Street Fighters: Thoughts on the Video Game Voice Actor Strike

The voice actors strike brings to light questions about the boundaries between work and play

On Friday, SAG-AFTRA, the union representing voice actors in the video game industry officially went on strike. This comes after breakdowns in negotiations between the union and several major companies in the industry over workplace treatment and safety and compensation for actors. Workers are striking against some of the largest names in the business, including Electronic Arts, Activision, and Disney, companies with large amounts of resources behind them and that set the standards and tone for the industry as a whole. This strike is important not only because it demonstrates the importance of collectively organizing to achieve fair working conditions, but because it also points to broader issues surrounding the proliferation of immaterial labor in contemporary life and the increasingly blurred distinctions between labor and leisure.

Strike GIF

Voice actors are striking over transparency in what roles they are given and the nature of projects and for secondary compensation for successful games that sell more than 2 million units. In addition, they are also striking for better  working conditions, such as limiting  the amount of time actors can perform physically demanding voice and screen capture work. After two years of negotiations, these issues have been unresolved and SAG-AFTRA has initiated a strike in response. The strike seems to have a lot of support from players, fans, and actors themselves. Will Wheaton has voiced his support and voice actress Tara Strong (the voice of all your childhood faves) has tweeted about the treatment she and other performers have been subject to.

Not everyone, however, is on board with the strike.  The Voice Realm, a voice-over casting site, is already positioning itself to take on the work that the striking workers won’t do. In other words, they are willing to be scabs. Others are criticizing the voice actors, calling them ungrateful and reminding them that there are others waiting in line to do these jobs who would do the work for far less. In a time where unions are under attack in many industries, we must fight back against critics who will try to position unions as unnecessary hindrances. Unions exist so that the rights of workers can be protected and advanced against the interests of the company who is looking to exploit them.

This strike is unique because it brings to light many questions about the boundaries between work and play, boundaries that have been increasingly blurred in contemporary life. Video games are a medium that is able to manifest play in countless new forms and transform work so that it no longer appears as such. It relies upon immaterial labor, work that produces immaterial products like knowledge, emotional responses, and relationships. Work and play have blended so seamlessly when it comes to video games, in what Julian Küchlich calls “playbor.” As Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter note, “game making blurs the lines between work and play, production and consumption, voluntary activity and precarious exploitation, in a way that typifies the boundless exercise of biopower.”

The problem that arises is that immaterial labor not only disguises the work that is done by creative types like programmers and actors, but it also disguises the work done by everyone else. While the voice actors are one of the most visible aspects of games, there is a whole chain of forces that must come together in order for a game to be released. This includes actors, testers, programmers, artists, musicians, and designers. But, it also includes janitors, office managers, and the workers who manufacture the physical disks. At all levels, labor is done so that a game can be produced and sold. All immaterial labor has supporting material infrastructure underneath it. Like code itself, you aren’t meant to see its inner workings. When functioning properly, you aren’t meant to see it at all.

Homer Bush GIF

This is a characteristic of almost all digital technology work today, not just video games. It includes non-creative workers like Uber drivers, mechanical Turk workers, writers, Google book scanners, Amazon warehouse workers, and the people who make sure your Facebook feed is PG.  This labor behind it is meant to be hidden and disguised as routine, mundane, and normal. It is disguised by code and design, refashioned as a labor of love, and then made pervasive through exploitative practices like “crunch time.” For players, playing video games can be considered be a “form of consumption that reinforces the pleasures of work.” We are conditioned to believe that in order to do the things you love, they should be done at any cost. But, for the companies, it means we should do them at no cost. This isn’t to say that people should not take joy in the work they do. But, it doesn’t mean you have to accept being exploited by your employer to work in the field you love.

Much of the success of the video game industry relies on the underpaid labor of its workforce and the unpaid labor of fans and players. Corporate managers discourage unionization and are known to remind workers that they are lucky to work in a such a cut-throat field on creative projects that are meant to be enjoyed.  They manipulate the desires of creative workers in order to manufacture precarious working conditions. The joy of play is used against workers by managers and anti-union critics in order to dismiss their serious grievances. They fashion play, a world-building activity that has potential for the radical transformation of people and society, into a weapon to be used against organizing efforts.

We have been given an opportunity with this strike. Situations like this bring to the surface all the small, myriad forces that come together to provide us with consumer products. These are not just the issues workers face in one industry, but the issues of people around the globe. Instead of calling those who demand better treatment and compensation for their work ungrateful, we should stand in solidarity with the strikers and use this as an opportunity to demand better working conditions at all levels.


