Why does our play look so much like work? Is it the creeping fingers of capitalism inserting themselves into our brains, making even our downtime into practice for a job? Are we so psychologically obsessed with lucre that we can only properly relax by tricking our monkey-brains into thinking they’re still at the office? Lately I’ve seen a few articles around looking at the link between work and play in video games. These articles look at capitalism, and wonder whether video games might somehow get sucked into it – not only in the sense that video games are a product that people make and buy and sell, but also in the sense that the content and messages of video games might be co-opted as a form of propaganda, pushing us even further into capitalist ideology. I actually genuinely have no idea where I saw this argument recently, so I can’t immediately cite it – instead I googled some keywords and came up with this old article. It touches on all the main ideas, so it’ll do.
Now, you and me might have some criticisms of this ‘games are just training you to be a better worker and it’s all a capitalist hellscape’ thing. For instance, we might wonder about the broader nature of play across cultures – hell, across species, even. We’ve all seen little puppies play-fighting, and we’ve all heard the idea that play-fighting is basically like training for when they’re adults, and they need to mutilate your newspaper in the forty-five seconds between the postman pushing it in the letter flap and you groggily descending from the bedroom shouting ‘not again fucking mutt that’s my fucking paper fuck ah fuck it’s all down the fucking corridor little shit.’ Maybe it’s idealistic to assume that play should be this idyllic little nothing-space where we all just frolic and fritter. Maybe it’s always been a space where we practise things. But alright – let’s just take the idea at face value, for now. Let’s set these criticisms aside, and turn it into a narrative question. That’s what we do here, right, we do narrative.
So then: how might video games, as narratives, engage with the idea that games are just training us to be better workers? How might they respond to that idea? How could they show themselves to be something else? Let’s chat about Moonlighter. Moonlighter is a game released in 2018 about a shopkeeper who wants to be a hero. It’s a fantasy game, where by day you’re an unassuming shopkeeper, stocking shelves and manning the till, and by night you’re a hero extraordinaire, descending into the nearby ruins and spelunking your little heart out. The game’s title is a cute little pun: your shop is called The Moonlighter, and you’re moonlighting as a hero.
And on the surface, that all maps pretty well onto our idea of play becoming infected by work. It even almost sounds like a jazzed-up version of our real lives: we go out to the office, work our shift, and then come home and pretend to be heroes and beat up some monsters and shit. That’s… more or less what this guy is doing. Something of our real lives is reflected in that fiction. The interesting thing is that the two modes, day and night, aren’t entirely disconnected from each other. When you go out spelunking in the ruins, you collect treasure from defeating monsters. You can bring that treasure back to your store, and sell it during the day. You don’t have a huge backpack, of course, so you end up doing a lot of inventory management. You’re trying to figure out how much of what you want to take – what’s worth the most, what will stack nicely, whether you’re likely to get more of something, whether you’ve got a special request for particular products. The treasures you bring from the ruins help support your shop, and then the money you make in the shop lets you buy new weapons and armour to help you get deeper and further into the ruins. There’s a very clear feedback loop between the two.
So if you’re on the games-are-sneaky-capitalism train, that might be your smoking gun. You’ve got work, and play, and play feeds into work: it resources you with stuff to sell and helps make your business better, and it’s basically its own kind of work because you’ve got to fight all these monsters and not die, which is hard, or at least it requires effort, which is basically just a sneaky coded way of saying you’re still working. There seems a strong case for arguing that your playtime is co-opted by your work. Alternately, maybe you want to take the opposite view. Maybe you could argue that your work time serves your play, rather than the other way around. Making money is a nice way to get the resources you need to go deeper and further into the ruins, right – so why do we have to assume that work is the dominant force in this relationship? There’s actually a bit of a gap in the argument here: in real life, you have to work, or you don’t eat. At best you can maybe fall back on whatever social security is provided by your country, but even that can be dicey. Moonlighter just doesn’t work like that – if you decide not to work very hard in the shop, well, whatever. There aren’t really any significant consequences. At worst it might make spelunking more difficult, but that’s hardly the same as trying to stave off a poverty-induced early death on the dole.
In some ways, the hardest thing about this conversation is that Moonlighter isn’t really taking part in it. We can have our back and forth about whether it’s crazy capitalism or whatever else, but if go back to our original question – what does the game have to say about this problem? – the answer is kinda nothing. Games as a whole are pretty regularly resistant to engaging in political thinking or any sort of reflection on the conditions of their own production. It’s not that every game has to be about smart things, but when basically none of them are, the discourse around those games takes on a particular shape. We all talk about how games can be art and all the rest of it – there’s a lot of chat about how video games as a medium can be just as creative and thoughtful and deep as any other medium – but at the end of the day, if games themselves aren’t stepping up to the fuckin plate, it just becomes a lot of empty, unfulfilled talk.