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The Blurring of Work and Play


Considering all the things that happen in these worlds - weddings, political elections, sales of virtual real estate for real money, genocides, and teenage mafia gangs and prostitution rings - it seems strange that some people, both gamers and non-gamers, still say that "it's just a game". Ironically, the most appropriate reply might be "No, it's just work".


Andrejevic, M (2002). The work of being watched: interactive media and the exploitation of self-disclosure. Critical Studies in Media Communication.

Dibbell, J. (2003). The Unreal Estate Boom. Wired 11.01, January, 2003. Available at:

The Walrus. (2004). Game Theories, from



"The time required to acquire the expertise and capital to become a PM in Star Wars Galaxies is in the order of 4-6 weeks of normal game play, and thereafter requires sustained daily time investment to maintain the business. The irony is that users are paying to perform what increasingly resembles serious, complex work in these environments."

If you think this sounds complex, you should check out EVE Online. This MMORPG is basically an economic simulation. There are so many products, resources, transportation routes, and markets that only the most successful Corporations have hundreds of players and must spend lots of 'real' time performing they're 'jobs'. For what?

Yet, these large Corps are also admired because of their power. Sometimes it's not just the 'money' that drives this labor, but mostly it's accolade; i.e. being the first to build a new item and market it, being the first to build a certain ship in the Region, controlling the price of a mineral or trade good in a particular area.

This is what Producer Types love about crafting in MMORPGs.

Posted by: RKFM on July 13, 2004 4:51 AM

I don't think your logic is sound here. Just because a company profits from the entertainment activities of individuals, it does not follow that those individuals are performing 'work' for the company. Are you suggesting that every time someone writes a 'Letter to the Editor' to their local newspaper they are 'working' for that paper? That logic crumbles into mere semantics. The fashion company example applies just as accurately to the observation of trendsetters in real life as it does to the observation of trendsetters in a game world.

The one performing the work in most of these cases is the company that goes in and analyzes the behaviors, or implements the tools to collect the data, or programs the software that makes the online behaviors inadvertently useful and then takes the product of that work and performs more work in order to profit from it.

The potential to harness MMORPG time sinks in order to perform useful work is fascinating, though, and your cancer scanning example is superb. But that free productivity is unlikely to last long once market forces get involved. And, more than that, the productivity is always limited to the degree to which you can make the tasks enjoyable to the players (most players DO quit games when they stop enjoying them). Heck, in theory you could make cotton picking so much fun that people would pay you to do the harvesting for you. But in practice that's pretty much impossible.

Posted by: Alistair on July 15, 2004 12:50 AM

MMOGs are more work than they are play. Sure EverQuest is fun for a few hours, but, after a while, it becomes repetitive. I'm sure some people don't mind sitting there for hours on-end, to hit the button so the game enters combat mode and kills the big enemies.

And some games offer extra features to try and entertain, like EverQuest's trade skill system. But, you can only do these things so many times before you realize, that you're doing this many times over.

To get from level 1 to level 2 you need to kill 5 white, or 3 yellow, or 1 red mob(s). Then at level 2, this increases to 20 blue, 10 white, 7 yellow, or 5 red, etc, etc.

There are people who get to level 60, and while I congratulate them, they sit there for hours on end getting between the levels.

But, me, I still play EQ an DA, not for the gameplay, I play for the community aspect. I've met friends, and I dunno, I like hanging out with these people. They're very nice people. Deffinitely worth sticking around for.

Posted by: Emhilradim on July 22, 2004 10:23 AM

Hmm. I've felt that MMORPG's feel like a job over a game's doing something not because you enjoy it but because you FEEL YOU HAVE TO. I think reasons for this are:

competition - particularly with games including 'power gaming'. Your rank, level, skill etc is your status symbol to the players around you, who you're competing with (maybe sometimes subconsciously). You know the more you put into it, the more rank you will gain, the less you put into it, the more you will get left behind and feel the effort you put in previously was wasted time and you can't catch up. It's really when you realise this is what you're doing that it starts feeling like a job, because you have to drag yourself to get that .1 percent each day.

loss - you find the game isn't fun anymore but you're unable to quit because of the 'work' you've put into the 'game' will be lost. Say you saved up for months and bought a house. If you quit, your house wouldn't be there if you decided later you wanted to play again. In a game like EVE the powergaming competitive element isn't there,skills are gained automatically. But it still feels like a job because I only carry on because it would be a shame to waste the skill points I've accumalated over such a long period ^^

Generally, the craft areas of MMORPGs are going to feel more like work, and the adventuring types aren't...but eventually the adventuring gets repetive if you're only doing it to level up and not because you enjoy it/want to interact with friends.