Digital Doldrums: A Review of Ready Player One

Would you like to save your game?

I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One in the same fashion that many of us consume culture today: obsessively and all at once. This was fitting, as the culture Cline describes in his novel is one of binge consumption. While I enjoyed the immersive world that Cline portrayed and the extensive knowledge of popular culture that went into its creation, I still put the book down with a feeling of dissatisfaction. I was dissatisfied not with the dystopian narrative (which can feel tired due to its transformation into a cliché), but with the banality of its acceptance. Ultimately, Ready Player One is an example of a nerd’s ultimate wish fulfillment – where an obsessive knowledge of popular culture can save the world from tyranny.


Ready Player One depicts a dystopian future where climate change has wrecked much of the planet and governments are mostly ineffective. Poverty and inequality are rampant and people have taken solace in the online virtual world of OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). Originally designed as a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), OASIS quickly took off as a virtual space where  people gather to meet, work, shop, play, and live. When the lead creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind a hidden Easter Egg and initiates a global contest where the person to find the Egg and gather the most points will inherit his vast fortune, control of his company, and the OASIS. The protagonist, Wade Watts (or Parzival: his online avatar) is an Egg Hunter who grew up in the OASIS and has devoted his life to solving Halliday’s riddles and finding the Easter Egg. When Wade discovers the first clue to finding the Egg after 5 years of searching, the contest kicks into overdrive as he competes against other hunters and the nefarious Innovative Online Industries (IOI) to solve Halliday’s final puzzle.

The world, the real one, in which the novel takes place is depicted as a horrible place to live.  Hunger is rampant and power outages and food shortages are common. Wade lives in a vertical slum where trailers are stacked in order to save space. Poverty is the norm and debt bondage its punishment. When you fail to pay a debt, bounty hunters are sent to collect you and bring you to a labor facility where you can work off your debt. Of course, you must also pay for the resources the company uses to take care of you, so often you find yourself in a never ending cycle of debt and labor. A debtor’s prison disguised as a company town.


While people use the OASIS as a haven for escape from the harsh realities of the world, we find that the glamorous world of OASIS isn’t so perfect either. While it only costs 25 cents to make an OASIS account, money (credits) are required to do most things within the virtual world, from travel to buying items to going to a virtual club. At first, Parzival spends most of his time at his virtual school, simply because he can’t afford to go anywhere else. Further, since OASIS credits are the dominant global currency, people who work to pay off their debt often work in the OASIS. The inequality of the real world is also the inequality of the virtual.

Ready Player One fully embraces the logic of digitalism. Digitalism can be described as the belief between a stark, but symmetrical, distinction between the material and the semiotic and what Matteo Pasquinelli characterizes as “the cult of the digital network.” Here, the Internet is conceived as a digital utopia, where we are freed from the confines of our human bodies in order to embrace the superiority of the mind.  From this perspective, human differences are collapsed and race, gender, social class, sexuality, and other embodied aspects supposedly disappear. For digitalists, the development and spread of the Internet is associated with the spread of a global democratic and intellectual culture that focuses on the desire for information to be free. As Wendy Chun describes, this view of the internet “[promises] technological solutions to political problems.” Accordingly, there is no consideration of the amount of offline labor that is necessary to sustain the online world.

In the novel, Wade develops a morning exercise routine and diet using the OASIS in order to lose weight and maintain health, as OASIS players spend much of their time stagnant. He describes his hatred of the routine and the necessity of diet and exercise. For Wade, his body is source of disgust and shame and he longs for the addictive release of logging into the OASIS, freeing his mind from the confines of his physical body. I would argue this disgust and rejection of the body is characteristic of a digitalist perspective. This is evident in the term, “meat space” which refers, usually pejoratively, simultaneously to the body as flesh and meat and the physical world more generally. One can also see this idea in action with the proliferation of products such as Soylent, Silicon Valley’s favored meal replacement drink. With Soylent, foodways involving taste, cultural history, and the joy of a shared meal are dismissed and replaced by nutrition, efficiency, and speed. The body becomes a machine to be effectively supplied with energy in order for the mind to take the reigns.


