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Why do we enjoy games that make us work? Proficiency, control, fairness, escape.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Tom Nook ropes you into taking out a loan on an expansion for your home. You give in. You love new things. He (politely) demands that you help find materials for the community’s new shop. Sure, why not? While you’re having an afternoon chat, he casually mentions that he needs you to build a bridge. You oblige. Every. Single. Time.

In late 2019, The Atlantic published a piece titled Don’t Play the Goose Game, by game designer and critic Ian Bogost. Discussing “Untitled Goose Game’s” success as a meme, Bogost pessimistically concluded that the trendy indie title found favor online because partaking in the meme culture around the game was genuinely more fun than actually playing it. The game itself, despite its goofy trappings and casual appeal, shared a characteristic with all games: It was work. “The job of a goose turns out to be the same as the job of a person: to carry out a set of tasks, recorded for you on a to-do list, by any means possible,” wrote Bogost. “Whether made from guns or geese, games will always be imbricated with work, stuck in a celebration or a burlesque of labor.”

And yet, even those players who acknowledge games’ work-like attributes excitedly boot up titles like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” every day, submitting to the whims of the cute, bossy raccoon and other in-game avatars that achieve the same purpose. Life and “work and school are not often designed to be as maximally motivating as games,” says Jamie Madigan, a psychology Ph.D. and author of the upcoming book “The Engagement Game: Why Your Workplace Culture Should Look More Like a Video Game.” Where real-life work fails — lack of timely feedback, insurmountable challenge and interpersonal conflict — games shine.

At its extreme, work in games is tedious and a grind. But done well, task-oriented gameplay satisfies core human desires. The reason players gravitate toward virtual assignments (sometimes self-imposed) is because they each offer some things not readily available in the real world: proficiency, a sense of control, a feeling of fairness and a means to escape.

Opportunities for agency

The real world is a mess. For many, and younger generations especially, the recurring motifs of 21st century living are “bull---- jobs” (according to writer and anthropologist David Graeber) and crushing debt. Wages have stagnated for the vast majority of workers. Homeownership — the stereotype of the verdant lawn and white picket fence — is now widely acknowledged to be an unattainable goal. In fact, most Americans who rent don’t view saving for a home as a top priority. Neat and tidy task-oriented gameplay is likely to be incredibly appealing to the 30-something trawling Zillow listings for a peek at what-could-never-be because it satiates a need for control.

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So is it any wonder that clear progression and a cause-and-effect relationship between tasks and achievement are popular? Task-oriented gameplay enables players to become great at something. Madigan explains that gameplay that requires work from the player delivers a sense of progression and mastery. There’s an opportunity to improve and hone your skills in ways that are often difficult to replicate in the real world. At its core, task-based gameplay turns the ability to progress into something wholly possible — and even easy.

It’s also seldom unjust. Real life is rife with injustices, from nepotism in the workplace to racial inequities to the gender wage gap (to name but a few). But unlike bureaucratic entities and hierarchical corporate structures, game developers and designers toil to deliver accessible, pleasant virtual experiences that are, with perhaps a few exceptions, fair. There are rules, consequences, and rewards — but they’re usually not arbitrary or ambiguous. In this context, players can iterate on their work and improve, pursuant to rules and systems that are often engineered to tilt the board in their favor.

In 2017, Jennifer Scheurle, a lead game designer at ArenaNet, solicited examples from other developers of mechanics that helped the player in unseen ways. Examples included supposedly random figures being only semi-random in ways that leaned in favor of players, and health bars that become more forgiving as they shrank. Zach Gage, an indie developer and the creator of Really Bad Chess, a game that plays like chess, but with the starting positions of the pieces randomized at the top of the match, explained that players would only ever receive a limited number of pawns; there was no such cap on the opposing AI. “Playing with tons of pawns is boring, but against is neat,” wrote Gage.

Game designers, says Scheurle, work to “create opportunities for players to feel agency in games.”

