When Games Idolize Busywork

Fabian Fischer
Jul 9 · 6 min read

Many video games feature elements of busywork. Some of them however, end up being dominated by it. Once the infamous “grind” takes over, it’s not about skill, competence or systemic reasoning anymore. Instead, the amount time sunk into a game becomes the main factor for the player’s success. Some titles making excessive use of this type of design are very successful, even though grind, quests, loot, XP or achievements are criticized heavily time and again:

“You only get one life to live and you’re going to spend it pressing A — attack, attack, attack — so you can see the next video in a Final Fantasy game that you could have watched on YouTube. […] Think of your whole life when you’re doing this.” (Brandon Rym DeCoster & Scott Rubin — The Grind)

“Players had mistaken the XP game mechanism for the game itself. Developers followed suit as they started adding in more bars to fill up and overly dramatized reasons that they should be filled […] while giving players chores that wasted time and yielded nothing.” (Samuel Ratchkramer — A Brief History of Leveling Systems)

“Try to avoid grind. […] There are no interesting gameplay decisions there. It’s just increasing numbers mindlessly. […] Most things that call themselves role-playing games are 90% grind. Please do anything you can to eliminate grind. The human race will thank you.” (John Harris — The Infinite Dungeon)

“Achievements are a structure that is hollow. […] I feel like what happens in video games a lot these days, is people confuse the structure for the actual game.” (Jonathan Blow)

“You really are just having your time stolen from you. You are sitting there grinding. Mostly mashing a single button, mostly labor, waiting for the interesting thing that feels just around the corner, but never comes.” (Keith Burgun — Psychological Exploitation Games)

A Twisted Mirror

Despite all these harsh statements, millions of players simply do not seem to care. But whether they do or not, the “workification” of games has become more and more common and impacts the values the medium conveys. Eron Rauch describes the phenomenon as a mirror of today’s performance-driven society. We reenact our daily routine in-game.

However, it’s not a simple mirror image we are dealing with. Instead, games tend to idealize real-world circumstances— which are usually anything but ideal. Do your job and you will get your reward reliably, including excessive personal appreciation of your competence, guaranteed and indefinitely!

In virtual worlds, ignorance, indifference, mass layoffs and existential fear simply aren’t part of a “well-working economy”. There’s no forced war of all against all on the job market. On the contrary, everyone can join in. The more the merrier! The core of this idealization lies in a reversal of the roles of work and capital: In workified games, the employer (the game’s developer) is being paid by the employee (the players).

This impressive display of mental acrobatics is also the basis of one of today’s primary monetization methods in free-to-play games: the “battle pass”. It allows players to “cash in” on the work they put into a game. Even rewards for past efforts can be unlocked retroactively — by paying. In their minds, players already “earned” the reward, but then pay money on top to unlock it. The old “sunk cost fallacy” as a deviously effective business model.

Ultimately, workified games prey on the disappointment that is constantly developing from the lack of lack of reliability and security in the real world. These feelings are fueling players’ desires — and sometimes even addictions — to find these things in the games they play. This motivation is strong enough to make them invest not just money, but also large parts of their spare time into virtually restoring the perfect delusional version of how they want the world to be over and over again. A vicious cycle that ultimately only serves those at the top of the food chain. Those who are typically the furthest away from the frustrations that kicked off the loop to begin with.

On top of that, this virtual perpetuation of the real-world status quo has become so ubiquitous, that usually neither players nor developers are conscious of it. They solidify the image of a good, dutiful, conservative life without realizing it. Why criticize, scrutinize, question or complain? Apart from a few corrupt outliers, everything is great! The system can’t be flawed, just look at how well it works in the game!

What do you mean, disguise?

As usual, once the model is established, the medium stops at nothing. While there may have been workified games attempting to hide their true nature in the past, these days they’re more and more open about it.

Whether it’s workified elements in AAA games, or often fully busywork-based browser, casual, mobile or idle games — these days the disguise of “fantasy” or “escapism” is often paper-thin, if it even exists. Waiting times and chores are openly layed out before the player. In some cases, the automation of those tasks, and thus lowering the pain of having to play the game yourself, is the ultimate goal.

And of course, monetization works like a charm as well. For just $0.99 the work environment already becomes a little more rose-colored and perfect. If you don’t pay however, you will feel it slowly turning into an actual mirror image of those terrible real-world circumstances after all. Do you want that?

The Good(?) Ones

Now, not all “work games” are that audacious of course. For example, the indie hit Stardew Valley and the more recent Forager are based on completely fair business models and offer exemplary long-term support, including free content updates.

The former even presents itself, narratively, as an escape from the hardships of capitalist forces. And there is obviously quite a bit of depth and meaning to the interactive system here. However, taking a closer look at the moment-to-moment gameplay, one will still find mindless work being glorified at every turn. One chore after another to unlock cascades of rewards (not least via a rather materialistic interpretation of “friendship”).

And again, sometimes it’s all about finding ways to not have to play the game as much. As Forager’s creator Mariano Cavallero explains: “I like people to experience ‘some’ monotonous repetition, because it feels very rewarding and fun to discover new ways to automate or simplify previously boring tasks”.

As such, the values conveyed by these games are not too different from those of the examples mentioned above. Players should at least be aware of that when they allow themselves to be absorbed by the almost meditative progress spirals employed by these games. On the plus side, they don’t extend the pressure into real life via “Come back in 3 hours!” metagame quests.

Taking a Stance

To recap: “Having something to do” does not mean that it’s also something worthwhile or interesting — especially not in games. And wanting to simply “pass the time” may not be too reasonable of an approach, given it is a highly limited resource. Maybe questioning the circumstances that make you want to “switch off your brain” in the first place would be a worthwhile endeavor.

That said, trivial and seemingly pointless interactions in games aren’t always just a personal waste of time. They can also convey powerful messages. Be it in the form of very deliberate contributions to a debate (e.g. Papers, Please or Cart Life); or, as indicated above, a blue-eyed affirmation of the status quo.

Just like any other form of media, games are to be taken seriously when it comes to the impact they have on our thinking and our society. We have to talk about how we perceive them and how they affect us. Eventually, in each individual case, we have to take a stance on whether we’re okay with it. And we really shouldn’t be okay with everything…

Fabian Fischer

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I’m a game designer and run Ludokultur.de