The contradictions of his world never seem to shake Parzival. When Wade learns his best virtual friend is not, in fact, a man as he assumed, but a black lesbian, she explains that the OASIS was the best thing to happen to people of color because it allowed them to hide their race. Here, racial difference is not so much as collapsed, but further reified, as discrimination is seen to stem, as Chun puts it, “from the presence of raced bodies rather than racist institutions.” Of course, none of this matters to Wade, who doesn’t feel betrayed and immediately accepts this truth about his friend. Yet, Wade agonizes over the true identity of his love interest, Art3mis/Samantha. He often wonders if she is really an old, overweight man named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement just pretending to be a woman online. Even though he repeatedly states that he likes Samantha for her mind (her true essence), he only reinforces a vision of heteronormative (online) relations, where the worst thing that could happen is that he might discover the mind he is in love with is in a man’s body!


Despite Parzival’s fierce desire to protect the OASIS, it ultimately is just an expression of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” the notion that capitalism has not only taken over the present, but the future as well. Fisher observes that it is almost impossible to conceive, let alone actualize, alternative social structures outside of capitalism. As alternatives become unthinkable, we seek only to modify the existing system, which, as Fisher points out, will never achieve anything beyond a seemingly permanent status quo. This is evident in Ready Player One. Wade and his friends are only interested in maintaining the fantasy of the OASIS as an “escape hatch into a better reality” (18), even as it is entirely enmeshed in and constitutes real relations. But, none of the contradictions of the world seem to cast doubt on their vision of the OASIS.  They contradictions only strengthen their resolve. It is very much as the acronym OASIS describes: ontologically anthropocentric.


At the end of the novel, there is an epic battle where the gunters (egg hunters) fight the IOI empire.  The battle is a nerd’s dream come true – all of your favorite technology, magic, weapons, armor, and the like from every possible video game or book or movie or TV show are used in the same battle. Voltron fights Mechagodzilla while spaceships from Star Trek do battle against arcane wizards who have access to lightsabers and the battle culminates with the detonation of the virtual equivalent of a nuclear weapon. The postmodern pastiche at its apotheosis. Cline uses the climax of his novel to show off his impressive knowledge of pop culture and his own personal canon. And, ultimately, that’s what I felt that the book was about – the establishment of the author’s nerd cred. Any critical element that the author alights upon is quickly lost in the next obscure reference.

And there are just so many references! In the effort to establish a breadth of encyclopedic knowledge, the author neglects to develop any sort of wisdom and reproduces the logic he seems to challenge in the first place. And, much like the OASIS itself and even much of popular culture today, there isn’t anything new. There is only an an obsession with the past, what Simon Reynolds calls “retromania,” and the recreation of existing social relations. Like all of our remakes, reboots, and adaptations of our favorite series, we just have more of the same.


Mama’s Gotta Work: The Feminist Origins of Wages for Facebook

Why do we do all of this work for free?

At the moment, Facebook currently has over 1 billion active users. If we were to tally the total number of posts (which would include photos, videos, and text status updates (including checkins) on the site, I imagine it would be in the trillions. Each post is linked to tons of metadata, points of information about the user including name, age, gender, locations both geographic and commercial. This information is then repurposed for targeted advertising, as you can purchase ads based on the users who fit a desired demographic, location, device, interest, or behavior. Targeted advertising is how Facebook generates the bulk of its profits. Start posting about baby showers or liking the local day care and your ads will be full of baby clothes, diapers, strollers, and other commercial objects for the soon-to-be parents. Pregnant? They might even know before you do. In short, this is how Facebook makes money.


The content Facebook users generate is the product which is then sold to advertisers in exchange for access to our eyeballs and clicks. By assembling our personalities, desires, habits, preferences, and relationships, we provide businesses with the raw material through which they extract value. Put another way, Facebook users are part of the labor force which makes Facebook run. Some have made this connection and have decided that this form of labor deserves wages.

The Wages for Facebook campaign made just this connection. Created by artist and curator Laurel Ptak in 2014, the campaign demands to know: Why do we provide untold hours of unpaid effort into Facebook so that they might generate billions in profit from that labor?

“They say it’s friendship. We say it’s unwaged work. With every like, chat, tag or poke, our subjectivity turns them a profit. They call it sharing. We call it stealing. We’ve been bound by their terms of service far too long — it’s time for our terms.”

How much money does Facebook make from us? In 2015, the average Facebook user generated $12.76 in revenue for the company. This is projected to increase to $17.50 in 2017. However, analyzed by country and region, a Facebook user in the United States generates about $48 in revenue, even though 85% of Facebook users are outside the US or Canada.


