Today I wanted to talk about another aspect of the employment paradigm: the simulation of labor. That is, not hacking fourty-six boars to death so you can get your next sword, but driving a simulated forklift. There are whole video game subcultures oriented around the performance of virtual jobs: men and women who are safely and efficiently piloting 747s from Sanfrancisco to Denver in Microsoft Flight Simulator, where they are guided in by other men and women who are staffing Denver's air traffic control. There are people running functional investment banks in the popular MMO EVE online, and embezzling money from them. I'm talking about bus driving simulations, which are currently on the market.
One could see in this the death of pleasure. Surely Adorno would say that simulated employment represents the total surrender of the imagination to capital, a degredation so total that we've come to take pleasure in our enslavement to the capitalist system. But surely this goes to far. (This is, remember, a man who though that Jazz was enslavement to the capitalist system.) I can't help but find this wholehearted commitment to normality endearing. Maybe this just betrays my midwestern roots, but it's utterly heartwarming to see people out there whose free time revolves around preventing simulated air disaster. And I'm hopeless as a critical theorist, 'cause I have a hard time with the false consciousness concept-- can't bring myself to declare others' quaint diversions a form of pathology. Apparently, some folks like a routine, and I can understand that.
I think there's deeper point here that goes beyond labor: to me, there's something enchanting about simulating the mundane. Games usually turn on shooting the next guy in the head and watching the world burn. I'm so inured to being thrust into violent, death-defying scenarios that the quotidian has a paradoxical charm.
In the very beginning of Indigo Prophecy there's a brief episode that goes like this: you've just come back from a disturbing scene in the restaurant. You get back to your apartment in the next scene, and spend about 20 minutes engaging in these unremarkable activities: you watch TV for a little while, have a drink, practice your guitar, have an awkward conversation with your ex. From that point on the game gets goes down the rabbit hole, but for that one scene it succeeds in communicating this idea that your protagonist is a regular human being who's trying to cope with the bizarre events that just transpired. It's the most successful sequence in the entire game.
Injecting these moments of normalcy into the unremitting stream ludicrous heroism has this way of transfiguring the everyday. I've been playing Yakuza 2 this week, and the really interesting moments don't come when you're fending off hallwayfulls of well-tailored thugs. They're when the game sets you free to roam the packed streets of Osaka and you to get lost in the commonplace events that unfold in every corner of the world-- the man trying to win a robot out of the crane machine in the arcade, or the restaurant owner who asks your help tracking down a dine-and-dash customer. Aside from the fact that these scenarios are essential to creating a believable world, they also serve to mitigate the alienation that comes with making your hero an all-crushing god-king every time he fights some dudes. Fumbling with the crane machine makes your protagonist a person, and that's essential to the fiction.
While the mundane may have a special charm to me, I'm not calling for every game to be Animal Crossing or The Sims. You can capture the texture and rhythm of real life without disposing of the heroism. It's the juxtaposition of the mundane and extraordinary that fascinates me. Few games take advantage of the possibilities when it comes to using quotidian detail and, yes, quotidian labor to create an authentic sense of world and character. (Well, No More Heroes apparently does something along these lines but I'm led to believe it's some kind of cruel joke.) Games are meant to pull us out of our lives and transport us into different worlds, but the funny thing is that they're often best at this transport when they take our world with them. And this is just what good art does: it reveals our everyday world under a new aspect.