Games history ezine
Issue four Labour and games history September 2014
Labour and September games 2014 history
Contents Editorial Stephen Winson Cram to crunch Education and labour in the games industry
Matthew Burns Shop Steward Anachronisms from the age of microcomputers
Labour and elite The workers and settlers of Civ V
Joseph Garvin Labour and progress in harvest moon Line Hollis Roller Derby Labour, business and early televised sport
Laura Dyble Labour of souls The work ethic of demonâ€™s souls
Corey Milne Like on Facebook
for the Weekend Playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms X
Austin Walker Subscribe by email
rupazero.com Memory Insufficient is published on a Creative Commons Attribution - Non-commercial NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. More information online
Edited by Stephen Winson and Zoya Street
Editorial Stephen Winson
Stephen Winson was co-editor of re/Action, and is now a co-founder of content curation platform newsbloQ.
The first thing I thought of, when Zoya revealed the topic of this issue of Memory Insufficient, was my time playing world of World of Warcraft some 9 years ago. It was the heyday of the Chinese gold farmer, when people were actually employed to grind out piles of gold to sell to MMO players, among other tasks. Their habits were an obsession for the other players. Running through Azshara killing blood elves by the thousands for coin and cloth to sell. Making a circuit of the old Thousand Needles salt flats, killing turtles and basilisks for hours. Inviting random people only to immediately leave the group, exploiting how the game handled instances to give themselves a new one to clear. The rhythm of the economy was shaped by them. Monday night and
early Tuesday morning were the time for deals, as farmers dumped their stock on the auction house in anticipation of server maintenance. I admit to nostalgia for the days when an encounter with gold farmers only needed a little Mandarin Chinese for Warcraft Players to be resolved. It’s a lot better than wiping your computer, changing your passwords, and calling your bank; the recommended solution today. The problem is that selling in-game currency for a game you do not run has never been that profitable. Diablo 3’s “Real Money Auction House” experiment, an obvious testbed for eventual inclusion into World of Warcraft, was an abject failure. It’s not difficult to find stories of people who lost everything they invested in the “sure thing” of an official Diablo 3 items trade. Inevitably, employing people to play World of Warcraft became unprofitable as well, and the workers were laid off. Gold sellers began relying on hacking player’s accounts and draining them of as many easily saleable resources as they could, as quickly as they could, to put product on their shelves, occasionally selling anything else they could grab from their victim’s computers to make a little extra. As game companies began implementing two-factor authentication widely, gold sellers created ever more sophisticated software versions of the farmers they had employed at the start, and even that has not been enough. Today, the “gold spam” messages, which at one point were so numerous I had to install a spam blocker in the game, are all but gone from Azeroth. In a time when making a smartphone game lets you print all the gold, credits, or points you can sell, even an army of robots can’t compete. This issue of Memory Insufficient collects several more stories about farming and other kinds of labor in and on games.
Rowan Lipkovitz writes about Shop Steward Simulator, a game from the 80s with a very particular take on British trade union politics. Joseph Garvin analyzes the relationship between the Settler and Worker unit in Sid Meier’s Civilization V, and the relationship between work they do. Matthew Burns shares the story about how his intro to the business of game development was radically different from the highly profitable one being peddled to aspiring game developers today. Laura Dyble finds the answers to a question I’ve often asked in passing, laying out exactly what the heck happened to Roller Derby. Corey Milne gives us a detailed analysis of Demon’s Souls excruciating version of farming as a capitalist critique. Line Hollis writes about the Harvest Moon series, and how the fantasy of work it presents has changed throughout its many iterations. And finally, Austin Walker proposes that Romance of the Three Kingdoms X mixes “labour-play” with “leisure-play” in a way that mimics the pace or our actual lives, and that future game makers should consider. If you’ve got some time to spare from your own labors, read on. It’ll be time well spent.
Cram to crunch
Education and labour in the games industry Matthew Burns
Matthew S. Burns is a writer, composer, and game maker who lives in the Seattle area. He has worked on large-scale productions and as an indie and written for Edge, Paste, and Kill Screen.