You can trace the origins of Wages for Facebook back to Wages for Housework campaign, a 1970’s Italian Marxist campaign which demanded that women be compensated for housework. The vast amount of time spent cooking, cleaning, tending house, raising children, and other duties were seen, and continue to be seen, as being done for the good of the family. Italian Marxist-Feminists sought to demystify the work in housework so that women might ultimately struggle against it. The wage was actually a step towards the abolition of housework.


The Wages for Housework campaign is the precedent for Wages for Facebook, whose goal is also to demystify:  in this case, the labor that takes place interacting with our screens. But, the skeptic might ask, how is this actually work? If Facebook users voluntarily decide to use Facebook and share revenue-generating information, then isn’t that their choice? Further, if all of this is for leisure and the joy of sharing, then is it actually labor? Ptak might say that this is the logic of capital at work – a logic that has convinced us to accept unpaid labor in many forms. We are seen not as laborers who might have solidarity in a common struggle, but as users or potential friends.

In order for the idea of Wages for Facebook to make sense, one has to make the leap and imagine oneself not as a free internet user, surfing the web and participating at will in various forms of social media, but as a laborer in the digital economy. Ptak has observed that this is a difficult leap for some to make. Indeed, the very idea of Wages for Facebook feels alien as it rolls of the tongue. But, the supposed implausibility of the campaign is not a critique. For one, since when is something we choose to do not work? What does choice have to do with whether or not something is considered work? In addition, what about the number of people whose “actual” job it is to interact with Facebook? The company employs almost 14,000 with offices around the world. Outside of Facebook itself, there are thousands of people employed in fields like advertising and PR, people who receive their own wages (or salary) to interact with Facebook and other social media sites. It is so well known that celebrities and politicians have staff managing their social media that they sometimes resort to initials to indicate when a post is actually by them rather than simply on their behalf.

Further, wages for Facebook already exist in some sense: Facebook employs many people to do “content moderation” – the constant removing of offensive and questionable material from our feeds. Facebook came under fire recently when it was revealed that humans, not algorithms, influenced what was displayed in the trending news ticker. Putting aside the question of whether algorithms are neutral (they aren’t), this situation brings to the fore issues of who does all the hidden labor that makes our online lives seem so seamless. Similar to the women who scan books for Google, much of this work is done by low-wage laborers. Clearly, there is much labor that goes into making our social media seemingly free and fun. Why not admit that our contributions are also a form of valuable labor?


While the argument for wages has gained some steam, it doesn’t yet have a strong movement behind it. There are, however, groups of people who have taken up this argument in a different form: artists and freelancers. From unpaid internships to artists and writers producing work for free, the current iteration of neoliberal capital attempts to hide unpaid labor under the guise of leisure, passion, and creativity. For the promise of future, potential earnings, employment, or skills, many people are asked to provide their work in exchange for exposure.  But, as anyone who has produced any sort of creative work online can tell you, exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Artists such as Will Wheaton have declined to write for multi-million dollar enterprises like the Huffington Post because they refuse to pay their writers. Other writers, such as Yasmin Nair have also commented on the absurd notion that writers should be expected to write for free since writing is a “labor of love” (an expression that still has the word labor in it). Sites like Patreon have come into being precisely as a response to artists who struggle to find people to support their work, transforming the centuries old practice of patronage for the digital age. If we can accept that artists and other creative workers should be compensated for their work, then perhaps we can begin to extend the argument to our unpaid labor on social media sites like Facebook.

One must be careful to not get caught up in the practicality (or lack thereof) of the campaign. As the Wages for Facebook website states, the purpose of demanding wages for Facebook is to undermine the logic of wage labor in general. Wages for Facebook is deliberately utopian; it is a form of consciousness-raising. The goal is not to be paid for our labor for Facebook, but to question labor and wages as we currently understand them. The demand for wages for Facebook is a demand to make that labor visible. And, once this labor is visible and demystified, they gamble, we can better critique and refuse it.


Additionally, demanding wages for Facebook can put us on a path towards rejecting the commodification of our relationships and the exploitation of social relations. Facebook and other sites have an active interest in not only the obfuscation of labor but in the disguising of this labor as a form of pleasure, as seen in Facebook’s potential plan to weigh posts in the News Feed based on how we React.

While most utopian dreams involve grand and sweeping changes (the eradication of sexism or racism, for example) Wages for Facebook seems deceptively mundane in scope. But, it is in this mundanity that we find its power and reach. 1 billion people use Facebook daily and it has managed to integrate itself into everyday social life on a global scale. While Wages for Facebook asks a simple question (Why do we do all of this work for free?), its reach is extraordinary in the sense that it calls into question some of our most basic socioeconomic relations (What qualifies as work?). Social relations emerge and are constituted in the everyday and it is in the everyday where our most familiar habits and beliefs are formed. Like the demand for wages for housework, wages for Facebook demands a reformulation of everyday relations.


