Game sprites from Last Guardian

Will videogames give us meaning in a post-work future?

In 1930, as the Great Depression sapped the morale of those around him, John Maynard Keynes wrote a famous essay — “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” Within a hundred years, he prophesied, our steadily rising productivity would at last end the economic problem — that is, the battle against scarcity that has characterised our time on earth as a species. With 14 years to go, his prediction might just be in time.

In our immediate future, work will become a minority pursuit. Almost half of all jobs in the US are predicted in the near term to be replaced either by robots — tireless automated drivers or sow/reap tractor drones — or by AI software bots, who have already made serious inroads into share trading, robo-journalism, admin and office jobs, science and even computer programming itself. Too often, these predictions are marked by horror. What will we do without work to provide income, socialised activity, and meaning? The assumption is that work is the major generator of meaning for us. Who are we without work? What structures our days and our years? And — most importantly — what activities are we rewarded for in terms of cold hard cash?

Work will soon be all but gone. But should we mourn it? In the same essay, Keynes quoted the traditional epitaph of the Victorian charwoman [maid], which ran like this: “Don’t mourn for me friends, don’t weep for me never / for I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.” This, he wrote, was a maid’s vision of heaven — leisure, at long last. The chance to stop. To depart from the drudgery of work. And by 2030, Keynes predicted, the era of mass work would end and an era of mass leisure would begin. That shift, he suggested, would not be easy: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well,” Keynes wrote.

Compound interest hasn’t quite proven the panacea Keynes had envisaged. But another answer might already be here. Finland recently announced it will experiment with an idea first floated in the early 20th century: a universal basic income, redistributing a survivable amount of money for every citizen; other countries like Holland may follow suit. A universal basic income would alleviate the key problem facing robot-displaced workers — money.

Even if this is solved, virtual worlds expert Edward Castronova believes great change is upon us. “The demand for unskilled labor will continue to collapse. What do we do with all the people who have nothing to do?” the Indiana University professor asks. That leaves us with the real question. How can we live well, without work? How can we generate meaning?

At present, life without work is not an enviable one. With joblessness comes low or no income, higher rates of mental illness, a deep malaise, a lack of meaning. But many jobs are themselves little better — thankless, anonymous, meaningless, boring or dangerous. The only benefit they offer are survivable wages. Yet soon, the choice will be taken out of our hands. The low-wage survival jobs — data entry, café work, admin, farm piecework — will be the first to be swallowed up by cheap and tireless nonhumans. Our post-work future is coming faster than you think. But it doesn’t mean that we have to starve, or succumb to ennui and daytime TV. Far from it.

Once we’ve rid ourselves of the increasingly meaningless service jobs our post-industrial economies provide, we can finally get real about the meaning of life: play. And not just any play, either. In the near future, experts predict, many of us will find the fulfilment, socialisation and meaning work once provided in the humble videogame.

Skeptical? Consider what the much-maligned game can do right now. Videogames already offer new worlds, abilities and social lives to people with disabilities. Videogames can have strong prosocial, memory boosting and visual processing cognitive benefits. And game economies centring around the trading of virtual goods — from overpowered swords to top-level characters, from magic rings to rare ores — are worth hundreds of millions of real dollars yearly. To service demand in one massive game, World of WarCraft, tens of thousands of Chinese gamers began goldfarming — intensive gameplaying for the sole purpose of getting in-game gold or rare items to sell at a profit. Games can even take on transcendent properties, argues New York professor Liel Leibovitz in his book God in the Machine: Videogames as Spiritual Pursuit. How so? Leibovitz quotes Kierkegaard’s claim that repetition is the only happy love: “It does not have the restlessness of hope, the uneasy adventurousness of discovery, but neither does it have the sadness of recollection — it has the blissful security of the moment.” Videogames, Liebovitz argues, are neither distraction or escapism but instead a form of submission and so are “closer in spirit to ritual than they are to any other human pursuit.”

Still sceptical? Let me tell you a story. Ten years ago, a nameless man embarked on a blood feud against Mirial, the CEO of Ubiqua Seraph, a galaxy-spanning corporation. He hired Istvaan Shogaatsu’s renowned band of mercenaries, the Guiding Hand Social Club, to infiltrate the corporation and rise through the ranks. The infiltrators won Mirial’s trust by fending off attacks from rival corporations. Once in position, they set about grooming and flattering the CEO, pandering to her ego. Surely it was time for a triumphant tour of their area of control, they purred. Why not pilot your most expensive battleship? Mirial agreed to take her flagship.

As her battleship entered the Haras solar system, Shogaatsu sent out a code word: Nicole. The trap was sprung. The mercenaries sabotaged the enormously valuable battleship and delivered her frozen body to their anonymous client. Other operatives cleaned out the corporation’s cash accounts, stealing more than $16,000 in real world US dollars. Why was Mirial so easily gulled? She’d allegedly fallen in love with a mercenary infiltrator.

As word spread of what would become known as the Big Scam, new players joined up by the thousands. The mercenaries, the anonymous client, the betrayal — everything was within the rules of this particular game, Eve Online. At last, a game offered us the chance to play out Game of Thrones-style power struggles in our own lives.

A decade on, Eve Online has only grown. On January 27th last year, war raged in far galaxies. More than 7500 players were drawn into what became known as the Battle of B-R5RB — a battle between rival corporate alliances vying for control of solar systems optimised for building the largest starships. 75 of these gargantuan ships — Titans — were destroyed. Their cost? $330,000. And it all started with a simple clerical error — the failure of one alliance to pay their rent on a solar system. The politics is still being worked through, with the losing alliance, N3/PL, irrevocably weakened. Is videogaming still just a game? Or is it a fully fledged alternative — a place where we can build or destroy, ally or betray, skill up or zone out?

