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The Labor of Fun

The following is an essay that has just appeared in the founding issue of the journal, Games and Culture. It is an essay on the blurring boundaries of work and play in online games. The final manuscript version is linked below:

The Labor of Fun

Yee, N. (2006). The labor of fun: How video games blur the boundaries of work and play. Games and Culture, 1, 68-71.

keywords: work and play, boundaries, online games, mmorpg

Posted on January 3, 2006 | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)


That was a dead on essay about how real life intrudes upon gameplay in an MMORPG. I played two characters on a server in SWG. One was a resource gatherer, the other a Shipwright using the materials my main character had gathered. The amount of time spent getting the Shipwright up to Master level was considerable and I had to have a certain level of dedication to what I was doing. I ended up forming a "cartel" with another player to push our products.

Just from that example, I felt like I was sitting in a boardroom making long term decisions about the future of my "business". This was a well thought out and accurate essay.

Posted by: Ray on January 6, 2006 5:11 AM

Indeed, a very true on essay.

You should look into EVE online, it's practically an economic simulation with corporations filling the role of guilds and an almost complete player driven economy.

As a former CEO (guild leader) of a corporation in EVE I can attest to the work that went into organizing the corp members, planning production schedules, mining operations, market and trade research, and all the other 'business' operations of the corp.

Posted by: RKFM on January 6, 2006 6:27 AM

I disagree with your analysis. Work is inevitable in any activity one actively engages in. This could be volunteer work, playing tennis, or playing a complex video game. Sure there are activities which require little 'work'; for example, watching television. However, the fact that there is work does not make activities less enjoyable.

My fun comes from a combination things such as walking through a complex and interesting world, role playing, interacting with people, playing competitively, improving my skills, overcoming challenge. If playing the game was like my 'job' I'd be tapping my pencil waiting for the work day to end. In the game world, I tap my foot hoping the clock slows down so I can finish the raid and still get 5 hours of sleep. Which one seems like more fun to you?

I do like your other articles. But this one uses less evidence, and a small sample of experiences, without fully assessing each side.

Posted by: Icefall on January 11, 2006 6:33 AM

I agree in principle with the article that WOW (which is the only mm0rpg that I have played) has elements of work involved with its enjoyment.

Certainly the production of cloth products, their sale and then redistribution are economic functions that players perform in the game. Despite this, people LIKE to perform these actions. If the real world economy were as engaging or rewarding as a mmorpg, less people would complain and more people would look forward to work as much as they do to the game.

People who enjoy their work are often consumed by it, so is it surprising that games offer the same type of intense interactive situation? Keep in mind that there are still opportunities for play and discovery in games while few exist in real economic life.

Posted by: Steve R on January 11, 2006 1:57 PM

Where to start. First, Star Wars is a very lightly played mmorpg and not a typical example of how most games work. In fact, the things he cites in the game that are 'bad' are a main reason most people don't play it - because it IS work.

I do dislike games that expect the players to provide the economy and then advertise that this is a good thing. Such games however are not the most popular (see Some people like it, and that's fine, but it's a minority.

That nurse who still plays but hates it has some emotional issues which aren't to be blamed on games. You could just as easily cite quotes from people who play a fair amount, but also take breaks from time to time, and in fact, yes, they do have fun when they play. The people I know in game DO think it's fun.

EQ2 - crafting yes is like a job. Again, EQ2 is a small percentage of players. And not all of those in game do crafting.

The raiding thing, ugh. It takes a lot of time to do raiding. If you don't like it, don't do it. The game doesn't make you. I have *plenty* of time to raid, I just don't enjoy it. So I don't do it.

I love Nick's work however I find this article overly generalizing and skewed.

My work is nothing like video games, or vice versa. There is no blurring.

Posted by: Kyrv on January 15, 2006 4:58 PM

I believe that the dichotomy between work and play as presented in the article is at least partially fallacious. There is no inherent reason why work should be arduous, or play entertaining (though being entertaining is obviously a desirable quality in a video game).

I do see the blurring process you are describing, but not why you would choose call it unfortunate. The evidence you provide to back up this perception seems mostly anecdotal, and furthermore, it doesn't seem to match the statistcal data you have compiled on this site. I believe most people have fun playing, regardless of how much playing resembles work or vice versa.

Posted by: ep on February 8, 2006 12:36 AM

I think this is too true. It also makes me ask why people are against these games when it teaches us to be diligent and determined.