Can We Be In Sync? A Review of Pettman’s Infinite Distraction

Infinite Distraction is a polemical look at the state of the internet and social media. Dominic Petman, a Professor of Culture and Media at the New School in NYC, expanded it from a Facebook post he wrote into a book looking at the ways in which new media increasingly modulates daily experience, through the creation of specifically tailored feeds. which are meant to disperse people into emotional micro-experiences, where “we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment.” (pg 29)
Reading this book reminded me of Bifo Berardi’s The Soul at Work, where Berardi discusses the progressive mentalization of work and the extreme emphasis on cognitive labor, which is characterized by the manipulation and combination of signs and information. Pettman would probably agree with Berardi on the two main ideas of his book: hypersynchronization (the standardization of experience) and hypermodulation (the compartmentalizing and interchangeability of experience). Berardi is more interested in the decline of worker movements and labor activism than Pettman is, and spends a good portion of his book on that topic. Berardi also focuses on the exploitation of cognitive labor, which is what Pettman also seems to describe, even if he doesn’t necessarily use that term. Hypermodulation, taken with Berardi’s of the deterritorialization of signs and capital, reveals a global structure that prevents solidarity and makes organization difficult.
Media companies and their execs and engineers believe they are free of ideology and bias in their attempts to globalize a specific type of human experience at the expense of others; an experience that is quite profitable for the companies in question. Pettman does not seek to blame specific individuals and in some ways he is correct about that, as it is difficult to accuse the media of covering up “the truth.” “Rather, incessant and deliberately framed representations of events are themselves used to obscure and muffle those very same events.” (pg 11). The best example of this is the Facebook “Trending” feed, which placed news about the Flint water crisis next to the latest Kim Kardashian selfie. Content tries to go viral. It tries “to become an event,” (pg 70) where mutually exclusive ideas are granted compatibility and legitimacy.
So, is Mark Zuckerberg’s face Facebook? Maybe so, since he is so vocal abut his work and online presence and his impact is just easier to discuss and observe. After all, no one talks about Tumblr’s creator David Karp like Zuckerberg, despite the strong negative feelings about “tumblr culture.” (Tumblr was bought by Yahoo, thus becoming absorbed into a large media conglomerate. Facebook shattered and restructured media in new ways and creates and controls a market far grander than Tumblr. I would argue Zuckerberg is more akin to Bill Gates).
While Pettman is more interested in social groups, what would he say about the role of the individual? When the individual is treated as the ultimate social unit, they can and do great and powerful things as individuals. We can point to individuals and their actions in these instances as the effect of their decisions is so pervasive, as seen in India’s rejection of Facebook’s free internet scheme, which some have called digital colonialism. His response would probably be that, while true, they are still synchronized to a strong degree to support certain behaviors and ideas that are in line with neoliberal economics, which I would agree with. Perhaps the extreme power of these individuals is the illusion resulting from hypermodulation that Pettman discusses.

The weakness of Infinite Distraction lies in its brevity. It is a short little book that explains his two main ideas and what other people have to say about attention/distraction. I like his understanding of attention and distraction as two sides of the same coin and his analysis that contemporary media is about buying bits of that attention/distraction. It would be interesting to see him discuss how people want to buy into this distraction even as they resist and moralize it. Another analysis that would have been interesting is how the culture tak surrounding these phenomena is usually centered around those who are most vulnerable (the poor, students, marginal workers, etc). For example, hypermodulation affects employment in the form of the gig economy and and the precarity of independent labor that is not unionized and protected. The eradication of and fear of difference in the form of ultranationalism and anti immigration sentiment, which is related to the entitled opinion that everything should be consumable and synchronized to my ways (read: white, male, American or Euro-centric) of thought and being. An analysis of the analog base (which bodies are designing these systems) of this synchronicity would be beneficial. Ultimately, Pettman is optimistic and argues for a rethinking of distraction as an ally which can allow us to interrupt and break traditional modes of thinking and being.

Do You Think This Is A Game?

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.

Parks and Recreation

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.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

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!

Fisher, Final Fantasy XIV

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.

Comic by H. Caldwell Tanner

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.

Animal Crossing

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?

Animal Crossing

What do you think? Does life imitate video games? Do video games imitate life? Is this a distinction that is even worth drawing?