The uneasy blurring of work and play

First published on How We Get to Next, November 2016

What if your life was taking place inside a videogame, and you didn’t know it? The simulation hypothesis is a popular brand of contemporary paranoia, with a philosophical pedigree stretching back to Descartes. At my own more paranoid moments, however, I circle a different anxiety. What if, without noticing it, we’ve begun to act as if we were living in a videogame despite the fact that we’re not — judging more and more of our lives not by standards like worth, weight, or significance, but by asking how fun, how fast, how seamless, how pleasing? In an age where software encircles not only us but also the material world, are we becoming confused about what it means to play, to take something seriously, and to bridge between the two?

Here’s a word I’m only going to use once, sealed safely inside quotations: “playbor.” It’s a clunking portmanteau of “play” and “labor,” and I first encountered it while researching a book on videogames back in 2008. I played a lot of videogames then — a vanished habit on the far side of the two young children that have since come into my life — and I was repeatedly struck by just how seriously some people took their gaming. They loved it, as you might expect. But they also worked at it, invested in it, valued it sufficiently that some even spent money paying others to play on their behalf — the better to ascend new heights in World of Warcraft and its massively multiplayer online kin.

I was sufficiently struck by this depth of feeling that I spoke about it at TED Global in 2010, along with its financial repercussions. A space station in the MMO Entropia Universe sold in 2008 for $100,000 (it proved an excellent investment—the owner re-sold it two years later for $635,000). Millions of actual dollars exchanged hands every week via gaming’s gray markets for gold farming and power-leveling. This, I told my audience, was only the beginning. Where human attention, effort, and passion flow, value surely follows. The psychological force of play was opening up intangible terrains as real as anything made from matter.

Eight years later, all of this sounds a little quaint. With well over a billion people spending trillions of human hours tending the unreal estate of their Facebook profiles, it’s hard to remember that there was ever a time when virtuality’s supremacy was debatable. What is social media if not playful, pleasurable, and extremely hard work? The problem no longer lies in convincing people that what we do for pleasure online deserves to be taken seriously. It’s more about convincing people that older, less interesting things — among them what goes on in many offices, factories, and political parties — still deserve our attention.

Let me step back for a moment. If social media is a form of play, what does it resemble? When I think of memes and hashtags — of their constant, cascading mix of high and low; horror and triviality; trolling and larking; abuse and tenderness — I think of a vast playground at the world’s worst-disciplined school. It’s tribal, infantile, anarchic, rippling with rumor and sentiment. That’s the content side of things. When I look at the interface through which this comes at us, however, I start thinking of the world’s largest casino. Every single item on the screen, no matter what its source or cause, only exists to get you clicking one more time — providing one more byte of behavioral data for aggregation and sale.

This is the core mechanic of the attention economy: a riotous carnival played out within the most immaculately calibrated of Skinner boxes. There is endless distraction to be had inside the funhouse, so long as you’ve signed up to the unread End User License Agreement. But the price paid can be high. If you’re using a free service, the saying goes, you are the product. Your time is their money — and you may feel that your moments are being sold too cheaply.

Early morning on Wednesday, November 9, Eastern Standard Time, saw me hanging out in cyberspace with the howls of the liberal elite ringing in my ears. My phone had rarely left my hand while I watched the presidential election unfold, one eye flicking across several TV channels while the other covered Facebook, Twitter, news feeds, and aggregators. In the smoldering aftermath of President-elect Trump’s victory, I bounced between the walls of my filter bubble, sharing bleak witticisms with friends and friendly strangers. It was a kind of mummery: a comfort blanket of anxious consensus.

Like most people I know, I’m now conditioned to seek safety in connectivity. Nomophobia, the fear of being out of mobile phone contact, stalks my subconscious. Unadorned, un-augmented actuality doesn’t cut it. The play’s the thing — meaning the layer of frantic signaling and belonging I carry everywhere I go. I have tried to put it down, to keep it in its place, but it keeps coming back. My phone appears in my hand before I consciously realize I’ve even removed it from my pocket. Phantom vibrations and notifications wake me, or beam themselves into the flesh against which the pocketed device usually rests.

