Professor Aubrey Anable on technologized labour, casual gaming, and feeling through failure.
By Olivia Polk
“Angry Birds”. “Farmville”. “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood”. “Candy Crush Saga”. Chances are good that you’ve heard of at least one of these games. Maybe you even hold a solid record in a few of them, levelling up on your morning commutes and lunch breaks, or in your office cubicle when your boss isn’t nearby. You don’t brag about it, of course; the goofiness of spending your time lining up brightly coloured pieces of candy or cultivating a celebrity persona isn’t quite the same thing as beating the final level of “BioShock” or “League of Legends”. But stil, something keeps you coming back.
The compulsion to find temporary pleasure in short play digital gaming is a powerful (and lucrative) one. Collectively known as casual games for their ease and brevity of play, “Candy Crush” and other app based mobile games like it are a part of the fastest growing segment in the gaming market, with Newzooreporting that mobile gaming will represent over half of total market sales by 2020. Yet, for all their popularity, they have received scarce critical comment, both in video game scholarship and in the humanities as a whole.
Up until recently, that is.
In her new book Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect (2018), associate professor of film studies Aubrey Anable joins an expanding conversation on the whys and whereofs of our casual gaming obsession. Beginning with “Tennis for Two” and “Spacewar!”, Anable recounts a history of digital gaming that is intimately entangled with our feelings about computerized technology and its steady grip on our everyday lives. For her, there is no artistic medium better equipped to comment on 21st-century digital culture than the video game. But the key to its success lies precisely in the ways it orients us towards failure, both within the game and outside of it.
Digital Labour and Diminishing Boundaries
The days when smartphones were regarded as an optional luxury item are far behind us. Our employment practically depends on them, with productivity apps like Slack, Trello, and Evernote joining the ranks of must-have communication tools, on par with email, word processing, and basic call and text. In a culture where the 9-5 office job is giving way to remote, part-time, and freelance work models, it is difficult to argue against any form of software that makes our scattered professional lives easier to manage. The increasing challenge, argues Anable, is locating one’s life outside the flow of hyper-digitized mobile labour.
“There’s this blurring distinction between our work and our leisure time,” she notes, “and our phones are often the devices that cause the most blurring between those times. We can get an email from our boss at any time of the day and suddenly we’re pulled into work, or we can be at work and start playing a game.” For Silicon Valley types, this blurring represents the height of flexible living, wherein work and leisure are at our fingertips 24/7, diminishing the need for set office hours. Still, for Anable, it says something troubling about the possibility (or impossibility) of attaining even a semblance of work/life balance. “There are things that mobile technology permits in terms of freedom to play and work whenever we want,” she says, “but it also seems to be pushing us in the direction of working all the time.”
In a culture that demands we be perpetually plugged in via our phones and laptops, the desire for instant and effortless mobile entertainment comes as no surprise. A quick round of “Words with Friends” is often all we can ask for to get us through the day. But, in Anable’s view, reducing casual games to mindless escape mechanisms overlooks their reliance on the same basic operating systems that underpin our work lives. Sure, Anable admits, dipping in and out of online play can help us “escape those bad feelings associated with our more banal everyday digital interactions,” but they can also “transform those interactions into these kinds of fantastic, amazing experiences interacting with computers.” And sometimes, these interactions bear a creeping resemblance to the structure and content of our professional realities.
Feeling Through Work
Indeed, while mobile gaming might be a gratifying reprieve from the stress of chronic overwork and competition, some of the most popular casual games on the market are premised on navigating increasingly chaotic and physically taxing labour conditions. “Diner Dash”, a casual time management game that has given way to several spin-offs, is one of Anable’s enduring preoccupations.
Released by Gamelab in 2004, “Diner Dash’s” narrative is fairly simple. Upon pressing the start button, we are introduced to our avatar Flo, a corporate drone who has grown weary of the daily 9-5 grind. In a series of miraculously swift movements, Flo quits her office job, secures a bank loan, and opens up her own diner, where she is somehow the sole owner and the sole waitress. As we might expect, progression through the game’s universe is dependent on our ability to please increasingly large and impatient groups of customers, with the ultimate pay-off being … well … more customers. What unfolds, according to Anable, is a deeply ironic commentary on contemporary models of corporate success.
“Part of what makes that game successful and pleasurable for people is that it gives these very clear tasks and it’s simple,” she says. “It’s about efficiency—I mean, her name is ‘Flo,’ right? You click in a certain order to increase efficiency, and you see the hearts appear above your customer’s heads. There’s this kind of affective labour that’s a part of the game, keeping your customers happy.” Despite the endless clicking, dragging, editing, refreshing,
and clock checking that make up an average work day, our interactions with “Diner Dash’s” interface feel almost comforting in their predictability. There are no faulty hyperlinks, spontaneous program updates, inexplicable software crashes, or shortened deadlines here: just uncomplicated and linear routines that lead to tangible results, like a new coffee machine or sound system.