I play Tibia a lot and am probably going to quit for another mmorpg because of how much work is actually involved. That game is free or you can pay for extra content, but you don't even need the extra content at all since the world and abilities are very wide spread. You can make runes as a mage which takes hours each day to make enough for a good profit. You can be a knight, but you have to train for hundreds of hours to get high enough skills to be able to do anything really fun. MMORPGs are becoming too much work for very little reward, much like real life. I am going to go to City Of Heroes soon so that I can enjoy a well thought out game that rewards you well for the amount of work you do. It doesn't concentrate on skills or items and is a more social game. The basic ideas are that you choose to look however you want, changing this at any time, and concentrate on leveling. It isn't that hard to get started or to master.

Work is just over-emphasized in the world. We work our whole lives to pay for things we buy with money that we don't even have. Loans and credit card debt are becoming a problem for everyone. I never did understand why economies cause inflation and the value of currency fluctuates so much. People are always trying to make as much as possible so the cost of everything goes up and the value of money goes down. I know it increased since the dawn of the century, but now money seems to be losing more value than it ever gained. Gas prices are some of the lowest in the U.S. where I live, but they are climbing fast. It will come back to haunt us if it doesn't stop.

That is a good enough reason for me to play games online. I don't have to spend any money on gas to go to the park or the mall or whatever, and people who party can have an online party on an mmo instead of driving to the bar, gas money again, and maybe even driving drunk.

Posted by: Tom on July 2, 2006 12:02 PM

I think this article is dead on. Also, the "work" does not only come from the game design itself, but from other players. Guilds and friends in the game can exert an enormous amount of pressure on a person to continue playing. The nurse who plays even though she dislikes it may not have any serious issues beyond feeling an obligation to play, be it for friends that are counting on her, a guild that raids, etc.

After playing SWG for nearly two years and now EQ2 for a year and a half, I can honestly say that after a time, the game does start to feel more like a job than a game. But an unwillingness to leave behind friendships that only exist in the game make it difficult to quit. I believe most gamers reach a point in their game where they step back, question why they are still playing, and realize they only log in out of habit, or out of duty, rather than a desire to play the game and have fun.

Posted by: Iari on August 7, 2006 11:40 PM

Pretty good essay! But for me if it's a peer-reviewed journal i'd like to see more actual data than ancedotes as a previous poster pointed out (to some degree). I think the main point is something i agree with, many games are in fact repetitive, mind-numbing chores. The comment from the guild leader I can really appreciate, as is from the raider. Why the heck do *some* players (raiders, ie) spend 40+ hours a week on this supposed 'fun' while their real life goes to shit, relationships suffer, etc. To some degree it's addiction, to another degree its the fact that their lives suck and are empty.

Posted by: Rob on September 17, 2007 5:49 PM

I'm in the process of setting up a business that operates from both within and outside of Entropia Universe. My goal is to find ways to turn profit with (not necessarily within) the game while maintaining the fun. Within the game itself I see only trading as a consistent route to profit, at least within the confines of the game engine. All other activities are tied to chance (hunting, mining, even crafting). However, MindArk appears to be adding more creative things into the game lately--texturing, makeup--to allow for more service industries. As there are few ways to have full control over game mechanics, I find that emergent processes will be necessary to harness the potential of Entropia. At this point, I'm exploring options for business models, but the most exciting for me, due to my creative side, would be a sort of virtual tour group (I'm one of those people that thinks a guide on Disney's Jungle Cruise would be the ultimate job). Such a group would provide informational resources to the citizens of the Entropian world by leading groups around the world of Calypso. At this point it is brainstorming methods of monetization that takes a good portion of my time both in and out of the game.

The virtual and the real worlds are without doubt beginning to blur. For me, there is no line. Having computers around me all my life, I know no other world. I provide the above as proof that there are people out here who see no need to draw lines in the sand between virtual and real worlds, between work and play. My existence is the culmination of my creative output, whether that output is virtual or real, makes no matter.

Posted by: Randall Gordon on January 2, 2008 7:58 PM

It's interesting to see just how permeant digital memory has become in our lives. It's like everytime I turn my head, I see something with a card slot or USB jack . I guess it makes sense though, considering how inexpensive memory has become lately...

Ahhh... who am I to complain. I can't make it through a single day without my R4 / R4i!

(Submitted from FFOpera for R4i Nintendo DS.)

Posted by: bandsxbands on February 7, 2010 10:07 PM
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