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The Last of Us
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The Job that Games Do

Why and when we choose to play

The Job that Games Do

Why and when we choose to play

My colleagues have taught me about a product development philosophy called “Jobs to be Done.” It’s succinctly expressed in this article by Clay Christensen, but I’ll summarize it here too.

Let’s use a novel as an example. If you ask a reader why they bought it, they’ll tell you that they wanted to read the story (they’ll also look at you like you’re an idiot). If you ask the publisher why they published it, they’ll say that they predicted the book would make more money than it cost to produce, or that it filled a competitive niche, or that they were honoring a three-book contract with the author. These are valid responses.

But neither the consumer’s nor the publisher’s reasoning answers the question of why someone reads a particular book at a particular time. Here’s a scenario: Our hypothetical book-buyer is reading it in line at the coffee shop. The person in front of her is playing Angry Birds. The person behind her is skimming Facebook. At that moment, none of them primarily wanted to read a story, or kill cartoon birds, or catch up with friends. They just wanted to be entertained for five minutes, and each “hired” a different product to do that job.

According to “Jobs to be Done”, at any given time the same job might be hired by a videogame, a Tolstoy novel, or social media. But each of those products are also hired for other jobs, many of which don’t overlap. If I want to further my understanding of the human condition, I’m not going to hire Angry Birds, and I might only hire Facebook if I want to lose my faith in mankind. Thankfully, Tolstoy is there to pick up the slack.

Publishers don’t really like to hear that they’re competing against other, “lesser” media, but they are, and they should act accordingly, to ensure that people have easy access to quality reading material whenever and wherever they might want to hire a book.

“Jobs to be Done” can be an illuminating lens as long as you don’t get too caught up in the way it flattens very different things across the same axis. The framework doesn’t say that Tolstoy is as good as Angry Birds, it just says that both of them can kill time in a checkout line. (Taken too far, I admit it can be depressively reductionist.)

Christensen’s original point is that businesses should seek to understand the jobs that people hire their products to do, rather than relying solely on the company’s internal motivations or even the expressed desires of the consumers themselves. I happen to think it’s also a useful way for us consumers to understand our own behaviors and better predict which products will make us happy.

I played three mass-market videogames this year: Bioshock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V, and The Last of Us. I enjoyed them in ascending order. I’ve been grappling with why I responded to them as I did. In doing so, I think I finally understand what job I ask videogames to do for me.

For all its artfulness, BioShock Infinites Columbia doesn’t even try that hard to suggest a world. It’s a ‘living’ city filled with animatronic dummies and conveniently closed shops. It hangs in the sky with no sense of altitude, since you can’t fall off. You ‘explore’ by rereading the same few propaganda posters, rummaging through desks for pineapples and bullets and hot dogs, and wandering around until you discover which way to go and then going the other way (for fabulous prizes). All those fine period details become merely glowing objects to click through, and the game reveals FPS to mean first-person scavenger as much as first-person shooter. It’s the thinnest sort of exploration imaginable. You’re not in a floating city; you’re not in a place at all.— Tevis Thompson

I was initially caught up in that artfulness. I enjoyed the original Bioshock — the art deco design was gorgeous and I loved the plot’s meta-narrative twistiness. Both games are “easy” in the sense that dying has little penalty, but I like that fine. In Bioshock, at least, I still felt dread at every encounter. I didn’t need the threat of restarting from the beginning of the level to want to avoid dying. I wanted to avoid dying because I find even virtual death unpleasant enough.

Bioshock Infinite fooled me into liking it too for a while, but after a few “levels”, I felt like I’d unwrapped a beautiful texture-mapped gift only to find an empty box. Each battle was an arena filled with nameless bad guys who I pummeled with limitless magic weapons, immediately followed by an almost nonsensical cut scene in which my character was supposed to sort of feel conflicted about violence. Then almost exactly the same thing would repeat in the next sequence. I felt no dread at all; nothing seemed to matter.

I quit in boredom mid-way. I read up on the remainder of the plot and watched the ending on YouTube, and didn’t feel like I’d missed anything. Recently, I would’ve been hard-pressed to say exactly why I found the game so unsatisfying. I understand now that it wasn’t (just) that the gameplay is shoot-y and repetitive. I’ve learned that I hire games to tell me stories about people. Bioshock Infinite has motion-captured actors and dialogue and 3D models of human beings. It doesn’t have any people.

