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Tag: Julian Dibbell

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

A Hard Day’s Night of Fake Work

Playing video games. Original photo by R Pollard.

Original photo by R Pollard.

I’ve been playing a lot of Game Dev Tycoon, a business simulator in which you start and build a game development company. (Hat tip to Way Spurr-Chen!)

Sonya: “This game is so addictive.”
Alex: “That’s how you know it’s good!”

It is bizarre that I come home after work, usually drained from relating to people all day, and I want to pretend to go right back to work. A business simulator is most compelling when it mimics real professional stress. Game Dev Tycoon‘s appeal is the edge-of-your-seat anxiety that arises from owning a hypothetical small-to-medium business. You have to watch your revenue like a hawk, balance decisions about future investment against the necessity of meeting payroll, and respond to the vagaries of the market.

In his book Play Money, journalist and MMORPG expert Julian Dibbell talks about this trend — the convergence of work and play — in what you might call “post-developed” countries. He hypothesizes that it’s a condition of late capitalism. When your daily tasks consist of manipulating symbols on a computer screen, the content of work starts to closely resemble the content of recreation. Or vice versa?

Facebook, Tinder, and their ilk bring everyone’s social life into the fold as well. Your entire experience of the world can be directed through a carefully designed software interface, constructed to guide you toward certain actions and away from others.

For the most part, none of this is new. Board games and card games are also best when they involve resource management and strategic goal attainment. But the internet and ubiquitous computing greatly increase the scale of our reliance on interactive Platforms™ for employment, entertainment, and community.

Misbehaving Keyboards

“the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen” — Julian Dibbell

A linguist would quibble that words are events all on their own, but I think Dibbell is making a useful distinction. Talk and text are meant to convey information; code and clicks are meant to produce outcomes based on certain rules. Because of this, using a computer grants personal agency in a very immediate way. You have the ability to provoke particular effects. Barring a malfunction, the results are predictable and usually instantaneous.

However, malfunctions refuse to be barred for long. The user’s power is withdrawn when an error occurs. Unless you deeply understand the technical problem, it appears that the machine has changed its mind for no reason. Interacting with a computer is a microcosm of navigating the world — mostly your actions proceed as planned, but occasionally something breaks for no discernible reason. In these moments you realize how little you can actually control.

Of course, the linguist is ultimately correct. It’s impossible to disentangle word and deed, especially when it comes to computers. We inhabit a strange reality where ideas are true and false at the same time — it’s a struggle to grok such contradictions.

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