative product, reflect and refract the conditions of their production. And they tend to serve the ideological and reproductive needs of their time and place.

For this reason, the most popular games today do not contain, at their heart, “fun.” What they most resemble, what they seem to dream about, is twenty-first-century work.

“Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work,” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer declared in 1944. The mechanization of labor, the Frankfurt theorists thought, had so enmeshed itself with human “leisure and happiness” and so “profoundly” determined the “manufacture of amusement goods” that entertaining diversions were “inevitably after-images of the work process itself.” Following this lead, game theorist Steven Poole observed in 2008 that modern video games “seem to aspire to a mimesis of the mechanized work process.” We learn—or are disciplined by—the game’s rules and receive positive feedback for following them efficiently. “You didn’t play the game,” Poole writes, much less “beat” it. Rather, “you performed the operations it demanded of you, like an obedient employee. The game was a task of labour.”

Single-player games with plenty of weapons to upgrade, skills to gain, and currencies to spend are perhaps the archetypal iteration of this phenomenon, but almost all contemporary games contain some mimetic elements of work and market exchange. They don’t offer fantasies of escape, of imaginative play for its own sake; they offer a fantasy of rules—a rationality otherwise missing from the contemporary wage labor process. Vicky Osterweil has called this type of game a “utopian work simulator”; it doles out rewards at predictable intervals in exchange for our disciplined effort. These rewards can make the game easier, allow us to purchase in-game adornments, signal our achievements to others, and progress in a logical and satisfying trajectory toward an achievable goal. Games remain a form of diversion, but what they divert us from is not our labor, but our disappointment with its volatility, its arbitrariness, its cruelty and unfairness.

In its most acute form, journalist Cecilia D’Anastasio writes, workers use “video games to perform the ghosts of [their] daily labors.” A long-haul trucker spends his week off grinding in American Truck Simulator; chefs leave their kitchens at midnight to play Cook, Serve, Delicious! before bed. In the game world, unlike our own, D’Anastasio writes, “productivity is quantifiable and discernible.” Games compensate for an absence of control, reliable feedback, clear goals, and fair rewards in our working lives. In this way, games remain a kind of wish fulfillment, one in which the ideological fictions of capitalism are realized. It’s a paltry dream, reconciling us to falsehoods we must otherwise accept.

That so many of the most popular games are also highly realistic murder simulators is notable, too. “It’s quite possible,” as Tom Bissell wrote in his classic essay on the “first-person shooter” (FPS) genre, that games like Call of Duty “reveal that somewhere inside every human being is a shadow human being, one who kills and takes and does what he or she pleases.” Such games, which recreate martial combat and reward players for efficiently eliminating humanoid foes, are surely ideologically symptomatic: a sublimation of repressed aggression and imperial fantasies. But so are action films. What shooters do, perhaps more efficiently than any other game type, is transform an acutely repetitive cognitive puzzle—locate a small point in three-dimensional space; press a button to make it bleed—into an endlessly enjoyable, even addictive pastime.

Mobilizing various moods and affects, among them fantasies of patriarchal dominance and competition, violent games manage to “structure as pleasurable the repetition, learning, and boredom that one must master and tolerate to live under current economic conditions,” Osterweil writes. In turn, workplaces like Amazon incorporate gamified elements—public leaderboards; notional rewards for expeditious work; even arcade-style mini-games unlocked by completing warehouse tasks—to habituate employees to hours upon hours of monotonous physical and mental labor. As the FPS player’s prowess is expressed by her “kill/death” ratio, the Amazon worker’s value is expressed by her “pick rate,” homologous measures of cognitive and kinetic efficiency.

Video game violence, then, does not function, for the most part, as an outlet for antisocial behavior, much less as a perilous gateway to real-world cruelty, but as a pleasurable veil for socially useful disciplining. Ecstatic digital violence conceals and compensates for the more mundane violence of everyday life, of being conditioned to a benumbing labor process. That such a mechanism maintains a frisson of misanthropic transgression (inhered within the “dangerous,” “maladjusted,” and “reactionary” gamer stereotype) is a mark of its ideological sophistication. In truth, nothing could be more normative, more compliant and pro-social, than buying and playing a first-person shooter. One way or another, we all answer the “call of duty.”

Though all games are ideological, not all of them are noxiously so. Some, like Frank Lantz’s “orthogonality thesis” simulator Universal Paperclips, reveal and critique the meager fantasies at their core. Others, like 2019’s Disco Elysium—an ambling, aleatoric neo-noir phantasmagoria—exceed the highest hopes of ergodic literature. It’s tempting to attribute the distance between these titles and those put out by major studios to the profit motive. As Schreier writes, “The video game industry, like all artistic pursuits, is built on a tension between two factions: the creative people and the money people. The conflict between game developers trying to make art and game publishers trying to make a profit is as old as video games themselves.” Most of the characters in Press Reset aspire to build more interesting games than those they’re paid to make by studios like EA. When they leave, if they can find the money, they often do.