My first job in the game industry was as a temp tester at a major publisher. I was paid $9 an hour to sit in a large, dark basement where I played and reported problems with in-development titles. Turnover was high, since there was always a fresh supply of candidates who wanted to â€œplay games for a living,â€? and training new workers for the job was relatively simpleâ€” almost anyone who has played video games for a significant length of time has noticed bugs and is able to describe them. Because of these factors, there was little incentive to retain workers for longer than 18 months, the legal limit for temps.
Some of the testers in the basement were fine with the job as a stopgap. The company was located in Los Angeles and there were many Hollywood hopefuls who took days off to go to auditions or pitch their spec scripts. But many others were there because they wanted to make games for a living. They were aspiring game designers, artists, sound designers, and writers. I was among this latter group. Unfortunately, the odds were not in our favor. Usually only one entry-level production position opened up at a time, and there were always several dozen temps who wanted to advance. Moving up in the ranks, from temp worker to fulltime employee, test manager, or â€œup to productionâ€? (literally in this case, to the production offices on the second floor) was the goal of many of the people in that basement, and the competition could be fierce. The game industry has grown immensely since then. Over the last decade and a half, secondary institutions have rapidly added game development courses to their degree programs. These range from classes at traditional public and private institutions incorporated into a traditional degree, to full programs at for-profit colleges specially designed around preparing people to enter the game industry. Previously established for-profit vocational schools were also quick to add game-specific degrees. These programs can be alarmingly expensive.
In 2005, as a junior production staffer, I shared an office with someone who was over $100,000 in debt from earning a four-year game design degree. Despite the costs, these programs are quite popular. A temp who would have been trained on the job as a tester in the late nineties could today be expected to have already taken a class on game
testing at a for-profit or extension school at their own expense. Associate and bachelorâ€™s degrees in games are such a common sight on resumes that the presence of a degree is no longer enough to place the applicant above most entry-level positions. Because the number of people who want to make games professionally has historically exceeded the number of positions the industry can support, employers can afford to be selective, and are generally disincentivized from addressing worker health and happiness in a meaningful way. Large publishers and studios regularly entrust important development tasks to a labor pool of inexperienced but enthusiastic workers who wonâ€™t question the status quo and who will gladly put in long hours and endure adverse conditions in order to achieve the dream of working on games for a living. That, in turn, results in a mid-career workforce that is constantly under pressure to ascend to lead or manager status as quickly as possible before they, as individual contributors, are replaced by younger and cheaper graduates.
How can we address this imbalance? Unionization is one idea that consistently comes up in reaction to news of poor conditions for people in the game industry. It has been discussed elsewhere in more detail, but unionization is unlikely for two important reasons. The first is the fact I mentioned above: more people want to make games for a living than there are jobs making games. The second challenge to unionization is the fact that the game industry is highly decentralized, with important studios in countries all over the world. Each of these regions comes with its own language, culture, and economic realities. It would be difficult to reach across all of those differing circumstances to find a common voice in protest.
Given the incentives for the industry to refuse to change its labor practices in any significant way, perhaps game development schools, which are now an indelible part of the industry, can help to make things better. They could educate students about conditions in the companies they are preparing to enter and help them recognize when they are being mistreated. They could address topics like stress, emotional abuse, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination, all of which are endemic in today’s studios and publishers. And they could strongly caution their students about the dangers of “crunch time.” Almost everyone I’ve spoken to who has attended a game development program has told me they crunched to finish their student games, and they’re often proud of it. Crunch time on a student game might at first seem like valuable experience: putting students through the wringer to make a game shows that they “have what it takes” to make games professionally and can survive the hazards of the job. This is a cruel logic more reminiscent of a hazing ritual than preparing someone for what is sold as a fulfilling and highly creative career. Crunching on games at school teaches students that damaging themselves physically and mentally is the only way make games, and can dissuade them from questioning the same practice when they encounter it in a commercial studio – an attitude that the studio will almost certainly exploit to their interest. When I started as a tester there was little in the way of formalized education in games, and no consensus around what a standard education for the field might be. As businesses and schools codify the profession for the sake of providing graduates that are suited for employment in the industry, it’s worth taking the time to ensure that people who enter games are prepared for the work. Not just technically, but prepared in all ways for a balanced, sustainable life of making games. Image credit: FlickrCC Tjerk Zweers
Anachronisms from the age of microcomputers Rowan Lipkovits
Rowan Lipkovits writes poems and poetic articles, plays accordion, holds picnics, bakes bread, and works as a performance coordinator for music venues in Vancouver, BC.
