The views and thoughts below are purely my own, and are not meant to represent my employers, minions, affiliates, or superhero alter egos.

The MMORPG Work Ethic

I don’t see a conflict in talking about games and work in the same breath. The truth is, games – and especially MMORPGs – prey upon our desire for quick, simple, self-contained work. The pleasure that millions upon millions of players derive from these types of games is that they are told, in no uncertain terms, exactly what work must be done, they do that work, and within a few minutes it is completed.

Compare this with the ambiguities and frustrations of almost any other kind of labor. As far as my experience, extended through my friends and peers, goes, there is always some level of ambiguity, some number of unexpected difficulties that arise, in any line of work. It can arise from unclear specifications from a client or organizational component, or the mistaken belief that small changes on the surface of a system correspond to small changes to its internal components. Gaming controls this experience, providing work whose completion triggers the same self-satisfaction as completed tasks, closed issues, and checked boxes, but eliminating the risk of months of stagnation or struggle. I submit that this is the primary attraction of games with “farming” mechanics (easy repetitive actions in order to gain marginal rewards) and that the mode of expression of busiwork – typically as some form of stylized violence – is a secondary feature.

The Work Ethic

In this light, when examining a game like WoW with the distance of hindsight, I see it as a wasteful endeavor. I don’t wholly regret the time I spent playing WoW, or Diablo II, or any other of a number of games, but I wouldn’t return to them with this perspective. What I have derived from them is a continual craving for well defined tasks of definite length. Playing these games strongly develops, perhaps even overdevelops, this desire, along with a notion that small, concise components playing up towards a larger goal are highly desirable.

Valve, Microsoft, and Blizzard are the three biggest vendors to codify this idea with Achievements, a system that rewards players with points for small tasks, and grants much larger bounties of points for completing certain sets of Achievements (these being a kind of meta-Achievement). WoW, in a meme-conscious choice, parodied itself with “Over 9000”, an Achievement for reaching 9000 Achievement points. These point systems rarely provide any rewards to the player in terms of an expanded gameplay experience, but they are still avidly collected by a significant fraction of players.

These games teach their players that work is good, that completing tasks is a pleasure in and of itself, and that larger tasks formed of multiple smaller tasks are especially sweet. This connotation between work and pleasure has two characters, driving both towards an instinctive dedication and respect for labor, and, simultaneously, towards an attitude of obsession. It inspires the traditional work ethic: a constant striving to do good work, completing tasks efficiently and to the best of one’s abilities, but it especially threatens modern intellectual laborers with overwork and exhaustion.

Translating From Game to Labor

What I’m about to say could be applied to many fields of work, but I have a particular knowledge of the mechanics of software development. I will therefore direct these thoughts more specifically towards that domain, and leave it to any interested reader to draw parallels with any other domain.

A common practice among software teams is the employment of an “Issue Tracker” or “Bug Tracker”. These are simple pieces of software based on the core idea of a shared To Do List, although they offer increased flexibility and organization, including useful concepts like “assigning” an item to a team member, and forum-like threads for each item. Issue Trackers are especially well suited to the mentality derived from these Achievement Hunting and Farming mechanics, as the issues themselves represent the same simple, completeable components that Quests, Achievements, and Levels do in an MMORPG.

There is a danger here, as mentioned above, of developing an obsessive desire to solve issues – sometimes to open, investigate, and solve them as an iterative process. Presumably, these will lead at some point towards an improved level of automation or cleanliness in Globus’ internal services, or at least, that is the conclusion that the gaming mentality encourages. In fact, this approach to problems, perhaps especially in the context of an Issue Tracker, is an easy waste of time. As I finally near the closing of an issue I opened in my first week at Globus, I realize the desire to pick off all of the small fry didn’t push anywhere near as much of the progress as the team managers’ insistence on keeping the big items on the radar.

The guiding principle that can be extracted here is not to always focus on the easy parts of a problem, which are satisfactory, but instead to be attentive to the most difficult, insurmountable challenges. Although this may be less enjoyable in the short term, resticting oneself to the low-hanging fruit is stifling, and in the long term can prove to be a dangerous, or at least detrimental, policy.

###From Game to SALVE###

One of the points of focus for me when discussing work ethic is SALVE, which only has my desire to produce a quality product as a driving force. Keeping that in sight is what pushed me to recently stop doing many minor, incremental changes, and focus instead on the work for version 3. There are many marginal improvements I can make – notably the behavior of directory CHMOD and CHOWN operations on SALVE generated directories – but they aren’t priorities on the same scale as the File System modeling for better verification prior to execution. Setting details aside (feel free to contact me if you’re curious), the project is healthier if I continue to tackle the hardest problems first, rather than letting the easy parts satisfy my desire for completed work.

Should We Continue to Play?

Something that arises relatively quickly when we draw connections between play and work (as opposed to the other way around), is the question of whether or not these games are truly a relaxation, or just an extension of modern work life. That’s not a question that I’m fully prepared or equipped to answer, but I will say that they feature the unique characteristic of being entirely under our control as players. I can choose whether or not to play Dark Souls this evening, while I can’t so easily choose whether or not to work tomorrow.

That distinction is further blurred in MMORPGs by real-time restrictions, and coordination with other players. For my own part, I never liked the idea of comitting to a regular time to form player groups – Tuesday night Raiding in WoW, for example – as it adds a component of obligation not otherwise present in these games. Perhaps that is the source of the overwhelming popularity of PuGs, “Pick up Groups”, which form spur-of-the-moment and match-making systems, as opposed to organized Guilds and other conglomerates of players.

The only multiplayer gaming I really do these days is coordinated with friends of mine on Xbox Live, whenever we all happen to be online. This removes a lot of the burden that makes gaming too much of an alternate form of work.

I wouldn’t necessarily discourage people from picking up these games, and trying the easy, comfortable, well-controlled busiwork, but I caution against mistaking those same sensations in day-to-day labors for metrics of success. This is probably ripe territory for psychological research, and has spawned many interesting attempts to use gamers’ desire to solve puzzles and achieve incremental awards. Probably the most notable repurposing of achievement hunting that I’m aware of is the EteRNA project, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in abstract puzzle games, or RNA or Protein folding.

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