The Blurring of Work and Play

The boundaries between work and play have become increasingly blurred due to digital media technologies. Take web cookies for example. Companies such as DoubleClick.com use hidden cookies to build in-depth profiles of individual users as they surf the web:

Over a period of time DoubleClick compiles a list of which member sites the user has visited and revisited, using this information to create a profile of the user's tastes and interests. With this profile in hand the DoubleClick server can select advertising that is likely to be of interest to the user. (from http://www.w3.org/Security/Faq/wwwsf2.html)
In other words, as individuals browse the web, they become both content producers and consumers. More importantly, users are performing this work under the guise of entertainment, producing information with economic value but which they derive no profit from. Users are in fact performing free labor.

The same occurs with TiVo. As Andrejevic (2002) has pointed out, as TV watchers use TiVo, they reveal their tastes to the system which in turn caters more and more to them - a "commercial paradigm of interactive media as a means of inducing viewers to view more efficiently". This form of work benefits media companies at the expense of individuals. After all, in a strange way, consumers are paying TiVo while performing free labor.

The blurring of work and play in MMORPGs has three primary forces - economic profiteering from the sales of virtual goods, the growing resemblance of play to real work, and the embedding of real work into these environments.

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Sale of Virtual Goods

As Dibbell (2003) describes, virtual items and property in online environments such as Ultima Online have economic value, and users accumulate these items to sell for real money on Internet auction sites such as eBay. The transformation of gaming activity into economic activity is most striking in the presence of companies that pay teenagers in developing countries to "play" these games for 40 hours a week and derive a profit from selling these virtual goods for real money (The Walrus, 2004). This transformation of play into work is driven by entrepreneurial users who see the opportunity for bringing economic activity into the game, but what is more intriguing is how the increasing complexity of play in these worlds is coming to resemble real work.

The Growing Resemblance of Play to Real Work

Most MMORPGs base their core mechanics on operant conditioning, a system of rewards that increases frequency of a behavior. The rewards cycle is a random ratio schedule (exactly like casino slot machines) where a reward is given every x times an action is performed, where x increases exponentially as the user progresses. Simple actions are gradually replaced by complex, time-consuming actions and typical users are essentially trained to spend on average 22 hours per week in these environments. This is striking given that the average MMORPG user is 26 years old and about 50% of MMORPG users work full-time. As some users note,


The game just seemed like an endless race to nothing ... in other words it was more work than fun. [EQ, M, 21]

I stopped playing because I just didn't want to commit to the crazy raid times (6+ hours in the evening?) [EQ, F, 27]


But for every user who has burned out from the treadmill, there are thousands of users who are still "playing" industriously. One user articulates the seduction of achievement in these environments.

Rewards in EQ are proportional to the amount of time and effort you put into it. This is what becomes addictive, because as we grow older, so much less of our "real lives" gives us back anything measurable (and I stress the term "measurable" as in "quantitative"). "Working" and "being bored" in EQ are byproducts of our pursuit of goals for which we KNOW we will receive measurable awards. [Anon]

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In other words, these online environments are structured such that they reward and seduce you to perform complex, tedious tasks.

While early MMORPGs focused on combat-oriented advancement, recent MMORPGs have provided non-combat advancement options, so users can now choose to become chefs, hair-stylists, architects, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and yes, even politicians in certain MMORPGs. The example of pharmaceutical manufacturers (PMs) will be used to illustrate the seriousness of play in the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies.

To become a PM, a user must locate raw chemicals and minerals on the planet using geological surveying tools. Different resources have different attributes which contribute to the final quality of the product as described on each product schematic. To produce high-quality products, users must therefore find the best combination of resources through a time-consuming planet-hopping process. Resource gathering is only meaningfully performed using industrial harvesters bought from architects (other users). Even then, resource gathering is slow and users must check their harvesters on a daily basis. Raw resources are combined into sub-components in factories (also bought from architects), and then combined into the final product. Because each factory run take a few hours of real time to complete and because most products require several sub-components, users have to plan out their production chain fairly well to ensure their machinery doesn't idle and drain their capital. To complicate matters, resources are randomly replaced on a weekly basis, so users have to constantly survey for new resources as well. Finally, users must market and sell these goods on the open market, which means competing with other users who are selling similar products.

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.

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Embedding Real Work into MMORPGs

Given that MMORPGs are creating environments where complex work is becoming seductively fun, how difficult would it be for MMORPG developers to embed real work into these environments? In fact, this is already occurring in There.com a virtual world in a contemporary setting. Fashion companies pay There.com to embed test products into the environment where they can track user purchases and how often they wear the garment. More importantly, because the social network of every user can be mapped, it is also easy to spot who the trendsetters are. The information of how likely trendsetters purchase and wear a test product provides highly valuable information to the fashion companies. Of course, the irony is that There.com users are paying to work for a third-party company, with both sources of profit going to There.com.

This can be taken one step further because we know that users are willing to perform complex, tedious tasks in these environments. In fact, they have been trained to have fun performing these tasks. Consider the fact that cancer screening is routinely out-sourced to India because it is relatively cheap to train a lay-person to identify suspicious patterns on a diagnostic scan, and it is cheaper for several dozen of these workers to look at a single scan than it is to have a doctor in the US look at the same scan. Moreover, the accuracy rates are actually better because the redundancy lowers the rate of misclassifications. MMORPG environments could easily tap into their free labor pool of dedicated users by embedding real world tasks into the "game". What is clear is that there are many different ways in which real work can be embedded into MMORPGs different ways in which game developers can seduce users to pay to perform free labor.

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Conclusion

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".

References

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: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.01/gaming.html

The Walrus. (2004). Game Theories, from http://www.walrusmagazine.com/04/05/06/1929205.shtml