As someone who once upon a time played eight hours or more of videogames a day, this is a familiar feeling. This is play as I remember it from the dingier end of loot runs in World of Warcraft, grinding through thousands of foes in hope of rare equipment drops — watching the minutes turn into hours. It was safe. Better, it was simple, as life never managed to be: bounteous in its rewards, predictable in its uncertainties.

Back in 2008, this was the stuff I passionately believed we needed to harness to make the world a better place — to help people get stuck into whatever good stuff might make their lives richer. I still believe it. But I’m conscious that, somewhere along the way, we may have wandered into the digital equivalent of Las Vegas without reading any of the signs.

One theme I’m circling around is the strange gulf between what most of us like, and what we want. Some neuroscientists use these words to signal two distinct types of reward in the brain. “Liking” indicates hedonic impact, meaning an innately pleasurable response to things such as sweet-tasting foods. “Wanting” indicates the existence of a motivating incentive, inducing you habitually to seek something out. It’s quite possible to be conditioned into wanting something far more than you like it—to develop a strength of desire toward a food or a drug, say, that’s wholly out of proportion to how much you actually enjoy its consumption.

Fat-laden foodstuffs; Candy Crush Saga; frenzied sexual congress with strangers; I don’t want to want these things nearly as much as I do, but what can I do about it? One thing I’ve come to believe is that willpower alone won’t work. I’m horribly weak. We all are. The habits I’ve fallen into, the spaces and routines I move through, together map a landscape of sharply delineated possibilities. Similarly, the world’s greatest experts in user experience have plans for my mediated pleasure, and if I enter the game on their terms I’m unlikely to resist for long.

But play is polymorphous, stranger, and larger than the rules of any game. And all it takes to tap into its fuller potentials is a sufficient dose of the word’s most precious single commodity — human time and attention.

In his recent book, Play Anything, author and game designer Ian Bogost equates the best play with an everyday attentiveness few adults manage to muster but that’s second nature to children. “We think fun means enjoyment, and that we want the enjoyment above all else,” he writes. “But we’re wrong. Fun is the aftermath of deliberately manipulating a familiar situation a new way… This is the pleasure of limits, the fun of play. Not doing what we want, but doing what we can with what is given.” Contrast this to the inattention we pay parts of the world that have overt designs upon us — that only want us to do whatever we want, forever and ever. Distracted, ceaselessly diverted, we forget that play ought to be the opposite of labor — performed for its own sake, its fruits weighed in no scales.

In other words, we’re committing a dangerous category error the moment we start pinning play down on a spectrum spanning work and leisure—the moment we become inattentive toward its exceptional demands. Thinking back to my gaming days, the most precious things I’ve taken away aren’t in-game achievements or status; they’re friendships, serendipities, flashes of joy or surprise. Thinking about my life today and its entwining with social media, I doubt I’ll look back and fondly recall how many followers I built up on Twitter. The beautifully binary scorekeeping of follow/unfollow, like/unlike, friend/unfriend doesn’t touch the best parts of me. What makes me glad is much the same stuff that people have been thriving on for generations: the development and exercise of satisfying skills; insight and delights found in the cracks between conventions; meaningful connection to others, and to something larger than myself.

We live in an age of user experience, girdled by software seeking something from us; seeking our contentment and asking only for our time in return. There’s much to celebrate in this — but also something that doesn’t add up. If you’re having so much fun, why are you quite so anxious? Why can’t you stop when you want to, look at your loved ones and give them your undivided attention? Is there something you’re missing? If we’re not careful, we risk failing to see what’s right under our noses: possibilities of play that begin in boredom, under-specified time, and the making of meanings within these; in the exploration of a universe that owes us no special consideration.

Play is freedom within constraint, which means improvising, tinkering, disputing the rules and debating the scoreline. It’s the sublime moment of skill before the score, the thrill of the chase. If we do live in a simulation, whoever designed it was a genius — because they knew that pleasure isn’t the point. We keep score so that we can play; we don’t play in order to have scores to keep. What should you be doing with as much of your time as you can manage? Hack the funhouse. Play in the gardens, hide in the hedgerows, climb onto the roof. Think for yourself. Take play seriously. Don’t confuse someone else’s game, however good, for the world.

This post was part of How We Get To Next’s The Power of Play month, looking at how play is changing the world throughout. Read more from How We Get To Next on Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit, or sign up for our newsletter.