How does “life” attempt to imitate video games? Or, how do other media forms and corporations turn to video games for inspiration?
In some video games, character statistics are measured in numbers or grades and improvements in abilities are correlated to increased stats. In some video games, players even allocate points to different skill metrics as their character advances. The more points in your Strength skill, the stronger your attacks, etc. In others, the metrics are invisible to the player or are allocated automatically. Video game characters may learn skills by leveling up or by using a particular weapon until one “learns” the skill completely. Video games have distinct, achievable skills for players to learn and the system rewards players with points (experience, grade, rank) and achievements when milestones are passed.
Gameification is a huge draw for companies. You can turn your boring professional conferences into fun experiences through gamifying the conference with an app. Take a picture. Answer a question. Scavenger hunts. Rewards. All of these draw inspiration from the video game achievement. People like to play games. People love to be rewarded.
The fitness website, Fitocracy, uses an achievement and game model for fitness goals and workouts. You gain experience points for every workout which helps increase your user level. You gain achievements for different types of workouts and repeated regimens. The Fitbit and other wearables also tap into a video game sense of accomplishment through the quantification of health metrics. Each step is like an experience point and each goal a new level.
But, don’t video games also try to imitate life? Simulation games are a popular genre. The Sims 3 sold 1.4 million copies in the first week alone and Second Life has attracted researchers from a variety of disciplines.
The language of role-playing games (RPGs) also suggest an attempt to locate the real in the fantastic. The very phrase “experience point” denotes a discrete, measurable achievement earned through the experience of a particular event or activity. In some games, one gains experience points for simply discovering a previously unknown location. Experience isn’t always gained from combat. Some games emphasize very “real world” achievements in lieu of more fantastical elements of combat and magic.
In the MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, several character classes are devoted to crafting and gathering. You can gain achievements and experience for things like fishing, gathering herbs, making clothes, armor, and weapons, and chopping down trees. Through the use of fantastical environments (fishing on a river in a magical forest while water elementals frolic around you), Final Fantasy XIV turns the mundane chore of chopping wood into discrete, achievable blocks of experience that result in easily visible rewards (access to better equipment, the ability to find rare fish, titles and achievements to show off, and, of course, a musical fanfare when you level up.
There was something very soothing and fun about fishing and logging in a video game. Despite the hours I spent gathering through a rather monotonous process, it never felt boring. Every level I gained on my Fisher was a reward the game gave me for a rather everyday experience. Finding that Princess Trout for my level 10 Fisher quest was my first big land and, as the Fisher Guildmaster told me, “no one ever forgets their first.” And, I didn’t even need to get my feet wet!
In fact, the gameplay of the Animal Crossing series is based upon the very mundane (yet frightening to this queer millennial) realities of American capitalism: the perils of home ownership, debt, consumption, and neighborly appearances. In Animal Crossing, you create and control a humanoid character who moves to a new town for a new life. The game opens with you reaching your new town and seconds after you get off the train than you meet Tom Nook – the tanuki who owns the town store. Conveniently, he is also the town financier and in no time at all, you are 20,000 bells (the game currency) in debt for the new house you just bought.
Animal Crossing has no clearly defined objectives or plot. There is no story or driving force. Players are simply encouraged to just live a life in Animal Crossing. You can go fishing, collect fossils and bugs for the museum, beautify the town with paths, gardens, and other features, and do favors for the anthropomorphic animal townsfolk. The game continues whether or not you are playing by using the game console’s clock to measure the passage of time. Days pass and seasons progress. The game encourages you to play at different times so you can find that nocturnal fish or attend that party your frog-neighbor is throwing. Or, you can choose to not to play. Your house can gather dust. The townsfolk wonder where you are. But, life in Animal Crossing goes on with or without you.
Animal Crossing is a video game that feels an awful lot like work. You spend a lot of time catering to the needs of the townspeople, especially in the latest iteration, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, where you are also immediately elected (crowned?) mayor upon arrival. Here, the burden of affective labor comes in, where the player spends time and energy devoted to the desires of the townspeople who may or may not be happy with the new fountain you installed in the park you spent hours landscaping. Affective labor is also a feature of other games, such as Diner Dash and Cooking Mama.
But, you might ask, what happens when you pay off your loan? What’s the point of the game, then? Have no fear, capitalism always has a response: a bigger house! When you pay off your loan, Tom Nook gets to work on upgrading your house – for a loan larger than the first, of course.
In Animal Crossing, there is always a loan to pay off, a house to further furnish and improve, clothes to buy, fossils to find, bugs to catch, neighbors to catch up with. The achievements in Animal Crossing are the achievements of capitalism. Buy a home. Then a bigger one. Upgrade often (As my grandmother says, “new is nice”). Consume. Remain in debt constantly. Yet, unlike Animal Crossing, it is difficult to choose not to play.
One could imagine what would happen if Tom Nook charged interest. He was rather trusting to give a loan to a complete stranger without even a credit check. Unable to find the bells to cover your payments you neglect to play out of fear. Tom sells your loan to your elephant-neighbor at a subprime rate. Your house is foreclosed on and your house and furnishings are sold. The market crashes and the town declines under the weight of an economic collapse. Anthropomorphic animals attempt to drown themselves. Is Tommy Nook too big to fail?
What do you think? Does life imitate video games? Do video games imitate life? Is this a distinction that is even worth drawing?