A less comforting hypothesis is that studios churn out “utopian work simulators” because they comport with our desires—and the needs of the economy. I agree with Osterweil that video games are “fundamentally a reproductive technology.” They help “create, sustain, organize, and train workers and subjects in ways that help them function in a fundamentally unlivable society and economy.” The techniques and grammars of game design have co-evolved with advances in automation, globalization, just-in-time production and logistics, the care economy, and precarious part-time work. And video gameplay, to borrow again from Adorno and Horkheimer, “moves rigorously in the worn grooves of association” carved out by our relationship to these forms of labor. Games, like all entertainment products, shape us into the sort of subjects required by capital’s present.

And what sort of subjects are those? In his book Bullshit Jobs, anthropologist David Graeber observed that if, as evolutionary theorist of play Karl Groos (following Schiller) would have us believe, “make-believe play is the purest expression of human freedom,” then “make-believe work, imposed by others, is the purest expression of lack of freedom.” The latter, Graeber writes, “is the purest exercise of power for its own sake.” In other words, the stakes couldn’t be higher: if video games are play, they’re an expression of our highest capacities as humans—our love of freedom, of imagination, and creative whim. But when they are work (as they appear to me in those moments when pleasure fails to disguise repetition), then our affection for them is a grim thing indeed, signaling an extraordinary concession to modern conditions of unfreedom.

Press Reset is an admirable contribution to a growing body of games journalism focused on the injustices of the gaming industry. Given that just seven years ago, the world of gaming convulsed in rebellion at the slightest effort to apply the lessons of feminism and anti-racism to the industry and its products, it’s encouraging that people like Schreier—who, with his former colleagues at Kotaku, was on the receiving end of some of Gamergate’s reactionary bile—continue to write and publish critical work like this.

In his final chapter, Schreier proposes several solutions to the problems he’s identified. One is unionization: “Every new layoff or studio closure is evidence that the video game industry needs more protection for its workers,” Schreier writes, “and unions are an essential, inevitable part of that equation.” As of this writing, no major game studio in the United States is unionized, but the consortium Game Workers Unite (GWU) continues to agitate for labor rights in the industry. The UK division of GWU formally joined the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain in 2019. The Communications Workers of America announced an initiative to organize game workers in January 2020.

Schreier also recommends normalizing remote work so that developers need not uproot their lives every time a studio closes or their job moves. And he praises the business model of a company called Disbelief, whose staff have secure jobs working on several contracts at once for major studios. “I think the future is going to be: there’s a small team in charge of the creative vision, and then all of the other work is outsourced,” one of Disbelief’s founders says. Given the frequency with which tedious design and programming tasks are already outsourced by game companies to low-wage workers in India and China, it’s not difficult to imagine this future, but I’m not sure it’s the panacea Schreier imagines.

Meanwhile, many people who tire of working for big studios leave to form their own, smaller “indie” companies. These companies are just as capable of exploitation as, and even more liable to run out of money than, their triple-A counterparts. But when it’s just a small group of colleagues, all of whom are co-owners, the stakes are different. As one of the co-creators of Enter the Gungeon, a hugely successful 2016 indie game, told Schreier, “We did crunch very hard, and it sucked, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a huge difference crunching for a game that you know you have revenue share in.”

Improving labor conditions for game developers is a worthy goal; I hope they unionize, and I hope more people can form indie collectives, if they want to. But as games journalists become more perceptive and critical of crunch and volatility, and critics more concerned about the toxic political exhaust of certain games, what I aspire to read is more first-order inquiries.

The world of games media is populated (and paid for) by people who love video games; they tend not to ask, or be interested in, more fundamental questions about what games do—or what they might be doing to us. (The critics I’ve cited above are, unfortunately, not representative of the overall critical culture of gaming.) It’s obviously not the case that everyone who loves role-playing games is an obedient worker, nor are all games rote and uninspired. Every few years, a title comes out that genuinely delights and challenges me in the manner of a great novel or film, and does so by methods endemic to the interactive artform. (Disco Elysium was one of these.) But it’s rare. Usually I spend untold swaths of time playing games whose status as entertainment—much less as art—confounds me, even as I trudge on, checkpoint to checkpoint, level to level. What kind of subject am I being shaped into by these processes? And what kind of political economy demands that sort of subject? What, to be blunt, would I be spending my time doing otherwise?

We cannot dream our way out of the embracing snares of contemporary capitalism; I know that. But we can certainly dream our way deeper in.

Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in New York. He co-hosts the Dissent podcast Know Your Enemy.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: