Video games and the factory worker ethic

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of meeting an airline pilot by chance, who told me something that I had suspected but never confirmed: you can learn some of the skills involved in flying a plane with certain flight simulator games (he used Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator X” himself). These games are challenging and fun, and according to the pilot, mastery in such flight simulator video games is looked on favourably if you apply to be a trainee pilot. Play, in this case, is not just for its own sake but also for some kind of utility (i.e. learning how to fly a plane). This stands in stark, stark contrast to most video games out there on the market today, especially smartphone games (Flight Simulator X happens to run on non-mobile platforms).

Most mobile games nowadays have a learning curve that plateaus rapidly, usually within a few hours. Take any first-person shooter game for example — most games out there feature simplistic swipe-and-tap mechanisms that are miles away from the experience of firing a real gun. These games are usually “pay or grind to win”, requiring that a player either put in real-world currency (pay to win) or repeat certain actions/stages multiple times (grind to win) before they are allowed to advance. The use of “grind” exposes how this sometimes feels for players, with a game sometimes taking on a boring, tedious quality before bestowing on the player a reward that often requires more grinding to exploit fully.

The idea of grinding in games isn’t a new idea. I did it myself as a teenager when playing in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), but at least I had plenty of people to chat with in-game when grinding (the reason I type so quickly nowadays is that as a teenager I learnt how to type as quickly as possible to grind efficiently and chat online at the same time). What is new, I think, is the typical teenager’s view of these games.

Unlike 30-somethings today, most of our teenagers grew up in a world dominated by video games. When the phrase “childhood play” is mentioned, what do you think of? I think mostly of chasing people around in void decks and playgrounds, digging in the sand, and a very dangerous night of inadvertently creating a bomb with sparkler powder and a milo tin. Yes, it is mixed in with afternoons spent at the video game arcade (Alien vs Predator, woohoo!), but it is dominated by self-directed, physical play. Teenagers these days share some of my childhood experiences, but also will have experienced a whole host of computer-aided play — whether it be the old Pokémon games, Xbox games, or whatnot.

We need to interrogate what “play” means to us, especially because we have moved firmly into the smartphone age, and are moving into an age of augmented reality gaming (i.e. Pokémon Go). When thinking about mobile games that require grinding, I realise that I have almost completely stopped processing them as “play”. The gamer is forced into the mindset of a factory worker, logging the hours to “create” a product (with the sad irony that no product is created, other than an experience that the gaming company hopes will lead you into giving them money to avoid playing certain parts of the game).

That play should be fun is a point so obvious that it seems to need no discussion, but we have millions of people who work at mobile games that can feel like a factory shift, all the while thinking that they are indulging in play. In a strict sense they are participating in a game and are thus playing, but because so many of them are not actually having fun, I want to reframe this in-game grinding as factory work for the game companies. I have to admit the possibility that some gamers grind while entering into some kind of peaceful, focused, meditative space, and for them I would admit that this is play. (Meditative space is fun space!) Yet, I assert that this experience is rare because most people have no idea what this meditative space feels like in the first place.

Moreover, play in digital space is inferior to play in a physical space. Consider almost any kind of offline play, and you are bound to encounter something that will help people learn outside of the zone of play. If you play the guitar, if you play football, if you play with fire, if you play in the sand, if you play with your friends, you will pick up and refine your abilities in the musical, physical, visual, kinesthetic, social, and even intellectual realms. As children, many of us were introduced to the concept of fairness when deciding on the rules of the games we played together, after all. For most of us, it is innately rewarding to play these games and learn in these realms. It is just a vulgar accident in a vulgar society that learning in these realms helps us to get better grades and jobs. (Yes, I believe that society should be arranged in such a way that most of us get to act like rich people who do not need to work.)

Playing certain video games makes us more likely to want to get jobs, so that we can earn more money to pay for “luxuries” like in-game currency, so that we can unwind from the stressful jobs we work at. Playing in the offline world has the advantage of usually being cheap, requiring less money for us to have fun, while giving us the skills to earn more money in less time.

It is unfortunate that I keep on moving back to the necessity of making a living, but this is the world we live in, and we need to deal with it. I believe, however, that play can be our guide in deciding what to do with our lives. We need less of the factory worker ethic when playing, and more of a child’s wonder and excitement. Play should be fun — just like teaching can be fun. Are you having fun yet?