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When Work Feels Like Play

Steve Watts | 22 Mar 2012 09:00
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Videogames tend to thrive on bombastic action. Bursts of gunfire, the jarring rock of an explosion, and shouts of pain are commonplace, but for all the over-the-top action, sometimes it's nice to retreat to comfortable tedium. Stat-driven games like sims and RPGs invite or even require a certain level of mundane tasks. Whether it's level-grinding in a Japanese RPG, smithing in Skyrim, or seeing your Sims off to their day job after you've finished your own, unwinding with some "work" in our games is becoming a regular occurrence.

Skill is the centerpiece of the gaming experience for most players.

Minecraft is one high-profile example of a recent game that thrives on work. You have to dig for materials, sort and refine them, all by (virtual) hand. Then comes the time-consuming task of building your own structures, which can be as complex as you choose. Minecraft ostensibly has some combat, but arguably only as a tool to encourage making bigger and better keeps. Once automated processes become available, you may have already spent hours learning how to do everything yourself. It's satisfying, in its own way -- after hours of planning and execution, seeing the finished product is a monument to your determination.

Of course, not all work is created equal. Videogames are an active medium, so play-work that's too mundane can be frustratingly dull. Skill is the centerpiece of the gaming experience for most players. You wouldn't feel the satisfaction of a well-played shooter match if you hadn't put the work into getting better at taking down your opponents. The more robust the system, the more difficult and satisfying it is to perfect your work.

Repetitive button-based tasks in games like the Fable series can therefore be off-putting to some players. Peter Molyneux may have been attempting to create a mundane work experience inside his game, but the result was boring and unsatisfying, even to players who enjoy work tasks in games. Quick-time events like the jobs in Fable 2 and 3 only feature a basic degree of skill, and that's a turn-off to gamers who want to feel that their own practice pays off. If a task is too easy, or worse yet, if the difficulty feels arbitrary or random, it can be more dull and frustrating than not having any work to do at all.

Andrew Witts is a self-professed lover of in-game crafting, but says he wants the fruits of his labor to be usable. "I can't say I enjoy chopping wood in videogames unless the result of it has some impact such as wood for a house, bridge, etc," he said. "The jobs that I do enjoy in games are the ones that permit the player to have an impact on the game world rather than just coin in their pocket. Coin is nice but I don't really want my games to boil down to a low-scale economic structure."

On the other hand, Witts loves building his own gear, preferring it to loot systems that he compares to stealing: "Games are supposed to be interactive, and so seeing the result of my own creativity in the form of armor or a ring is engrossing. Games are about fun, but also about a degree of immersion."

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