Eventually, though, the predictability begins to morph into an anxious and unfulfilling dullness. The restaurants get shinier and the kitchens more elaborate, but the goal never changes: click on the right number of customers to fill the right number of seats and take the right number of orders in the right amount of time to make the right amount of capital. Perform all of this labour in the proper order, and your grand reward will be more arms for balancing plates, or speedier feet for quicker service.
“In “Diner Dash” in particular,” Anable states, “there’s this disjuncture between its kind of cheerful fantasy of capitalist progress and the grim repetition of the tasks,” such as mopping, taking orders, and clearing and delivering plates. “As the game goes on, in the logic of capitalism, it should mean that as you succeed more and more, in some ways, your work should become simplified, or you should be able to hire people to do some of this. But really, Flo’s work just becomes more sped up and more difficult and complicated because that’s how video games work.”
And while there is still something undeniably kitschy and fun about the game’s bright colours and canned muzak, it is difficult not to read these aesthetic elements as an essential part of its commentary. “There’s a critique that we can start to see in that, and it’s a very conscious critique,” Anable argues. “In the logic of the game, there’s something very grim and depressing about it, that what success means in this world—amidst all the bright lights and upbeat soundtracks—is just more work.”
Time management challenges like “Diner Dash” are certainly more obvious targets for cultural critique. They are explicitly labour oriented, with players’ wins and losses almost always measured by the growth or deficit of capital. But when we look closely at the defining structures and algorithms of video games, argues Anable, we can make some important generalizations about the ways that gaming compels us to feel—particularly when we lose.
In a very basic way, Anable says, “video games are all about failure.” And this is not just because gameplay is structured around increasingly complicated obstacles. At every moment, in every game, the possibility of loss is communicated on multiple sensory levels: there is the clock in the corner of the screen that ticks down to the end of the level, often getting louder and more disruptive in the final minute. There are the energy bars, sometimes shaped like hearts or human bodies, that flicker and fade as our avatars lose consciousness. And then there are the avatars themselves, programmed to shout, grumble, sigh, and even fall down on their knees and sob when we can’t solve a game’s code.
“We can play a video game and start to identify these particular formal structures that lend themselves to particular feelings,” says Anable. “These features are literally designed to make us stressed out. I mean, we’re supposed to feel like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, I’ve got to push this button really fast,’ right? You can start to attribute fairly universal feelings to the stress of doing that.”
For some game designers, the emotional potency of these built-in “failure algorithms” has become its own subject. “Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment”, a browser-based game by Pippin Bar, has players re-enact the myth of Sisyphus by rolling a boulder, perpetually, up a hill. In the game, as in the myth, the task is programmed not to be completable. Similarly, in the two player fencing game “Nidhogg”, winning becomes such an impossible proposition as to be rendered almost arbitrary. “It’s been programmed in such a way where when you seem to be doing well, for no apparent reason, the ground drops out from under you and you just fall,” explains Anable. “It has nothing to do with your skill, but you’re constantly trying to master it. And then there’s this monster that comes out at the end if you actually succeed at the level and it just eats you.”
Dark humour aside, Anable looks upon these win-proof video games as valuable tools for reflecting upon our notions of personal control.
“The expectation is that if I play a game enough, with enough skill, and learn to master it, I will succeed,” she says, “because that is the logic of most conventional video games, and that is also the logic of capitalism: If I work hard enough, if I go to the right schools, if I graduate, and I get a job and I do all of these things, I will succeed.” All that we need to do—or so we are told—is click the right buttons fast enough.
Inevitably, then, not getting the right degree, or the right job, or the right salary becomes an unspeakable shame; if success is just a matter of making the proper choices, then failure is entirely self-made. “We tend to experience feelings of failure as personal, as something we have done wrong in the world,” Anable states. “Very rarely are we encouraged to think through how our options are defined, or why certain choices, while available to some, are simply not on the table for others: be it interviewing for a higher salaried job, or even buying a week’s worth of nutritious groceries. “Somebody always has to fail,” says Anable, “there constantly has to be a certain degree of failure within the capitalist system in order for other people to succeed.” Be it a smartphone, a spreadsheet, or an economic marketplace, she says, “We are always just interacting with something that has been designed.”
There is a brutal kind of fatalism in her analogy, to be sure. The knowledge that we are all just operating within pre-programmed contexts—often literally, in the case of 21st century techno-labour—is an affront to fundamental notions of free will. And maybe this is enough of a reason to make space in our lives for video games. “It just makes a lot of sense to me that people in their twenties and thirties want to game,” Anable says. “Because, you know, life is hard. In most games, there are clear goals, clear guidelines given to you, clear benchmarks, and we don’t experience our ordinary lives as having these clear objectives and clear rewards.” Progressing through an alternate reality in which all chaos can be brought to order, all challenges overcome, can do wonders for restoring our mental equilibrium.
But maybe there is something profound in rejecting the imperative for success altogether, as games like “Nidhogg” and “Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment” demand.
What if, instead of labouring to beat the code or level up, we said, “No, we’re just going to fail, we’re going to sit over here, and screw you and your desire for mastery and success,” asks Anable. After all, “There’s something playful, kind of radical, and nonproductive about not caring about winning.”
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