What is “work?” At its core, work is an investment. When I go to my day job, I invest my time and energy into something which will eventually pay me back with food, shelter, and creative pursuits. Sometimes going to work is hard and the investment seems greater than the reward. Sometimes people get laid off, demoted, or denied a rightful raise. Sometimes the money is worthwhile but the actual act is unfulfilling. So what makes work feel like work? I contend that work is unfulfilled investment. When you invest your time and energy into something which doesn’t reciprocate with appreciable success, you feel the sensation that is most commonly associated with “work.”
By contrast, “play” is a guaranteed investment. When I play, I will have fun. I do not play for longer than I want to just to pay the bills. I do not play at something which gives me no return. The act of play is satisfying. As satisfaction diminishes, the sensation of work sets in. These two sensations are not discrete, they are spectrally contiguous, and that understanding can help us assess the success or failure of a videogame to provide us with the right amount of work and play.
Part 1: Investment
Eminent novelist Zadie Smith says this about approaching a novel:
“But the problem with readers, the idea we're given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, "I should sit here and I should be entertained." And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don't know, who they probably couldn't comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That's the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It's an old moral, but it's completely true.”
Smith’s so-called “classical” approach to reading is amplified when applied to an interactive medium. Whereas a reader might engage with a novel through analysis and research, a gamer must literally learn to “play” a game’s systems like a pianist learns a piece. This is the player’s part of the pact they make with a videogame. A player must invest the time and effort required to thoroughly learn a game’s mechanisms, otherwise they cannot expect to enjoy the rewards the game offers.
Of course, it is a game’s responsibility to accurately convey those mechanisms, unless the opacity of the mechanisms is part of the game’s overall work/reward structure. Videogame tutorials have already been analyzed to death by numerous critics, so I won’t waste any time here rehashing their arguments. Suffice it to say that a player should not expect instant gratification from most videogames. Time must be spent learning control schemes, reading flavor text, searching a wiki, or whatever the genre-appropriate equivalent might be.
Different types of gamers engage with their preferred games based on what investments they feel are justified. Some might balk at the amount of granular detail in Path of Exile’s character builder, while others might see Diablo III’s truncated skill trees as a waste of time. In many cases a particular game can be approached in multiple ways. Personally I have a wiki on hand whenever I play Binding of Isaac. For me, the enjoyment comes from carefully choosing items which maximize my chances of success given a random pool and sufficient player skill. For others, enjoyment comes from experimentation. It may get them killed, but at least now they a clue as to what an item might do. These are not “right” or “wrong” investments; instead, they are personalized approaches to receiving the same rewards (i.e. fun). It is not fun for me to experiment and lose a run, so I don’t do it. To return to Smith’s pianist analogy, I am playing the same “piece” but with a completely different interpretation of the music.
Part 2: Reward
The best games combine reward types to maximize player satisfaction across play styles. In many Fire Emblem games, it is possible to pair up units in combat. Placing an archer behind a tank, or having two high-magic units share their prowess in battle can result in tactical advantages both on a particular stage, and across an entire campaign. As a pair of units improve their relationship the player unlocks dialogues which delve deeper into the units’ personalities, often culminating in marriage or close friendship. These stronger relationships improve the odds of subduing an enemy or fending off attacks when the units are paired together.
This combination of tactical and narrative rewards allows players to engage with the same game in different “styles.” For the min-maxers, picking a good pairing will result in faster, more perfect map clears. For the story-lovers, pairing two units expands the player’s understanding of the world and characters. For those who enjoy both, a good reward in one area can compensate for a lackluster reward in the other. Dark Souls is often praised for this type of dual engagement. While some players can be satisfied merely by overcoming challenges, others overcome the challenges in order to unlock more information about the world and its mysteries. These two styles complement each other and allow a larger number of players to feel that it is “play” and not “work.”
Part 3: Work and Play
So when does a game transition from play to work? I contend that investment alone does not make a game “work.” Nuclear Throne required me to sink tens of hours into thoroughly learning the correct tactics for each character to approach each of type of level. In return I thoroughly enjoyed both the small rewards like unlocks and optional areas, and larger rewards like beating tough bosses or “looping” with a challenging character. Conversely Enter the Gungeon required almost no investment on my part – its mechanisms seemed intuitive to me, but I struggled to gain the same sense of fun that I got from Nuclear Throne.
Understanding what types of investment work for us as players can help us to persist with a challenging or obtuse introductory sequence. My first few hours of XCOM: Enemy Unknown bore little reward, but I stuck with it because I could sense that learning the cover system, weapon types, and classes would pay off. Mark of the Ninja starts off tactically shallow, but I persevered because I could see the potential for depth in the presented mechanisms. I was willing to invest my time learning the fundamentals of these games because what they required was within my realm of enjoyment. If I had to memorize tables of numbers, or absorb dozens of new characters in a short period of time, I would probably not have bothered to continue.
Of course, understanding what rewards we expect can also help us to identify when to cut our losses and quit. When I realized that the “rewards” in Pillars of Eternity were text dumps about a world I didn’t care for, I opted to move on. Rogue Legacy’s incremental stat upgrades were not satisfying to me, so I quit pretty early into the game. This doesn’t mean that these are bad games, but it does help me identify that they are not for me.
So, next time you are tempted to write off a game as “pointless work,” or gush that a game is “just so much fun,” consider the underlying investment and rewards that produced that reaction. Doing so will help other gamers identify if the game is right for them, even if they disagree with you. In my case, I found that game reviewer TotalBiscuit would deviate from my tastes almost 75% of the time, but his analysis was complete enough that I was able to make my own purchasing decision based on his thoughtful commentary. I encourage you to do the same!
What are the investments you are/are not willing to make? What rewards satisfy you and what don’t? How does this factor into your gaming tastes? I’ve compiled a short list of some of the investments/rewards I can think of, let me know what I’ve missed!
· Control schemes
· Game-specific mechanisms
· Unskippable cutscenes/setpieces
· High monetary buy-in (initial price, DLC, etc)
· Visual engagement: graphics that wow you
· Emotive/intriguing characterization
· Triumph from overcoming difficult challenges
· Stimulating worldbuilding/lore
· Relaxation/turning off consciousness or worry
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