Work. It can feel like the same darned grind over and over again when you haul your tired bones to your boss’ gold farm every morning for thirty years, but there are a few different approaches developers can pursue when delivering a ludic representation of it. Sometimes, as in idle or casual games such as Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story (2010), toil is a function of time passed. Sometimes, as in Diner Dash (2009), the venerable Tapper (1983), or Molleindustria’s TamaTipico (2003), work done is a function of the player’s reflexes. And sometimes getting things done is a function of shrewd calculation and strategizing, as in the case of Shop Steward Simulator, a strange but serious game published in 1980.
130 PRINT “YOU ARE SHOP STEWARD AT A SMALL FIRM PRODUCING CONSUMER DURABLES.” 140 PRINT “YOU AIM TO MAXIMISE SUPPORT, NUMBER OF WORKERS, AND PAY LEVEL.” 150 PRINT “WARNING! THE ECONOMY IS ON THE VERGE OF COLLAPSE....” Printed in UK mag Computing Today, Shop Steward Simulator was written by 16-year-old Simon Goodwin, a tech industry survivor who can still be found in the blackness of the code mines today. Coming on one year after the crippling Winter of Discontent labour actions in the UK that ushered in Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal experiment, it is perhaps unsurprising that the lad’s take on the events, though seemingly well-enough informed, was unsympathetic. To keep the overhead low (and the page count high), games magazines didn’t print reviews but source code for the programs in their entirety. You’d work to earn the money to buy the magazine, and then you’d have further work ahead pecking it into a playable form. Looks like there’s just no way around work. Sure hope it turns out to be something fun!
A close reading of this game’s source code reveals three game-completion conditions, none of which can be described as victorious. Choose your poison: a) the player can be ousted by the union members for failing to adequately agitate on their behalf, 990 REM ******* LOW SUPPORT KO 1000 PRINT : PRINT “THE UNION REMOVE YOU FROM OFFICE DUE TO COMPLAINTS FROM THE WORKERS.” 1010 G=-100: GOTO 1300
b) the entire workforce can be put out on the street when their avaricious demands cause their employer to become unprofitable and close down, 1090 REM ******* BANKRUPCY KO 1100 PRINT : PRINT “THE FIRM HAVE BEEN FORCED INTO LIQUIDATION” 1110 G=-80: GOTO 1300 or c) layoffs (framed as the delightfully British “voluntary redundancy plans”) result in a workforce too small to get work done, resulting in the business again closing down. 1190 REM ******* WORKFORCE SHRUNK KO 1200 PRINT : PRINT “THE SIZE OF THE WORKFORCE MAKES THE FIRM NO LONGER VIABLE.” 1210 G=-60: GOTO 1300 As in many of the early arcade coin-gobblers, you play solely to achieve the high score. No middle ground of sustainable growth, no worker’s paradise. The best a shop steward can aspire toward in this simulator is to tread water and forestall the inevitable. Play until you die. Nice retirement plan! The game’s teenaged author was probably not keeping an eye on the Polish shipyards of Gdańsk for a demonstration of how to achieve more than merely adjusting wages to reflect the rising costs of living, the kind of banal bean-counting with which this simulation is concerned.
I will leave as an exercise to the reader the tweaks needed for a truly triumphant victory condition. Given the seemingly irrevocably adversarial relationship presented between the workers and the employer, a happy ending would probably be triggered after successfully walking the tightrope for enough turns, representing the death of the business’ aged and miserly owner and replacement by a younger boss marginally less inclined to view his
staff as a personal pool of indentured servants. As a long-time survivor in the treacherous tech industry, the game’s author probably has not had much cause to revise his adolescent opinions on labour relations. It is notoriously resistant to union organizing. Its governing ethos is designed to attract ruggedly individualistic nerds possessed of that uniquely American pathology of seeing themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. As video game publishing houses consolidated and serious money came into play, the institution of “crunch time” became enshrined and industry settled into a new rhythm. Work each new crop of of game developers until they burn out, lay off most of the remainder upon completion of a project, then recruit for the next project from students with stars in their eyes. Erin “EA Spouse” Hoffman laid it bare in 2004. Kloonigames’ 2007 “The Truth About Game Development” married the problem to its subject, presenting a simulation of a major game project whose milestones are met only by motivating staff with selective terminations. Surely now is the time for the shop steward to suspend the program and emerge from the simulator, because for too many junior developers, their work life is also a set of problems with no victory conditions.
