GDC Notes: Clark/Zimmerman, The Fantasy of Labor: How Social Games Create Meaning

by Darius Kazemi on March 1, 2011

in gdc,transcript

These are my notes from Naomi Clark and Eric Zimmerman’s GDC session, “The Fantasy of Labor: How Social Games Create Meaning.” Any mistakes or misinterpretations are my own. This was my favorite session at GDC so far. Essentially they posit a third addition to the usual games of skill/chance dichotomy: games of labor, which reward persistence above skill or luck.

[I arrived at the talk a few minutes late. They were discussing the limitations of metrics and A/B test-driven design: you need to know the right questions to ask, and beware local maxima. I missed some, I'm sure.]

Empirically based A/B testing incorporates models of humans that are embedded into that methodology. One way of understanding design is that is an investigation of what it means to be human. As we design we model and react to ideas about what people are and how they behave. As we sculpt and create we don’t want to fall inlove too much with our creations like Pygmalion and lose sight.

When we talk about fun we mean engagement or motivation — in other words, desire. Neuroscience can tell you what part of the brain activates during excitement. Psychology can tell you about basic motivations. Economics can be useful though models are simplistic at times.

But we’re game designers, creating meaning and understanding within interactive systems. What does a player’s action mean within our game system and how do they understand that meaning? At the formal level we are desigining actions and their outcomes. Formal quantification is the level at which A/B testing happens. Formal models can give us mechanics, interactions, and tools to measure.

We have to put those interactions inside the model of a human being’s brain. We can apply theories from psychology about intrinsic/extrinsic rewards, reward schedules, etc. But psychology also tells us about the interaction between the formal and the inner world of the player. But also individual players do not exist within a vacuum. Even softer science doesn’t offer much to tell us about this; we need to start to analyze on the cultural level and become anthropologists of fun.

Games work on the level of desire because they frustrate desire. The friction between desire and what the game gives us is the heat that makes games good. In the gap between what we want and what we can’t have, that’s where desire springs up. It’s not something that simple A/B testing can explain.

Let’s talk about the desire for chocolate cake. Okay, humans want sugar because it gives us certain energy reserves so our taste buds evolved, etc. But that doesn’t explain excessive chocoholism. Maybe it came from a childhood experience, or the taboo of chocolate that causes the desire. There’s an idealized version of chocolate out there that causes a deep bottomless pit of desire for chocolate. Anyway, this goes way beyond biological needs.

Some players use Farmville to make pixelated art. But would this be more fun if it were a paint program? Part of the virtuosity is that it takes so much time to acquire the raw materials to paint with.

Bernard Suits has a term for the state of the mind of the player: the lusory attitude. Players take on obstacles just for the pleasure of taking them on. Suits uses the example of golf. I have a desire to put a ball in a cup in the ground. If I really had that desire, I would just put it in the cup. But instead we go really far away and hit the ball with a stick. It’s an interesting relationship to desire. [But I think golf players realize it's not "about" getting the ball in the cup, right?]

The idea of what desire means forms the context for these engines of desire that are games. So these cultural fantasies that lie outside of the game and the player that create meaning.

So now we talk about the cultural fantasy of labor. If we think about game mechanics,we may divide them by chance and skill. We propose a third category: games of labor. We’re not just doing this to talk about mechanics, but the cultural fantasies that power the mechanics.

Chance: what is the promise of chance? It’s a very ancient idea that you can submit yourself to supernatural forces from beyond; that fate will smile on you on by virtue of that you will be successful. You’ll be the lucky one, not all the other folks.

Skill, whether physical or intellectual, means that the game eliminates everything but the skill that is being tested. And players come in on a level field and have a contest with each other, and your own virtuosity results in your own success.

Obviously many games cross both of these categories, like Poker.

Labor: games that rely on labor mechanics are tied to the industrial fantasy: keep working hard and eventually you will earn your reward. Put in hours of work so you can get something out.

RPGs: the level grind is going through the motions of combat, laboring to level up.

