Western culture sure can be in love with the idea of something that it tends to hate, at least on a case-by-case basis.
Thing is, video games have occupied a strange place in the lexicon of Western culture. As I’ve examined in the last few articles here, they often reflect the desires, fears and trends of the culture surrounding them, but that same culture until fairly recently seemed all too eager to cast video games as ‘diversionary’, a subset of entertainment to be viewed strictly as an escape from the things that actually mattered.
Like, say, go to school, get a job to work yourself through college, then find a wife and have 2.5 kids; get a better job and rock the white picket fence until you’re 65. Live the American dream. It may not be YOUR dream, but it’s the dream that’s been picked out for you, and gosh darnit, if you go against the grain, you must be Unamerican or The Other or some abnormative varmint!
Work. Work. Work.
Western Culture bloody loves its work, doesn’t it?
It’s omnipresent in the literature: characters are often defined by their job in hot-blooded American texts like The Maltese Falcon and McTeague. It’s omnipresent in the media; even today, there are certain sects that claim that the ability to work is such a core virtue to Western culture that any individual who is not working, is therefore lazy or playing the system. Not even remotely saying I agree, but it bears mentioning in terms of how deeply ingrained the concept is in our social fabric.
So fittingly enough, video games – that one medium that had for so long been seen as a source of play – reflect this idolizing of work and work-related values.
If you’ve been a part of gaming culture for long, you’ve no doubt heard the term ‘grinding’. If not, it just means that in a role-playing game (or others), you go through the process of killing the same weak enemies over and over to rack up experience points, so that you’ll be better equipped to fight the bosses and tackle the later dungeons. Now, some games even go as far as expecting the player to grind periodically, and scale their enemy difficulties accordingly.
But wait. Do you actually have fun killing the same weak parasites over and over until the cows come home?
Hmm…a repetitive task that involved a menial skill-set, accomplished as a means to an end so that you can move on to bigger and better things…you know, that almost sounds like-
Some series aren’t even that subtle about it. Pick a Legend Of Zelda game; I’ll go with Twilight Princess on the Wii. The legions of gamers who snapped that up off the shelf on release day were eager to go on another epic adventure with their favourite Legolas-expy, ready to scrounge through the deepest dungeons of the world and hunt down the evil lord by way of arrow and sword.
These “Do menial farm tasks” segments are widely considered one of the least-fun parts of the game, yet they’re placed squarely in the introductory segment so that any and all players must complete them in order to advance to the stuff they actually bought the game to have fun doing. That’s funny – it’s as though this opening segment mimics both the Western ideal of work as a necessary ‘evil’, and replicates the concept that in order to have fun – IE, get the money to go out with your buddies to the bar after work, or make the evil King Zant eat your sword – you need to work studiously at your job.
It really begins to blur the line between Play and Work. Because if you’re going into video games to ‘take a load off’, or simply to relax, then it begins to look a little strange to see you performing these repetitive actions, kind of like your 9-to-5.
Sure, some video games do it towards some kind of meta-endgame: David Wong on humor site Cracked dot com has a very interesting article about the ways in which certain video games attempt to get the player psychologically addicted through a number of dastardly means, and he examines things like the delayed reward effect in World Of Warcraft, but I’m not going to cut at his bit; enterprising readers should check out his article in full as opposed to a crib notes version that does the message no justice.
But when other games that aren’t trying to intentionally addict (Blizzard Entertainment, you see, has a vested interest in keeping gamers hooked so that they’ll keep paying to play) pull the same deal where the player is essentially forced to bring the concepts of real-world work into their play time, it forces me to reflect on just how ingrained the ideal of work is in our society: we freaking hate it, yet we put it on such a pedestal that it even seeps into our gaming.
Granted, there are examples of games where the expressed point is to work:SimCity essentially teaches you fiduciary control, large-scale crisis management and how to appropriately Godzilla-proof a city.
But games where the whole point is supposed to be a fantasy, like Zelda? Maybe we’re not supposed to see Link as a fit hero until he’s paid his dues to society by herding up animals like a good farmhand?
It’s inescapable, even in an art form often erroneously decried as pure escapism. The ideal of work not only defines our place in culture, but our culture reflects that very idolizing of work. We as a society have let work-related subjects define our worth as people, and this is the result.
So even in video games, there are times when you just have to earn your fun.