1300 PRINT: TAB (20): PRINT “GAME OVER.” Resources S.N. Goodwin ‘ZX-80 Shop Steward’ Computing Today June 1980
Labour and elite The workers and settlers of Civ V Joseph Garvin
Joseph Garvin is a doctoral researcher in philosophy of science, coming to the end of his thesis. Heâ€™s spoken at the Nine Worlds geekfest, and writes both at his blog Game Intellectualism and for the Metropolist. He currently lives in the Hague.
The relationship between the Settler unit and Worker units in Civilization V is a strange one. In the base game, they are the two most common non-military units, far in excess of the Work Boat or any of the Great People. The Settler is effectively an independent unit. It creates the civilization, and is the unit that expands itâ€™s territory. The Worker is a subsidiary unit, existing to serve the needs of the cities, which are the products of the Settler. While the number of Settlers produced during a game may well exceed the total for Workers, at any single point in the game the population of Workers will nearly always exceed the population of Settlers. Workers can be captured as the spoils of war or raiding, becoming a unit of the conquering civilization, but Settlers cannot. In-
stead, when a Settler unit is captured it becomes a Worker. This illustrates the political difference between these units. A Settler is irrevocably linked to the civilization that created it. When a Settler is seized by a another civilization, it loses that connection - it is no longer something that can expand the territory and control of its home culture, and is now a subservient unit.
A Worker is a servant of whatever civilization can take it. The Settler is the only unit that is really, truly, necessary. If the first city isnâ€™t founded, none of the cultural, economic, or religious operations of the civilization can occur. Represented as an archaic caravan, even in the later eras, the unit description and visual appearance pushes the idea of them as a brave and ambitious group who set out to find new lands. While most are satisfied with the status quo, happy just to survive, in every culture there are a few hardy individuals willing to strike out on their own, to risk everything in the hope of finding a better life for themselves and their children. They are the only unit that can found cities and are produced in a different manner than other units. Producing a Settler taxes the resources of a city than any other unit, as it not only takes time, but also prevents any population growth and consumes some of the surplus Food of the city. It is the tool of a growing, expansionist power. The Worker is a unit that can be produced by a city, or captured from an enemy. They are also a vital unit to the expansion of the civilization, though not â€˜necessaryâ€™ in the same way. Their representation changes through the game, from primitive axe-wielding farmers up to boiler-suited construction workers, but the text is clear. They may be highly trained engineers, or civilians conscripted into labor - or, indeed, slaves - but someone has to dig the mines, plant the fields and pave the roads.
The Worker is a subsidiary unit, serving the needs of the cities and of the military. The Worker benefits the cities economically, by turning undeveloped tiles into farms, mines, plantations, and more. They also benefit cities by building roads between that allow for trade routes. They benefit the military, by building roads allowing for faster troop movements and by building Forts. While more expensive to produce than other early units, such as the Warrior and the Scout, it is both cheaper to produce than the Settler, and doesn’t come with the special costs of the Settler. The independence and uniqueness of the Settler and the dependence and interchangeability of the Worker is easily read as a statement about labour as a service to the system. Each Settler is in some way special - destined for a particular purpose (the founding of one of the civilization’s cities, which themselves grow to become vast megalopolises containing the Wonders of the world and producing interstellar spacecraft). When captured, they lose that destiny, and become instead subservient, only for the development of other’s property. They become a Worker. Workers are interchangeable, in that they can be captured and recaptured between different civilizations, and lack a singular grand destiny, in that they perform many actions. In Civilisation V, labour, in the form of the Workers, exists not for itself, but for the benefit of the Settlers and their ‘descendents’, the cities. The description and the mechanics of the Settlers place them very much as an elite within their Civilization (‘a few hardy individuals’, combined with the unique costs of producing them), while the Worker is placed as part of the masses, being ‘civilians [...] or, indeed, slaves’ who do necessary (and hence not elite) work. That labour exists to serve the needs and desires of others is built deep in to Civilization V’s mechanics.
Labour and progress in harvest moon Line Hollis
linehollis.com @linehollis “Plays things wrong and then writes about it.”
