I need to complain about video games that feel like work

Let’s talk about video games that feel like work. There is much discussion about gamification – a strategy of making work easier by making it feel like a game – but what about workification? That’s a new term I’ve coined and will never again use to describe video games that have stripped away all the fun to leave only repetitive tasks to be completed for minimal gain. There are many reasons developers might workify their games. All should be rethought.

I thought up this horrible jargon while playing Pokémon Go. Yes, I still play Pokémon Go. It’s a great way to spice up a monotonous walk around your neighbourhood, one you’ve done 300 times since lockdown began. But the other day I realized I was not really playing. I was working.

You see, I’m level 36 and I need 2,000,000 experience points to reach level 37. Most actions reward you only a few hundred points at a time, so it pays to plan if you’re looking to level up quickly. I figured, let’s come up with a strategy on how to maximize experience gained per minute spent playing. But that’s not really playing anymore. I’m finding efficiencies so I can invest less on payroll.

This example isn’t really a Pokémon Go problem; it’s a me problem. I can continue walking around catching Pokémon – you know, playing like a normal person – and the only difference will be I’ll reach level 37 in June instead of in a week.

But you can’t play every game as though you were a normal person. Sometimes games demand you play like you were an unpaid intern who has been falsely promised a real job if they follow orders, and who clings to that belief as the tasks they are asked to do become increasingly ridiculous.

Free to play? More like free to work … for free

Free-to-play games are often the worst offenders when it comes to video games that feel like work. That’s by design. Yeah you could play for free, but it sucks to do so. If you want to play like a normal person, you gotta pay. (Side note: Pokémon Go is free to play, but it’s extremely easy to not spend money in that game. And it is generous in terms of giving things away.)

I usually avoid these games, but sometimes one sucks me in. Magic Arena is one such game. Or, I guess I should call it a client. It is one way to play the Magic: The Gathering trading card game digitally (there is also Magic Online, a game that is not free to play and has graphics rivaling those of preinstalled card games found on Windows XP computers). Arena lets you play a couple of constructed formats and draft, and it even sets you up with a few cards when you create a new account. It’s here your work begins.

The main way to get cards is to open packs. As you do, you earn wildcards, which you can redeem for any card that’s the same rarity as the wildcard. You can buy all the packs you like, but you can’t buy wildcards directly, nor cards themselves for that matter. You just have to hope you open the cards you need and buy more packs when you don’t.

There is one option, I guess

Your other option is to play draft, a format in which you build a deck based on packs you and seven other players open and pass around. It’s the best way to get a ton of new cards at once. Drafts are a popular way to play the game, but even they feel like work when you do them mainly to acquire new cards. That’s especially true if you aren’t a fan of drafting. You’re probably going to be worse at it than your opponents and you probably won’t win much, which means you’ll be rewarded with fewer packs. Not only will you be drafting because you feel like you have to, the process will be a slog. Or, you’ll give up and just shell out a ton of dough to buy packs.

In real life, you might do a couple drafts to try to get cards you need, but you would never base collecting cards around cracking packs. Most people – including the store’s employees – would try to dissuade you from spending hundreds on packs because you’ll invariably spend way more than if you had just bought the cards themselves. In real life, you can trade away cards you don’t want if you open them. Arena doesn’t give you these options.

Arena, like Pokémon Go, isn’t the worst offender in this space. Plus, if you like drafting, Arena provides a quick and cheap way to do it. I only bring it up because it’s the free-to-play game I have the most experience with and because I stopped playing it because it felt like a slog.

A genre trope that needs to be fired

I don’t agree with it, but at least I understand why there are so many free-to-play video games that feel like work. It’s to get suckers like me to spend money on the game. There are still a ton of games out there that don’t have that excuse.

Fans of role-playing games will be familiar with the term “grinding” (which incidentally also gets used to describe the free-to-play experience). This refers to the process of willfully entering myriad battles against weaker enemies to level up your characters so you can take on stronger enemies. You need to beat these stronger enemies to get to new areas and advance the story, which is the main reason why you would play an RPG, so grinding is essential.

Look, I don’t have to explain why moving back and forth to trigger a random battle, then mashing Attack until the enemies die, then repeating is a tedious and unfun process. You’re just doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and

I do get it from a flavour perspective. The game is emulating the experience of training. You’re slowly getting better at fighting, slowly becoming stronger. But somewhere during testing someone should have said, “hey, it is extremely unfun to train to be a knight. It is even less fun to repeat this process between every single dungeon.” Somehow that didn’t happen, and instead “grinding” became a trope that defines the genre. So much so that some games have things like auto-battle features that make the process a little easier. Why not get rid of it entirely?

For some reason, I still love RPGs. I read reviews carefully for notes on how bad the grinding is in a game before I buy it though. It’s the only genre I know of that has embraced a poor design decision in the name of world building.

Video games that feel like work include those that make you work

You know what feels like work? Working. When a character asks me to do work for them and I do that work for them, that feels like working to me.

Games have been padding out their content through side quests for ages. The problem is, it’s difficult to design fun auxiliary content that works with what your game already does. Side quests aren’t the main reason people play a game, and the statistics on Playstation Trophies suggest most people don’t even engage with them. It doesn’t make sense to put massive amounts of resources toward developing them.

That leaves us with thousands and thousands of what are called “fetch quests”. The name says it all. A character asks you to get something and they give you a reward if you do. These are fine in small doses, but after fast travelling to the other side of the game’s world to get a mushroom for the 50th time, I get bored.

Side quests themselves aren’t the issue here, it’s just bad ones. I happen to love those side quests from Final Fantasy games where characters ask you to whip some unusually large monster that’s causing problems in a nearby area. Sure, that’s work too, but it’s fun work. You’re basically a weird monster assassin now, rather than some neglected stepchild whose only purpose is to run errands for mother.

To their credit, side quests are definitionally optional, so if you find them unfun you can just skip them. That hasn’t been the case with the other stuff I’ve talked about here. Though it’s interesting to think you could optionally make the video game you’re playing feel like work.

Time to punch out for the day

I picked a real annoying topic to write about this week. Oh well, it’s over now. It seems there are three reasons developers might create video games that feel like work:

  1. Monetization
  2. Poor design decisions
  3. Lack of resources

This phenomenon feels unique to the medium of video games. Movies, books, music, and other entertainment might be boring, but they never replicate the feeling of working in a job that sucks in the same way an interactive medium like video games does. Although, there’s no incentive to keep watching a boring show or listening to a dull album. In a boring video game, I might get a few points or an achievement if I keep it up. Isn’t that the whole logic behind the gamification of work? Maybe one day one of these games will pay me to be bored. I doubt that though.

Have you ever played a game that felt like work? Tell me your experiences in the comments or on social media!

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