US: Jun 2007
In the epigraph to his 1972 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Studs Terkel quotes William Faulkner, “You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours is work.” Clearly, this Mr. Faulkner never found the time to play an MMORPG. Of course if he had played World of Warcraft or Animal Crossing: Wild World, he might have stood firm. Not because someone can’t sink eight hours straight in WoW, but, because if they did, it would simply fall into the category of work.
When I snapped Animal Crossing: Wild World into my DS a month ago, I got a lot more than I bargained for. After a short taxi ride with an inquisitive talking dog, I found myself deposited into the village of Brooklyn. I quickly learned that the good animals of Brooklyn had already built me a nice home, near the town wall, only steps from the beach. But I also found myself saddled with a mortgage I hadn’t signed for, plus the responsibility of paying it back. I owed Tom Nook, the local merchant, roughly 18,000 bells (their form of currency). My stomach dropped. That seemed a rather insurmountable amount for a young boy whose only current source of income was picking up apples and seashells to sell to the very dog who controlled his mortgage. I wondered how the mayor and civic center of Brooklyn could possibly let this egregious violation of antitrust laws stand.
With no recourse, I found myself in the employ of Tom Nook, running errands and shaking down trees for fruit to sell. Turns out I’m a rather resourceful little boy, and quickly learned to fish, dig up fossils, and even catch bugs. I invited over several friends who were also playing Animal Crossing on their own DSs, and they gladly traded apples for pears and peaches. After planting these new fruit and nurturing the trees until they delivered a decent harvest, I was able to squeeze some more bells out of that stingy Tom Nook. Now, in the spare time between making sure I had picked enough fruit, caught enough fish, and thoroughly cleaned my house (the damn bugs overrun the place if you stay away for a day or two), I read junk mail and walk around Brooklyn picking weeds and hold insipient conversations with Robyn the bird, Goldie the dog, and Patty the cow. Brooklyn boasts other denizens, but these are the only ones I would count as friends. Unfortunately, I just got a letter from Goldie saying he is moving. And Robyn’s become pretty tiresome, what with her constant need for validation as she warbles the town tune. I still like Patty. She’s taken to calling me G-Star, which I don’t mind. I think she digs my 3D glasses I sport around the village.
I know, it sounds fun right? You’re instantly saddled with a mortgage, bills, cleaning, and work. The game is banality taken to the extreme. Yet, I won’t deny that I haven’t been quite sucked in at times. But the moments of exaltation are so mundane that it shocks me when I realize what I’ve gotten excited about. After my friend Mattia connected over the DS Wi-Fi and stopped by for a visit in Brooklyn, he dropped off some pears and a shovel, neither of which were yet available from that darn Tom Nook. As he was leaving town and I was busy gathering up the pears he’d left lying on the ground, I actually shouted out, “Awesome! I’ve got pears!” Meanwhile, my real grandmother sends me real, nutritious Florida pears every year, which I greet with a bemused, “Oh great, more pears.”
Persistent role-playing games must draw you into their achievement cycle to keep you playing. They have to constantly dangle just enough reward in front of you to make you climb onto the treadmill of the game and start running. Once you’re running though, the player actually powers the game. You play not because the goal of the game demands a certain finish, but to earn new gear. There doesn’t have to be anything particularly interesting to do, you just have to want to keep running enough to attain the next reward.
Right now I really want an axe. I know they exist in the game. But that crook Tom Nook won’t sell me one yet. I found myself running around for several hours, gathering apples and sea shells in a desperate attempt to earn more money so I could buy enough useless junk that I would level up the store and unlock the axe. After a day or two, I gave up. Truth is I’m an Animal Crossing slacker. I know that the world spawns roughly four fossils a day, but I don’t really care enough to go look for them. If I stumble across one, sure I’ll dig it up. I only pick as many apples as I need to stay ahead of my bills. I’ve got enough worries in my life that I don’t need a virtual mortgage to go with my real credit card bills. I’m certainly not unique. So why do people play Animal Crossing when it often just feels like repetitive labor?
In his essay, “In Praise of Idleness” the philosopher Bertrand Russell argues for a diminution of the work day. Russell writes, “First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first one is hard and meagerly paid; the second is easy and well-paid.” Looking at the labor-saving advances of the Industrial Revolution, he sees the chance for us all, but especially the hard laborer, to engage in less labor and more leisure. Before the Industrial Revolution, a man could hardly produce enough for the subsistence of him and his family. But the advent of machines has allowed a smaller number of people to produce the same amount of goods in less time. Now we are able to produce a surplus of goods. Russell sees no need for a man to keep working eight hours a day to produce of surplus of goods we don’t need. He’d rather see that man knock-off after lunch and go bird-watching or presumably play a massively multiplayer online role playing game.
And in fact we do work less than we used to. In his classic treatise The Affluent Society, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith tracks the changes wrought to our society by surplus. He points out that the average work week fell from just under 70 hours in 1850 to around 40 in barely more than a century. Galbraith argues that these shifts produced what he terms the New Class. For the traditional proletariat laborer, the reward of work resides not in the task, but in the pay. But it is different for the New Class. Galbraith writes, “It is taken for granted that work will be enjoyable. If it is not, this is a legitimate source of dissatisfaction, even frustration. No one regards it as remarkable that the advertising man, tycoon, poet or professor who suddenly finds his work unrewarding should seek the counsel of a psychiatrist.” Notice though that Galbraith doesn’t go as far as to suggest they quit. They can seek counsel for their woes, but they still have to earn enough to pay the rent and the psychiatrist’s bills. Even the New Class has to work; they just have more choice of where and how.
Given these shifts in our work habits it seems remarkable then that so many of us would choose to engage in what amounts to voluntary manual labor by playing Animal Crossing. Sure Animal Crossing provides you a palette to customize your little world. You can design clothes, plant flowers, and decorate your house. But in the end the palette is extremely limited. You can only be as unique as the code allows. And what the code allows is a system of set rewards. You could play leisurely through the whole game discovering new ways to earn the bells you need, or you could just go online and find out how to get Kapp’n to take you to Animal Crossing Island. In this way Animal Crossing illustrates the failure of these open-ended virtual worlds. They appear ripe for exploration, but they are really just systems to keep you gaming until you reach a logical conclusion—be that the end of the story or the end of your house upgrades. It’s just not interesting enough to explore and will not optimize your play. Instead the player is left with one option—climb back on that treadmill you just got off when you left work. Trade in enough apples and maybe you’ll be able to afford a new basement.
Games can be stressful in two ways. Most often the game is stressful while you are playing it. You start to run low on ammo; your heart beats faster; sweat begins to stain the armpits of your shirt, all the while Eastern European zombies descend upon you. Or they can be stressful out of game. This happens when the game continues to progress even when you aren’t playing. In fact, not playing is damaging your progress. Like life or work. I’ll be typing a memo at work all the while thinking, I’ve got to pick those apples today if I want to harvest them.
But maybe that’s where the hidden appeal of these games resides—in the optionality of that stressful thought. Because in the end it doesn’t matter. In the end games do not matter at all; they simply mark progress within a system. Animal Crossing lets you climb on the treadmill of the achiever cycle, dangling a better house and more gear, plus the nominal possibility of slightly more interesting labor. But it also let’s you get off at any point. All you have to do is stop playing. And that may be the ultimate fantasy of the New Class. Choice has the bedazzling effect of making work seem enjoyable and interesting. After all, if it weren’t interesting you wouldn’t do it. You reap reward for labor you volunteer to do, but you have the ultimate choice: you can stop entirely whenever you want. Just turn the DS off, slip the cartridge out, never put it in again, and you’re free.