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Lasse Liljedahl, the CEO and game director at Iceflake Studios, developed “Surviving the Aftermath.” The game, currently in early access, gives players the monumental task of ensuring humanity’s survival. Liljedahl points out in an email to The Post that in many games “failing to accomplish a task rarely leads to a ‘game over’ but rather, leads to more challenges for you to overcome.” It’s a welcome reprieve from real life, where setbacks — debt, injury, illness — can be wholly life-altering.

The point of play

“Work” conjures up a lot of disparate images and ideas without a concrete definition — “right to work,” menial labor, parents working out back in the garden or in the shed — and Bogost’s comparison between the mischievous goose and the 9-to-5 ran afoul for some readers. “Games are work” is not necessarily an idea with broad purchase. One person’s “work” is another’s “play.” Ask someone playing a battle royale how their work is going and you’re likely to get a confused response, at best. Is it “work” to unlock a 100-tier battlepass full of rewards with hours of gameplay?

A crucial distinction between work and play, and one of the reasons they may at times look identical despite achieving drastically different results, is the motivation driving the action. “Two people might be doing the same thing — maybe pounding nails with a hammer — and one might be playing while the other is not,” wrote psychologist Peter Gray in a Psychology Today article titled Evolutionary Functions of Play.

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In an interview with the Journal of Play, Gray pointed to Karl Groos, a German philosopher and the author of “The Play of Man,” as an important theorist on the subject of play. “Play, according to Groos, is essentially an instinct to practice other instincts,” said Gray. “Hunter-gatherer children play at hunting, tracking, digging up tubers, building huts, and the like; children in farming cultures play at planting, harvesting, and tending animals; children in industrial cultures play at mechanics; and (going beyond Groos’s time) children in our culture today play at computers.” Today, absent a chance to meaningfully practice skills and attain advancement at a place of employment, playing work fills that role.

Tyler Wood, a museum guide at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal and a gamer, sees task-oriented gameplay as an opportunity to feel proficient, and pursue challenging yet achievable tasks. “As much as I love my job,” says Wood, “there are days where I think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go home and I’m going to add that third floor and get the cardiology unit [in the game “Project Hospital”] going.’ And I think that will be … such an accomplishment.”

The least in-control person in the room

For some, task-based gameplay also offers up a comfortable, meditative escape from the difficulties of reality. There are no life-size curveballs thrown a player’s way. Task-oriented games are comforting because they’re simpler and less demanding than the real world. Scheurle suggests that “knowing what to expect and what kind of stimuli you get out of a certain game that you play for the next hour or two or longer, it’s cozy and safe and comfortable.” The sense of comfort gleaned from task-oriented gameplay is notably appealing at a moment when covid-19 is dominating the news.

“One of the things that bothers me in life is when unexpected things happen," says Wood. “There’s something nice about a world where the rules and confines are knowable.”

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“I’ve spent most of my adult life being a freelance artist and every day I was the least in-control person in the room,” says Andrew Craig, an Image Specialist at RED Digital Cinema. “My schedule was always dictated by the needs of clients who all had their own lives and agendas driving them and so you never quite know what you’re stepping into. A game with clearly defined tasks and goals gives me a sense of control that I don’t get in my day-to-day.” Craig likens the feeling of fulfilling a game’s objectives to sensation of completing a household chore, like cleaning the kitchen.

Think for a moment about all the games you’ve played across your lifetime. Each one likely involves work of some kind. Whether it’s work that you yourself invented — collecting for the sake of collecting — or something that the game explicitly asked you to do — find object X to level up — those assignments, big and small, are appealing because they satisfy profound human needs. Feelings of accomplishment by way of achievable mastery. Fairness, which is often elusive in reality. A sense of control, because what are we without some measure of free will? And finally safety and security in the form of a digital refuge.

Steph Coelho is a freelance writer based in Montreal. She is perennially curious about the impact games have on people and how they interact with and within virtual worlds. Follow her on Twitter at @seestephrunmtl.

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