Work is where you spend your time conforming to other peoples' whims. And then leisure is where you do what thou wilt. Except when you don't. The strangest thing about modern games is how they make play into work.
Take Rock Band 2, a game I adore. From the moment I pulled the shrink wrap off the case, all I wanted to do is croon Lindsay Buckingham's torrid farewell to Stevie Nicks at top volume. I had done my research and I knew it was on that very disc in my hand. But Rock Band says: not so fast, Pliskin; you have to earn the privilege of pouring out your heart to Stevie Nicks. Emotional closure with Stevie Nicks is something you have to work for. Why don't you spend a few hours playing through a bunch of other songs, possibly multiple times, and then once you've put your time in you'll get a shot at Go Your Own Way.
When games demand this kind of behavior from their players all I can think is that something has gone seriously wrong with our leisure. It's gotten so bad that Stephen Totilo compared gaming to gymgoing, an activity that most people view with a tinge of dread: “Playing lots of games can be pretty unpleasant, not unlike going to the gym a lot. You like what you get out of it, but you've got to put in a lot of work, much of it tedious.” And just earlier this week Mitch Krpata made the same point: “Ultimately, playing games is work. They ask a lot of you. It's a matter of how much effort you're willing to put in to get out what's there.”
And they're both right. It's not just that games require a high level of engagement relative to other forms of entertainment. Games have always demanded that the player surrender their will to a set of arbitrary rules (a set of controls and a system of game mechanics), and this is precisely what makes them fun. (Or so I argue) It's the kind of conformity that modern games ask of the player: repetition of menial tasks; accumulation; joyless travel. When the fundamental gameplay becomes routine, a superstucture of systematized rewards-- orbs, achievements, cutscenes, and XP-- is there to keep the player's eye on that next promotion and her nose to the grindstone.
Totilo has a fascinating explanation for this in his piece: he says this phenomenon is a symptom of video games' growing pains as they've developed from the three-minute quarter devourers of the arcade era to the twenty-hour-plus epics of the modern era. Even great gameplay mechanics like shooting and jumping are difficult to keep fresh and engaging over such a long span; and the narrative payoff of lengthy engagement still isn't enough to fend off the distinct sensation that we're laboring in our free time-- spending our time doing things we'd prefer not to for the sake of the game, rather than for the sake of our own pleasure: “That's what you get when you, the gamer, indulge in a creative form that was created to convey satisfying-but-repeatable, controllable bits of action for a quarter per minute. This is the creative form that has somehow evolved into a medium of 25-hour, $60 collections of satisfying-but-repeatable, controllable bits of action without inventing many successful strategies for telling stories, figuring out how to develop characters, or turning into a more interesting way to spend an hour than listening to Beethoven or watching The Wire.”
This is an intriguing proposal, but I could not let it pass without mentioning RPGs. Unlike the games that flourished in the arcade era, role-playing games don't rely on having the player do fun things with their hands. They offer a different species of pleasure, the sense of satisfaction that comes along with the feeling of progression. Progress is a way of forging the player's connection to their characters, because the time and effort dedicated towards earning levels and items invests the player in their avatars. Though I've praised the use of light RPG elements in other genres in the past, these mechanics can be a crutch when they're transposed into boring and stale forms of gameplay. Given our documented willingness to wander around a world map and mindlessly press A at regular intervals for hours on end, us gamers have a shown a marked disposition to pursue progress for its own sake. Progress is an easy hook, and getting caught in its clutches is what transforms our play into labor.
There's a brilliant piece of social analysis to be written about this phenomenon. Luckily Stephen Poole has written that piece, replete with the (to my mind, necessary) nods to Adorno, Horkheimer and Twain. But I think Poole draws the wrong lesson from his trenchant analysis. The solution to game labor isn't open-world game mechanics and user-created content. If we wanted our leisure to offer unfettered choice even the openest of open-world games are a poor option; games always drastically constrain the range of options available to us.
No, the solution to game labor is the same as the solution to real labor: even work is joy when you're doing something that truly exercises your faculties. We wouldn't hate work if we got to do something new and challenging every day, or if we were offered a truly great complex and difficult task to perform. It's the mindless repetition of menial tasks that makes work intolerable. And so the cure for game labor is good game design. When a game continually challenges you to think and react and adapt as you move through it, it never feels like work. But it's incredibly difficult to create gameplay that meets this standard, and that is why Valve only releases one game a year.