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Game Studios Are Turning Play Into Work

On new year’s day, Square Enix president Yosuke Matsuda published an open letter. In it, he professed his love for blockchain technology and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), joining Ubisoft, Peter Molyneux, and Stalker 2 developer GSC Game World in similarly popular interventions. He said he hoped that the technologies become a “major trend in gaming going forward.” The letter went over as well as you might expect.

Commentators have pointed out that Matsuda’s letter is incomprehensible, slathered in muddy tech jargon. He does, however, make one revealing distinction. In Matsuda’s eyes, there is, on the one hand, play for play’s sake, or “‘playing to have fun’ … motivated strictly by such inconsistent personal feelings as goodwill and volunteer spirit brought into being because of individuals’ desire for self-expression,” and on the other hand, “playing to contribute,” a pursuit that should be nurtured by an “explicit incentive”—namely, money. The first, Matsuda seems to suggest, is incomprehensible and weird; the second is smart, normal, and productive.

Matsuda is equating games to work—wage labor, specifically. And framing them in this way, in terms of productivity and worker empowerment, is a gambit to get you to accept technologies like NFTs. You’re going to be subjected to this a lot more over the coming years, as some games become truly indistinguishable from jobs.

Since we often describe games as work, using terms like grind and reward, tending to farms in Farming Simulator, logging in to complete “daily quests,” and so on, critics have inevitably questioned whether what we do in video games is play at all.

Certainly, play and work are mirrored. 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 maniac may do it for fun, just as we pursue leisure activities, like fishing, that other people are paid for. Academics have labeled modding a form of unpaid labor; it could just as easily be seen as a hobby, like painting. Game designers often distinguish between intrinsic enjoyment (playing Halo for 100 hours because you love the feeling of getting headshots) and extrinsic reward (doing the same thing because you want to level up your battle pass for a camo weapon skin). The latter taps into what the anthropologist David Graeber called humans “propensity to calculate,” and it’s often maligned, but social scoring isn’t inherently bad or antithetical to play. Really, I think the average player doesn’t care whether a game hews closer to work principles or not.

NFTs take this desire for an extrinsic reward to its logical conclusion: a financial incentive. The idea is ostensibly compelling. After all, games have economies, infamously lucrative ones. You play all day, paying for Gabe Newell’s extended vacation in New Zealand, yet, unless you’re a lucky streamer, you get only loot boxes in return. Academics often talk about the unpaid “immaterial labor” of logging in to Facebook and having your preferences mined for advertising dollars. Isn’t gaming similar? You can follow this logic: Developers are unionizing, why shouldn’t gamers? Developers should treat players as corporations treat workers. We ‘play to contribute.’ We’re productive. Just as players demand fairer progression systems, they should demand cold hard cash payments, too.

Axie Infinity, a blockchain-based video game where players collect Pokémon-like pets, tied to NFTs, demonstrates how these “play-to-earn” systems work. Players pit their Axies in combat to win cryptocurrency tokens. In 2020, someone paid $130,000 in cryptocurrency for a particularly rare one. My colleagues have pointed out that this is, at its heart, a capitalist simulation, and some individuals have indeed dragged themselves out of poverty playing the game.

But gaming is different from our day jobs in several extremely important ways, and these differences throw up serious problems, explains Tom Brock, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan. Game companies don’t have to treat you like workers, for starters. “Work is more than just being 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.”

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