Line Hollis is a games critic writing online about things like Sierra Online and narrative theory.
There was a period in college where I played every Super Nintendo roleplaying game I could get my hands on. I soon ran out of games I’d heard of and started looking up Best Of lists to find ones I hadn’t tried. For ages, I kept skipping one game that regularly topped them: Harvest Moon, described as a farming sim/roleplaying game hybrid. People loved it, but it sounded unappealing to me. I liked The Sims and all, but couldn’t see how that kind of game fit with what I got out of roleplaying games: big quests, over-the-top narratives, character specialization. But then I found out that it had dating, and immediately realized the error of my ways.
I fell for the game quickly once I tried it, and went on to play a large sampling of its many, many sequels and spinoffs. Over the years, I found that my initial confusion about the hybrid wasn’t totally unfounded.
Harvest Moon, like other job simulators, has always struggled with the design challenge of making work fun. In particular, it tries to capture the kind of repetitive hard labor that characterizes farming (in popular culture, at least) in a moderately difficult simulation. While this isn’t the most obvious source of wish fulfillment, it trades on the fantasy of farming as simple, honest labor, rejecting modernity, and being in tune with nature. At the same time, it’s also a roleplaying game which gets a lot of its pleasure from character progress. The specific tensions in Harvest Moon’s design come from the two fantasies it tries to sell. On the one hand, it’s a simulation of steady labor and a romanticization of hard work and rural simplicity. On the other, it’s a roleplaying game with a fantasy of skill mastery and progressive dominance over your environment. The first fantasy pushes the design towards routine, patience, and changes to the game world happening slowly if at all. The latter fantasy means that as you get better, there should be more things to do and more challenges to meet your skill level. As Harvest Moon games try to fulfill the second fantasy better, the first fantasy of simplicity and honest labor gets harder to access. Indeed, in later games, the expansion of the world to meet your skills starts to feel a lot like urbanization. While this tension is present in the design, the games’ stories emphasize the return-to-nature fantasy. You usually play a young person moving to a rural area to rebuild your family farm, which has fallen into neglect while your parents worked
in the city. Everyone’s very proud of you for doing this, but uncertain that you can pull it off. It will be difficult work, but rewarding, you’re told. I can’t speak to the dimensions this narrative takes on in Japanese culture, but it’s a type of story that you see often enough in twentieth century American culture, and maybe in any highly and recently urbanized culture. There’s a sense that something was lost in the move to the big city, that the city leaves a stain on people, that this stain can be cleansed by a return to a more “natural” state. Sometimes this theme is only present in some vague framing text, but at other times it’s made more explicit. Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, perhaps the most narratively complex entry in the series, expresses this theme directly and problematically through the character of Muffy. Muffy is one of the women you can marry, a bartender at the local tavern who came from the city and often travels back there. You can see her walking to and from the road that supposedly leads to the city, although you can’t travel it yourself. If you don’t date her, she tells you about the guys she dates in the city, who perpetually break her heart; one of them turns out to be secretly married, for example. She’s depicted as torn between the city and the rural village, and if you don’t marry her, she’ll lament her unhappiness in love for in-game years. If you do marry her, your child will be less likely to take over your farm at the end of the game. Muffy is wrapped up in fallen woman tropes, in a G-rated way. She’s been stained by the city and the immorality of the people there, and she can only find happiness if a nice farm boy saves her.
Her story is uncomfortably close to the story of the farmland itself in all the games: neglected by city folk, in disrepair, in need of rescuing.
Despite all this narrative framing about returning to the land and rejecting modernity, the story arc of later games bends more and more towards economic progress, expansion of the village, and more efficient farming. The fantasy that sets the scene has a lot to do with simplicity and hard work, but the game has too much roleplaying game in its blood to leave it at that. You have to get better, to be able to do more things, to have access to more stuff. The complexity of the world grows with your skills, until it feels like youâ€™re urbanizing your environment after all. The games donâ€™t really comment on this explicitly. Itâ€™s just presented as more to do. In the original 1996 Harvest Moon, the game design more closely reflected the fantasy of intense work and rural simplicity. I found that dealing with work on my farm usually took most of an in-game day, even when I got used to it. Most of it was just running around. I had to drag my vegetables and eggs to the shipping box, run to the toolshed for a watering can, chase down weeds and break up rocks so I could run around expanding my field, and so on. I remember the first game as a race to get everything done before the sun set so I could grab a few spare moments to do other things. It was frantic.
