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Game Studios Are Turning Play Into Work

WIRED
Written by publisher team

On New Year’s Day, Square Enix president Yusuke Matsuda published an open letter. In it he declared his love for blockchain technology and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), joining Ubisoft, Peter Molyneux, Stalker 2 Developer GSC Game World in similar common interventions. He said he hopes the technologies will become “a major trend in gaming in the future.” The message went as you might expect.

Commentators have pointed out that Matsuda’s message is incomprehensible, and it’s covered in muddy technical terms. However, it does present a revealing distinction. In Matsuda’s view, there is, on the one hand, play for play’s sake, or “play for enjoyment”… strictly driven by inconsistent personal feelings such as goodwill and the spirit of volunteerism brought into being by individuals’ desire for self-expression,” and from On the other hand, ‘playing for the sake’, a pursuit that should be nurtured with ‘clear motive’ – i.e. money. The first, as Matsuda seems to suggest, is incomprehensible and strange. The second is clever, ordinary and productive.

Matsuda equates games with work — paid work, specifically. And framing it this way, in terms of productivity and worker empowerment, is a maneuver to get you to accept technologies like NFTs. You’ll be subject to this a lot over the coming years, as some games are really indistinguishable from functionality.

Since we often describe gaming as work, using terms like grind and reward, it tends to farm farming simulator, logging in to complete Daily Quests, etc. Critics inevitably wondered if what we do in video games is playing at all.

Sure, play and work are opposites. Their distinction is both physical and personal: Killing Silver Knights all day long on Anwar Londo’s stairs to get the Darkmoon Blade is a business because I hate it. But some geeks might do it for fun, just as we pursue recreational activities, such as fishing, that other people pay for. Academics have described the modification as a form of unpaid work; It can easily be seen as a hobby, like drawing. Game designers often distinguish between intrinsic enjoyment (You play Halo for 100 hours because you love the feeling of taking pictures in the head) and External reward (Do the same because you want to level up your Battle Pass to get the camouflage weapon look.) The latter exploits what anthropologist David Graeber has called “humans’ penchant for arithmetic,” often maliciously, but social evaluation is not inherently bad or inconsistent with play. Really, I think the average player doesn’t care whether the game is closer to business principles or not.

NFTs take this desire for an extrinsic reward to its logical conclusion: a financial incentive. On the surface, the idea is compelling. After all, games have economies, among which are notoriously profitable ones. You play all day, paying for Gabe Newell’s extended vacation in New Zealand, however, unless you’re lucky, you’ll only get loot boxes in return. Academics often talk about the unpaid “intangible work” of logging into Facebook and extracting your preferences in order to advertise dollars. Aren’t the games the same? You can follow this logic: developers join guilds, so why shouldn’t players? Developers should treat players as companies treat workers. We “play to contribute”. We are producers. Just as players demand fairer progression systems, they should also demand tough cash payouts.

Axi Infinity, a blockchain-based video game where players collect Pokémon-like pets linked to NFTs, demonstrates how “play to win” systems work. Players dig their hubs in the fight to win cryptocurrency tokens. In 2020, someone paid $130,000 in crypto for a particularly rare coin. My colleagues pointed out that this is, in essence, a simulation of capitalism, and some individuals have actually pulled themselves out of poverty while playing the game.

But games differ from our daily jobs in several critical ways, and those differences raise serious problems, explains Tom Brook, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan. Game companies don’t have to treat you like workers, for starters. “Work is more than just pay,” he says. “It’s also about various forms of financial, pastoral and cultural support – being part of a federation is part of that, as is certain rights and protections.”

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