A popular phrase these days is “If you are not paying for it, you are the product” the thing is, with social media of all types - including multiplayer games, even if you are paying for it you are still the product, what’s more you are the workforce too.
That is, multiplayer play can be seen as a form of ‘productive leisure’ or more simply labour.
Looking more widely, a useful but perhaps gross simplification of the range of notions of play-labour may be seen as sitting on a continuum with utopian views of play at one end and dystopian views of digital labour at the other.
At the utopian end there is the view that I term Ludotopianism (http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2009/02/ludotopian.html) the idea the play outcomes can make the world a better place. The kinds of game that advocates of this ideology such as McGonigal (http://janemcgonigal.com/) espouse tend to be things such as ARG’s that requite an intense investment on the part of some players to achieve the game goals. While these goals are framed as socially good outcomes what is occurring in the practice of play is clearly a form of labour that is, in the most part, un-paid. Simpler versions are things like Google’s Image Labeler (http://images.google.com/imagelabeler/).
At the other end of the spectrum is the dystopian view that: practices of digital production have been turned into a way of for the capitalist system to profit from our every action and inaction, making us willing participants in breakdown between leisure / work / home to the point that we enjoy the act of commoditising our identity.
Morini & Fumagalli reference Marx’s Das Kapital to provide a direct link with immaterial labour:
“No matter how variously working tasks or productive activities can be considered useful, it is a physiological truth that they are functions of the human organism, and that all these functions, their content and their shape are essentially expenditures of brain, nerves, muscles, human organs (Marx, 1964: 68)”
From this kind of link to classical Marxism the dystopian view of ‘free intangible labour’ has multiple facets. It charts a shift from a division of leisure and labour that were separated by space, time and practices; through ones where tele-working and mobile communications devices gradually eroded the barriers between home and work; to the present day state where our very expression of self is set within a prescribed valorized structure in which we constantly strive to perform ourself yet are simultaneously alienated.
Thinkers have variously described this as “shift from industrial-Fordist capitalism to biocapitalism” (Morini & Fumagalli) or “a ‘calculable’ person, ‘one who knows his or her value as calculated by an external, refereed source’” (Hearn citing Postman).
The production of digital artefacts that typifies much of the free labour we find on the net shares many of the characteristics of labour that has given foregrounded by a strain of feminist socialist critical theory. That is, the theories which posit that certain forms of labour are systematically dis-valued by capitals structures. This process involves both side-lining the practices outside the accepted sphere of production, defining them within the context of gender roles and negating facets such of the labour practice such as components of emotional labour. Typically such activities have included child rearing, domestic work and crafts.
Like these so-called feminized forms of labour, digital artefact production is also simultaneously marginalised from the norms of capitalist production and necessary to support those means of production. Digital production is variously framed in in terms of practices including: leisure (thus non-labour), craft or self-expression. Some forms of production of digital artefacts also require emotional labour through the expression of self in the creative act.
These creative acts feed the capitalist system – we either pay for hosting or we are spectacle and spectator, a social media ouroboros swimming in a sea of advertisements.
What’s more content in the expressions of opinion from ratings and ‘liking’ to blogs theorists of left might argue far from empower individuals as certain digital rhetorics have it. Rather, with this mode of digital production we fall into a system where power asymmetries (class distinctions) that are maintained if not strengthened through giving us the illusion of autonomy and empowerment. Further we are alternatively producer, consumer, spectator, judge in a cycle constructed entirely within the constrains of the capitalist ethos. Someone is making money from our individual or collective acts, and it’s not us. The biggest trick of all is that many fooled in to believing that this is some how in or best interest through the service of democracy.
Turning to social networks, critics from the left would argue - first, that far from being a simple leisure pursuit (as some may still think) the act of networking in the circumscribed mode that social networking software confines us to serves to increase our networked-social capital which in turn increases our value as a knowledge worker. More and more we are called upon or choose to use our social networks to solve problems for our employers. We use these networks to find our next job or next employee so cutting down on the costs of the hiring process and making the network every more vital.
‘Friending’ and ‘linking’ expands the work beyond the closed utility of networks for employers – these acts turn our relationships and very being into an on going process of creating and managing our identity and the identity of others. We digitise and evaluate our relationships in where the public and data mining software to count, evaluate and extrapolate us: ‘It’s X’s birthday in Y days – by them stuff”. The irreducible is reduced ‘It’s complicated is the most subtle relationship we can attain’. When we are not present, we are not poking, or swapping, our down time is as much a metric as our up time.
By carrying a mobile phone we create a trail of data that it of use to companies at the very least to optimise networks and at best as a sellable data item, to be re-combined and sold back to us.
What then of online games? This strain of leftist critic does not seem to have paid much attention to online gaming. Though they can be likened to many of the existing subjects of contemporary Marxist analysis. Multiplayer game practise often include elements found in the analysis of: free production of digital artefacts, crafting, reality TV, feminized work, and others.