Some designers see it as a pernicious trend. Dave Sirlin doesn’t find it fair that a skilled player who just started WoW can be defeated by an unskilled player with a lot time invested. The sim genre is driven by time investment; there’s skill involved in budgeting and strategy, and there’s a fast-forward that allows you to kill the time investment. In Facebook the game IS the time investment, with no fast forward button. The investment of time is attenuated, you don’t need to babysit the game, you can do other things and come back and collect your reward.

Back to games of chance. They tend to rely on extrinsic rewards to keep htings interesting: real money. But you also need to have money to put up. Skill games are also elitist: there are very few people at the top and there are few people who can compare to them.

The fantasy of labor is a completely level playing field; as opposed to real labor where there are class differences, unpredictable disasters, etc, that make it hard to even make a basic living.

Why is there a rise in games of labor? It is linked to contemporary culture. In industrialized 21st century cultures there are new lifestyles that are mirrored in these games of labor. We are taught to want and to work for the fantasy of labor. You don’t really have a desire to make a virtual farm until the game explains to you that that is what you want.

Games are defined by the edges of their worlds. In GTA you hit a wall at some point where you can’t do things. Labor games are defined by the moments where you have to stop and do real work, or when they make demands on you extrinsic to the game. The most common form of friction: come back later, you have nothing left to do. There’s no more work for you today, we can’t pay you overtime. There’s the rotten crops mechanic, and in the fantasy of labor this is what happens if you fail to show up for work on time. The need for help from your friends: you need people to click a button to make your labor driven enterprise a real success.

What about some alternative forms of friction? Some are classic, like chance. The fantasy of chance is different than of labor. The idea that you are going to be selected, the special one. Skill mastery is another thing that is left out of the fantasy of labor. Even the PVP mechanics you see in some FB games are less about skill and more about perserverance and optimism. But what else is there?

There are games that combine chance and skill, with a risk/reward scenario. How about rule-breaking and misbehavior? A hoax is a game where not everyone knows they’re playing. One of Frank Lantz’s favorite sayings is that a good game should make you feel like you’re cheating, that you’ve figured out how to slip your own strategy past the watchful eye of the system (which goes back to the chocoholic taboo). We can break the level playing field of the game. Give players asymmetric roles (SpyParty). Then there’s the idea of players as creators. Players make intensely interesting design decisions about their decks in magic. Not just user generated content but giving players the ability to be designers in a deep design space.

We want to dive deep into a particular mechanic: gifting. Gift giving is an ancient part of human culture. Gifts are expected as part of relationships and they come with expectations and pressures to reciprocate. Western culture gifting is one example. A potlatch of NW coast native Americans is competitive gift-giving to redistribute wealth. Honor goes to the people who can give away the most. This is not just about gifts themselve but it’s about status and special relationships and honor that you get through being a gift giver. Can we use these ideas to deepen gift giving?

These are not just alternate game mechanics. They are alternate fantasies and desires that we are offering players. The danger is that like a pickup artist, we instrumentalize our players and get results that impoverish what it is to be human. Both the pickup artist and the person being picked up are instrumentalized. It does not leave to long term relationships. (Some maxima are more local than others!)

When I think about cultural traditions like the potlatch and compare them to gifting works on FB where you can shotgun gifts to friends and you get hundreds of requests, clicking “yes yes yes” to give things to them. We are impoverishing something that could have more meaning and value and hooks to compel and engage our players.

We need to expand the vision of the way designers think of desire beyond the formal level. If we don’t do this, games will not become the predominant cultural form of the 21st century. We are architects of new social systems using technology that carry with them forms of social meaning that draw on things from the past. But as designers, what are we going to do with these systems? How can we make them more meaningful? Let’s not choose to be pickup artists. Let’s choose love.


Lucas March 1, 2011 at 11:03 am

Naomi Clark discussed this in an interview on the Another Castle podcast.

Lucas March 1, 2011 at 11:26 am

—though not in as much detail. Thanks for taking and sharing these notes. (Please pardon the terseness of my first comment.)

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