But then winter came, and my fields froze over. Suddenly I had nothing but time. I took care of the animals in the morning, then spent the rest of the day exploring the mountain, chopping wood, or giving presents to girls. It was a huge change in the feel and rhythm of the game. There were festivals, a mainstay of the series, but there were more around fall and winter than other seasons. Just like in a lot of real world cultures, they filled the time and made things feel more lively in the quiet winter days. This seasonal cycle emphasized the themes of returning to nature in the game design as well as the framing story.
The basic style of the first Harvest Moon was mostly carried forward into 1999’s Harvest Moon 64 and other iterations of that time period. The biggest change in Harvest Moon 64 was a deeper dating sim and expanded character writing in general. This included more festivals, and more visual novel-like events associated with them. The farming simulation remained more or less the same, however, and winter felt as quiet as ever. Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, first released in 2003 on the Nintendo GameCube, represents the series peak in the complexity of the farming simulation. Unlike in previous games, the simulation ran on a continuous clock.
Plants went dry in real time, weather changed as you walked around, animals grew old and died, and cows would only produce milk for a certain period of time after giving birth. These changes made the game more difficult, but they also gave a greater sense of physicality to the plants and animals under your care. Oddly enough, until playing the game, it hadn’t occurred to me that cows only produced milk after childbirth. I was baffled when my cow stopped producing milk and didn’t understand what was happening until I looked up a walkthrough. Despite knowing in general how mammals work, being one myself, I had implicitly thought of cows on farms as machines that produced milk on demand year round, as they do in other Harvest Moon games. It’s a misconception allowed me as a city dweller, kept distant from the production of the food I eat. It may not be a coincidence that A Wonderful Life both made a greater effort to simulate the difficulties of farming and dug deeper into this urban/rural divide with elements like the Muffy storyline.
It was an experiment that was mostly abandoned, however. The next game I played was 2007’s Tree of Tranquility on the Nintendo Wii.
The change that struck me most is that winter no longer felt like winter. There were a number of crops you could grow in winter, and festivals were frequent and evenly distributed throughout the seasons. In other ways, it felt like it tilted more in the direction of a traditional roleplaying game. In A Wonderful Life, characters moved into town on set schedules based on in-world time; in Tree of Tranquility, they moved into town when you unlocked them by performing quests. It’s a shift that centers the player character and their skills in every narrative. The most recent series entry, 2012’s A New Beginning on the Nintendo 3DS, does the same thing, but is clearer in-game about what is happening. You build a house for a certain character, and they show up. These changes contributed to a flattening of the possibility space as time moves in-game. It means the games are more consistent. Every time you pick it up there’s something to do, and usually it’s the kind of thing you were doing last time you picked it up. To an extent, this shift might be related to the series’ increasing focus on handheld platforms. A flatter experience makes sense on a handheld. It’s something you pick up for varying periods of time, and sometimes you have other things going on while you play. Whatever the reason, the push of the games’ design over the years has been very much in the direction of more things to do, all the time, and more explicit reasons to do them. 2010’s A Tale of Two Towns has a quest board, Tree of Tranquility won’t unlock certain characters or areas until you collect sets of specific items, and A New Beginning has you building out your town by collecting materials
and winning contests. In all of these games, festivals also come fast and furious every season, and often involve competitions: the best vegetable, the best cow, the best meal, the fastest horse. In most of these cases, “best” corresponds directly to monetary value in shipping. Festivals are also more directly tied to your popularity; winning a contest usually increases the villagers’ friendliness towards you. As the series has gone on, then, it has created more and more narrative and social incentives for making high-priced products. The goal is probably just to give the player more reasons to improve their farming skills and more guidance about things they can do.