[GTA V] is the very definition of expensive, exhaustively fun, high-quality mediocrity. Its world is breathtaking and brittle, a monument to wasted opportunities. Its structure is tired, its satire flat, its narrative trisected to no end, and the entire experience profoundly thin. — Tevis Thompson

I am unashamed of my fondness for the problematic GTA series. I even liked the grim GTA IV, despite the inherent dissociation between its moralizing main arc and the open world gameplay. (Niko’s self-improvement narrative encouraged me to be a slightly less psychotic citizen in free play mode, and the last bonus story was quirky and almost charming.)

Nevertheless, I approached Grand Theft Auto V with some hesitation based on reviews like the above. Sure enough, there are things I wish had been done differently. One of the playable characters totally should’ve been a bad-ass lady. The infamous torture scene serves no purpose—yes, I know, we are all implicated in the sins of our military-industrial complex. And I do not need to see anybody sucked up into a jet engine.

But about halfway through, I got into a groove. The player-switching gelled for me. I thought a lot of the acting was pretty good. I was returning to it each night to see what all the characters were up to (usually trouble) and to move the story further along. And when I finished it, rather than grinding away at the extra achievements, I put it away. I wasn’t hiring GTA V to entertain me through repetitive tasks. I hired it to take me through some characters’ intersecting lives. While I agree that, artistically, it’s something of a wasted opportunity to build this unfettered, fully realized world and populate it with nihilists and hoodlums, the game absolutely did its job for me.

And then there’s The Last of Us.

I love my adopted city of Boston. Guiding these characters through its twisty, scarred streets, and, incredibly, swimming through its flooded subway tunnels, sold me on The Last of Us immediately.

The games works best for players who are familiar with at least some of the cities visited by Ellie and Joel. In many sequences, I was Joel, seeing the landscape with the “lost world” (ours) mentally superimposed on it. But the characters journey through wild America too, and in those scenes, I was Ellie, coming to these places for the first time. I’ve never hunted, so I have to trust that when Ellie stalks a deer, the mechanics are accurate enough. The Last of Us made me believe that this is how bow-hunting feels — just like the game’s foreshortened, ruined Boston isn’t geographically right, but it feels true.

That makes this a good story.

Bioshock Infinite failed. GTA V mostly succeeded. The Last of Us was perfect. What did they succeed or fail at? What job was I hiring these games to do for me?

There’s an oft-quoted statistic that female gamers outnumber male ones. The usual retort is that these numbers include so-called casual games, like Angry Birds, and not real games, which are the ones where you shoot people. Both groups go off to write angry comments on the internet and no productive dialogue ensues.

Clearly, “casual” games are those that people hire to entertain them for short periods of time without a lot of deep thought. This is also often the job of knitting, crosswords, or magazines. A player of Candy Crush Saga is as likely to be a gamer as someone who browses Time in a doctor’s office is a news junkie.

Angry Birds is successful in that it does the job that people hire it to do. Candy Crush Saga, it might be argued, actually does a different job, which is to extract money from players in a coercive manner. A casual game can become addictive and all-consuming, but that’s a bug, and it’s unethical to turn that into a feature. World-building games like SimCity eat up a lot of hours, but you don’t hire those games as brief diversions; you hire them to build a complex system over time. (People also hire model train sets and gardening for this.) Major AAA console games are also hired for the long haul; instead of world-building, players expect 20 or more hours of focused, intense activity.

I’ve learned that I hire games for the same job for which I hire great television series: to immerse me in a story. This used to be the job of movies, but TV’s gotten so good that my expectations about story length have changed. Now I expect a meaty story to unfold over days, if not weeks, and I expect to be a participant, either because I control the main character or because I analyze it with friends on Twitter. (Books also unfold over days or weeks. Increasingly the two-hour length of a movie seems like an outlier.)

Given a free evening and the option of a good TV show or a good videogame, I’ll probably hire the game. It’s a more intimate form of storytelling, and there’s a potential sense of accomplishment that’s absent in passive media.

Bioshock Infinite’s story kind of sucks, and it’s a boring shooter. The graphics are beautiful, but the job I wanted done wasn’t: “Show me some richly imagined landscapes and then don’t let me do anything in them.” GTA V doesn’t break narrative ground, but the characters felt real enough. They are all amoral scumbags, but I believed that they were my amoral scumbags. Also it’s fun to drive a sportscar off a mountain.

The Last of Us doesn’t have wildly innovative gameplay or the transgressive freedom of action of GTA. Instead, it has people. Some of them even try to be nice to each other. (The rest are mostly zombies.)

It’s a eulogy for a lost world, a bittersweet journey through the broken cities of America. I joined Ellie and Joel in taking that journey, over successive nights and weekend afternoons. I helped them shoot bad guys and carry ladders and ride horses inexorably westward. I listened to Joel teach her about the world that was lost. I did the job that the game hired me to do: I bore witness to the end of civilization, and then the game and I parted, fondly.