The way I see it, although the game developers (like drug dealers) add things to keep you hooked even after you realise you don't want it anymore, your attitude and playstyle are going to have a large impact on what you get out of it. If you're playing to be the best through the quickest route possible by powergaming it's going to seem like a job very quickly due to repetive actions. If you're playing to have fun, be immersed and meet interesting people than it will take longer for this to set in. But it inevitably will :/

It's just a game with the intent of giving you a virtual life. And the virtual life includes virtual work. Avatar's gotta eat.

Posted by: zebby on August 4, 2004 5:32 PM

Very interesting essay. Yes people do get way too out of hand with MMOGs (not just MMORPGs BTW). But this is only because they make it work. These people need to realise that they're paying for a game not a second job. It's madness to me that people actually continue to pay for games that they aren't enjoying. To me you're an idiot if you do...harsh but true. In other words: Only pay and/or play games you enjoy. If you don't, stop whining about it!!!

Posted by: Hi there on September 9, 2004 4:21 PM

The problem is not that they continue to play when it is no longer enjoyable. The problem is that it goes from enjoyable to just work so gradually that unless you step back for a while and evaluate you don not even realize your working.

These games were never meant to be work. Trade skills and leveling was implemented to increase fun originally. Problem is companies are now doing stat analysis and seeing the ability to use these in a negative way to trap players. The first and second generation MMOs hold no blame in my mind but the next generation MMO makers should be avoiding "trapping" players because it is a) immoral and b) avoidable.

Posted by: Vint on September 9, 2004 5:46 PM

In the original RS, I never minded the repetitiveness of leveling up. I found it relaxing. I spent a lot of time chatting while doing these repetitive tasks. Made good friends.

Interesting point about "trapping". One method of trapping in RS2 is the "random event". (These were ostensibly introduced to kill autoers, but they kill legitimate players just as often).
Turns out the "cure" is worse than the disease.

Since the introduction of random events, the game has become exponentially more difficult to "level up". Players are "losing" virtual possessions (many of which are necessary to further progress) as well as a tremendous amount of xp is being lost due to the interruptions caused by "random events".

In my mind, this is a deviousness on the part of the game designers to force players to play longer (more years) to level up; and also a laziness on the part of the designers to find transparent ways of identifying and eliminating cheaters. The present system really is using the player as renewable cannon fodder! Insult is added to injury in the case of members who pay real life money to play the game.

These "events" kill you while you are chatting or pm'ing; they kill you if you experience lag; they kill you if you are in a crowd and cannot see them to respond. In an instant, you can lose virtual possessions that cost months to accumulate. I would estimate that 25% of player time is now involved in identifying/dealing with/evading these random events. I don't see why I would pay them to torment me like that!! (I was a member but I have now quit).

Posted by: Solia on September 10, 2004 5:37 PM

A lot of it can depend on changes a company can make in the game. An example is UO. I had a grandmaster fisherman with a vendor that sold like crazy. I would enjoy fishing for treasure each nite because it was exciting to use my item ID skill to identify my goodies. Than the developers changed the game and made all items instantly identifiable, which just turned stocking my vendor into a job. i didnt enjoy fishing anymore and ended up quitting UO.

Posted by: David on September 18, 2004 9:00 PM

I was just discussing something similar in comments over at my site The War Room. To summarize we ended up moving from a previous Terra Nova post about medical MMOs to discussion about SETI@home or Folding@HOME and the integration of a game.

How could one integrate various processes dealing with protein folding with the MMO style tedious gameplay with some great rewards to the player. I wonder how long it will be until we see an MMO that fits your bill...

Posted by: Hawke on March 6, 2006 4:51 PM

Thanks for that! It's just the answer I ndeeed.

Posted by: Dotty on January 2, 2012 10:16 PM
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