The most blatant form of the type of ethos that critics from the left critique is the multiplayer Freemium model. Here those that play for free are given the ‘reward’ or payment of being able to play the game in return for playing the game. More specifically a mass of players is needed to create the in-game community from which the rest of the business model works. Either players consume advertising and or they embody a community that instantiate value in the digital goods they buy or ‘earn’ access to through play - would you buy a digital item that has the sole purpose of decorating your room for $10 if no one knew you had it? Maybe, but would you buy another?
Thus as players we are performer, spectators in a themed reality TV show where are acts are confined to those that the designers allow us and our expression of self is confined to the brand images we have a choice of – Warcraft is a brand. Even when we are given free rain, such as in Second Life, we have so internalised these structures that what do we do – reproduce them endlessly, we create to consume and through so doing strive towards our own sense of alienation.
As Molesworth (2007) has noted (and I have commented upon elsewhere) the notion of Flâneur is highly applicable to the online game experience. Virtual Spaces are constructed to support the gaze onto the world, onto each other and self-reflexively onto us. Got to any major city in WoW and you will observe a spectacle of display. Of course this all falls within a cycle of production and consumption into which we embed our identity only to have it commoditised and spat back out at us.
The next step in this mode of production includes acts such as Guild Membership, Alpha / Beta Testing, Fan Art, Machinima and wiki’s. Each of these requires a much deeper commitment to production and consumption of the game, but let’s move to the final set: guild leadership and Add-on / mod creation.
Add-on / mod creation was the practice that Kücklich picked out in his plabour piece – here the notion of free labour is brought into sharp focus. Add-ons for things like WoW are often free though enhance the game experience dramatically – many priests will say that it’s almost impossible to play WoW at a high level without HealBot. Hence this is a direct displacement of paid labour, what’s more some Add-on’s are effectively co-opted by Blizzard – the recent quest display system is oddly similar to the Add-on QuestHelper.
The mod scene also act as a form of training and picking ground for the games industry which is taken to the extreme through selectively elevating just enough mod writers etc. to industry status, and making a sufficient public performance of this that the community is incentivised to go on creating free works that drive the sales of boxed product.
So a Marxist might suggest that games and gamification (which is just an extension of willing complicity) are a capitalist triumph because they make us happily complicit in our own exploitation. And we have not even looked at the processes within games: Animal Crossing and early training to be a wage slave ‘my first mortgage’ – anyone, anyone?
One of the main criticisms levelled at the Marxist analysis of these contemporaneous practices is that the theory really relies on exploitation – but who’s being exploited?
Certainly there are elements of Social Networking where one can put forward an argument that people give away much more than they realise – there are various consequences of this that they the individual may not intend. Though the most exploitative must be acts such as identity theft which, I believe, falls outside the sort of exploitation that the far left seek to locate in the practices.
Focusing on multiplayer games – one can describe them in terms of free labour but this seems to ignore the nature of games and ignores the goods that players receive. For multiplayer games to work there must be some minimal level of co-operation, even if that is an agreement to be and opposing player. The nature of group play is that everyone plays for themselves and for each other in the sense that the ‘other’ is needed for the game to work.
Beyond this in games, and to a large degree in social networks, individual derive pleasures from the acts that above I’ve described in terms of free labour. Here I’m not denying that it is labour, but questioning whether an analysis based on presumptions of exploitation get to the important aspects of what’s going on.
While formally I reject the social contract description of games one might take on the language of the left and oppose the notion of MMOs as synthetic model of the capitalist system by seeing them much more like a commune where the labour of each is shared by all.
“Factions of Azeroth unite; you have nothing to lose but your buffs”
Kal Marksmaker, lvl 85 Goblin
Hearn, A. (2010), Structuring feeling: Web 2.0, online ranking and rating, and the digital 'reputation' economy, ephemera, volume 10, number 3/4 (nov 2010): http://www.ephemeraweb.org/journal/10-3/10-3hearn.pdf
Kücklich, J (2005),Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry, Fibre Culture Journal, Issue 5, 2005: http://five.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-025-precarious-playbour-modders-and-the-digital-games-industry/
Malably, T., (2003), Gambling Life: Dealing in Contingency in a Greek City, University of Illinois Press.
Molesworth, M. (2007), Monsters and the Mall: Videogames and the Scopic Regimes of Shopping, The University of Tokyo,
Situated Play: Proceedings of the 2007 Digital Games Research Association Conference: http://www.digra.org/dl/display_html?chid=07312.56350.pdf.
Morini, C. & Fumagalli, A. (2010), Life put to work: Towards a life theory of value, ephemera, volume 10, number 3/4 (nov 2010): http://www.ephemeraweb.org/journal/10-3/10-3morinifumagalli.pdf