Ever so often, I’ll get the sense that I’ve been playing a game too long and that it’s time to take a break. Right as this feeling crops up, the game I’m playing conveniently chimes in with another fetch quest, or just a lil ol’ public event, or hey real quick clear out these enemies and you’ll get just a teensy bit better, or you’ll get some good loot, we promise.
I don’t think it’s always intentional, though certainly many games in the AAA space jump through a bunch of hoops to try to keep your attention (namely, make you jump through a bunch of hoops) for as long as possible. But I’ve noticed the effect it’s had on me. It’s a familiar feeling. At first, I wasn’t able to pinpoint it, but as I slogged through the particularly slow Season of the Drifter in Destiny 2, that feeling became much clearer.
It was the feeling I’ve had when it’s been a rough few weeks at work and I just need to rest but I still have to do my job. That resigned sigh when you clock in. That little pang in your chest. The slightest twitch in your eye. “Fuck it, I’m here, let’s do this.”
I don’t think video games should elicit the same emotions as going to work; at least not the negative emotions.
I’ve tried to express this particular Hot Take for a hot minute, but every time I do, it’s come out malformed or I’ve gotten some kind of pushback of the “come on it’s just grinding, you like JRPGs why don’t you like this grinding” variety.
It’s true, I do like JRPGs. And in general, I don’t mind the grind. What I’m talking about here isn’t your classic “grind so you can defeat the final boss” grind, and I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t under any circumstances spend 40+ hours on a game. What I’m arguing against is the gameplay loop made up exclusively of busywork, of the same six fetch quests, of weekly performance metrics and success quotas.
I’m arguing against video games becoming “bullshit jobs.”
In David Graeber’s 2013 essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” the anthropologist notes that over time, we were supposed to start working less, not more. He writes that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour work week by the year 2000, assisted by ever-evolving technology. Instead, we’re working just as hard, often compelled by the very technology thought to make our lives easier to do so.
“In order to achieve this,” Graeber writes, “Jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless.”
Essentially, he argues, agricultural, manufacturing and other industrial employment dropped dramatically during the 20th century while office jobs, managerial work and employment in the service industry grew to encompass 75 percent of the total workforce. We’re still working the same amount but we’re not doing “productive” work anymore. We work to live under the idea that we should live to work, and as a result we’re wasting our time every single day.
It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant,” STRIKE! Magazine, August 2013
“Bullshit jobs” in the context of video games might be said to be in-game activities that serve only to perpetuate the gameplay loop, that don’t further the story or enrich the game in any way.
But what counts as a video game bullshit job? Is it the open world sandbox game packed with hundreds of tiny side-quests? Is it the PVP game that awards you for playing every day, or every week? Is it the MMO that promises weekly story progression, but you gotta do certain things first to get access to that story? All of a sudden you might start seeing “bullshit jobs” in Red Dead Redemption 2 or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Now they’re in your Life is Strange or your Fallout 4. But I don’t think that any of these games actually qualify as having “bullshit jobs.”
In fact, it’s “Live Service” games that have me worried about bullshit jobs the most. Destiny 2, The Division 2, Anthem and Fallout 76 all have bullshit jobs in their gameplay loops once the campaign is done, and it’s specifically to get people coming back and playing week after week after week. And personally, regarding the game I have the most experience with out of those four, Destiny 2, I can find exactly where I noticed the bullshit start to spring up.
Deep into Season of the Drifter, the daily dispatches you got from Zavala and Aunor just stopped. It was week 2 of the Dreaming City curse. I logged into the game and looked at my Director and saw: nothing to do. Nothing to do except play five rounds of Crucible. Why? I dunno. What are you going to get? A slightly more powerful Edge Transit roll. Okay great. Now do strikes. Yes it’s going to be Will of the Thousands and the Warden of Nothing. No you’re not getting anything. Just do it. Okay great. Now play Gambit. Why? Because fuck you.
Every week, same activities. Same loot pool. Same incremental progression. Never changing, never adding any flavor or color to the game’s world, just “yo do this shit for me.” In other words, a bullshit job.
Before anyone gets upset that I’m calling Destiny 2 out specifically, I want to make it clear that I still legitimately love the game. But I needed to take a break from it, because it was starting to demand more of my time than I was willing to give. We have to be able to say to ourselves, “I’m good on that for a while.” Booting up a game every day will burn you out on it.
I spent about three weeks away from the game and only just jumped back in for a couple of exotic weapon quests and Iron Banner last week. I thought I was going to have a miserable time because it was a) Iron Banner b) Crucible c) Control, but I ended up enjoying the hell out of myself. I even got the full set of Season 7 Iron Truage Hunter armor. I haven’t played in the two days since.
The responsibility doesn’t just lie on our shoulders, though. Developers have to fight back against adding bullshit jobs to games as well. Part of that might have to include acceptance that players simply can’t (and frankly shouldn’t) give all their waking hours to the game, and that focusing on proper utilization of the time you do have from us should be the goal.