For legendary game designer David Perry, videogames are now better than life in providing memorable experiences. Where else can you fight alongside friends in a galactic war? For him, the question of whether games can provide meaning has already been answered. “There are now eSports competitions with multi-million dollar prize money,” he says. “The highest paid YouTube creator in the world plays video games and fans eat it up! Winning a million bucks for playing games would feel better than making an amazing spreadsheet.”

For many people, videogaming is still escapism, pure and simple. Gaming, as a result, is seen as a diversion, and gamers often stigmatised as pimply teens. But gaming is no longer a minority pursuit. Across our smartphones, consoles and PCs, a majority of us now play games. We leave the humdrum parts of our lives to be actor-participants.

Game psychologist and Ubisoft researcher Nick Yee says that the judgment is unfair. “We already have these jobs that do not provide any existential meaning — and then criticise gamers for escaping the real world,” the Californian says. “Offline work has become increasingly virtualised and abstract. People move numbers from page to page, with outcomes very long term or abstract.” For Yee, that means our offline achievements are already virtual. Why not enjoy the process?

Since the emergence of massively multiplayer online RPG games (MMORPGs) like World of WarCraft and Eve Online more than a decade ago, we can no longer simply write off games as entertainment. These new games are microsocieties, dominated by bottom-up, unscripted events. They offer us the chance to experience a full-featured alternate world. And longtime gamers report that gaming can bring real meaning. You work as part of a team to a shared goal — whether that’s building a Star Trek vessel in Minecraft, or taking down a bone dragon in World of WarCraft. You engage in an intensely social undertaking — where betrayal is real, and where real money is spent, won and lost. Or you become a guild leader, and your responsibilities quadruple. Now you’re leading teams of up to 50 players on complex, daring raids to take down formidable creatures. A raid may last a full 24 hours.

Over seven years, Nick Yee surveyed more than 40,0000 MMORPG players. For these serious players, games often became work — in both the good and bad senses of the word. For younger people, games often offered a chance at rapid advancement — running a guild of 50 players, for instance, and issuing orders. In the real world, that responsibility might be decades away. And many gamers working boring real-world jobs find gaming a welcome relief. In games, they can feel a sense of progress lacking at work. They get positive feedback lacking at work. In guilds, they feel needed — and they don’t at work. In the game, there’s a thriving social life — when work or real life may not provide that.

For adults with day jobs, gaming often becomes an escape from the work before becoming like work itself. The average WoW player puts in 20 hours a week — half the average workweek. “They’d say wow, I’m a HR manager and I feel like I’m doing same thing in the game — managing interpersonal conflicts, having to motivate people, getting them all to sign up for a raid every Friday, dealing with people who are pissed off for not being promoted,” says Yee.

Most hardcore gamers burn out or move on to different games, Yee says. The issue is that a game is fundamentally an obstacle course or treadmill, where the obstacles get harder as the gamer’s skill increases, and the rewards increase in tandem. At its best, this obstacle course produces what psychologists call flow. But eventually, the treadmill wears people out. “If you want the really big sword, you have to kill the dragon, and to do that you have to join guild and then there are social pressures — you’re one of only two healers — so you have to log on every Friday,” says Yee. Eventually, people find their day job is better, Yee says — you might be bored, but at least you get paid. Being paid might not be an issue in the near future, if we’re relying more on universal income.

Experiments with developing game utopias have all failed. People hate utopias. Why? They’re dead boring. There’s no chance of change, or of getting ahead of others. And change, progress and comparisons to others are what people crave. Complex games are structured as hierarchies, Yee says. There are cogs, middle managers and CEOs — just as in real life. And just as in real life, you can climb the ladder — or stay as a cog. “People find being a cog fun because there’s always the possibility of doing something better,” he says.

When Yee first came to America from Hong Kong, he attended boarding school. It was a hive of activity — sport, academic work, and extracurricular. Only in adulthood did he realise what the game was. “Their strategy was to keep teens very busy so there was no time to make trouble. Now I’m in adulthood, I see that you make people stop protesting by making work take all their time,” he says. “So what will happen in our post-work future? Will there still be a desire from state level to fill peoples time? And if so, what’s the easiest way to fill people’s time? What will the gaming industry look like when it’s providing the core activity, not the fringe?”

In college, Yee first stumbled across online gaming. In game after game, he’d play until he could get no higher. But then the game would instantly pall. The challenge was gone. “What I was truly in love with was process or journey — and I would be bored at the highest level. That taught me a lesson,” he says. In real life, Yee had the same issue. He’d finished a book and landed a job at Ubisoft as a game psychologist — a job that didn’t exist five years ago. But Yee felt lost. The fun was in the getting there. “All games we have show that flow eventually breaks down,” he says. “Is it even possible to create a game of pure process? What would that look like?”

Our post-work future will give us an opportunity to find out. In the most advanced gaming alt-societies, we see a way of life most of us only dream of — a thicket of business empires, war, betrayal, corporate espionage, and even love, running parallel to legions of humble workers going paycheck to paycheck In the real world, the agency to build, explore or destroy tends to be limited to the wealthy or powerful. In the game world, you have that agency. Is it really so strange to think that life should be a game?