Another thing it encourages, though, is a particularly capitalist sort of grinding. It makes the association direct between how much money you make, how much people like you, and how far along you are in your personal story. This increased focus on capitalist fantasy extends to imperialist mechanics in later games, where you can travel to “exotic” locations like a tropical island setting. This island generally has rare plants, expensive fish, and darker-skinned characters who are delighted that you’re there. The resources you pick up in these settings are highly valuable and unlock even more parts of the game. The connection between roleplaying progress and capitalist mechanics combine to produce a game where the player character’s economic success is the only thing that can save the world. This savior narrative reaches a peak in A New Beginning, where you are directly responsible for building every house and store in town and singlehandedly turning the area’s economy around. It goes along with the increase in sidequests and unlockable content to make every character in the game feel dependent on you and your farm. Things don’t happen
until you make enough money and collect enough resources to make them happen. A New Beginning was the most recent Harvest Moon game I played. At the point I put the game down, my routine was pretty far from the one I got used to in the original. I had a dog and cat that herded the livestock into a grazing field, so I didnâ€™t have to feed them anymore. My crops were set up in an irrigated terrace system so the whole thing could be watered in one click. Instead, I spent all my time enhancing my products; fertilizer on the crops, treats for the animals, turning milk into butter and cheese for greater shipping value. In the afternoon I would fly off to the island or ancient ruins to gather rare materials so I could build more things, learn more recipes, buy more clothes, win more contests, give better gifts. All for the sake of getting new stores, more people, and more access to resources in the town.
A game that used to be about moving to the country to escape the city is now about moving to the country to build a city.
Labour, business and early televised sport Laura Dyble A ninth-grade student living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Laura Dyble completed a research project on Roller Derby this summer. This is an abridged version of her early history of the sport.
A most badass combination of sport and show business, Roller Derby is one of a kind. Born from the desperate people and economics of the Great Depression, derby sports a fascinating, rarely told tale of how it came to be. A mix of all kinds of people with one thing in common: incredible skill and spirit. And once again, Roller Derby is on the rise, as more and more girls lace up, embrace their femininity, strength, and identity.
Back in the 1970s, it almost disappeared forever. This is the story of Derbyâ€™s early rise and fall. Leo Seltzer was a businessman. He owned three movie theaters and started a series of innovative-
ly themed and very popular walking marathons in the 1930s, before he started the first inkling of the Derby we know today. His “derbies” combined the roller skating and dance competitions popular in that era. Combining endurance and wheels, he created a 4,000 mile skating marathon. Co-ed couples would take turns skating the distance between New York and Los Angeles. Back then, everything was longer- plays and movies typically had three or four acts, baseball was very popular with nine innings. But, watching people skate around a track for hours was a bit much. Seltzer added “sprints” or “jams” where for a short time, skaters could earn extra points for passing players, and the crowd loved it. Slowly, more adaptations made the derby more exciting, like slanting the track to increase speed. A significant development occurred when skaters started to try to block faster skaters who were trying to lap them.
By 1935, Seltzer had his first version of “Roller Derby” and he started The Transcontinental Roller Derby Association.
Keith Coppage (1999) Roller Derby to Roller Jam, page 80
The Transcontinental Roller Derby Association was composed of two teams that would travel around and play each other in different locations. One team was presented as the evil visiting team, and the other as “your own” home team. The most popular skaters were placed on the designated home team, and the more aggressive players on the visiting team. This staged trick got the fans much more involved. Nick Scopas described it as, “Skating red [on the visiting team] is kind of an illusion. You clobber someone in Chicago… and they’ll cheer…[Clobber them the] same way in Cow Palace [San Francisco] and they’ll jeer” Seltzer was very concerned with Roller Derby’s image. Publicity and prestige were important to him. He is thought to have coined the phrase,
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity”. He’d have the skaters parade down main street, and he was very fond of discount ticketing. He flooded small grocery stores and huge department stores with discount tickets. Coppage, page 24
In the 1950 Roller Derby Program, Dick Broderick wrote that,“[t]hose on the inside know that it is women who have made the Roller Derby”. Seltzer knew that a female audience would greatly benefit Derby. At that time retail and marketing to women was expanding; women ruled retail. Their tickets were a huge boon to the derby. Since the marathon races, women made up more than half of the audience. Seltzer once said, “Women don’t want to see movie stars, they want to see real people.” Later, the women skaters became the first athletic women on television.
The tough, glamourous, yet authentic skaters were bound to be idolized by girls and adult women alike. Being a part of the Transcontinental Roller Derby was a unique lifestyle. Skaters lived in designated quarters, and followed strict rules. The Rules Governing Skater Members of the Transcontinental Roller Derby Association stated: All Skaters are to be out of bed by 10. A.M. All beds are to be made before breakfast. Skaters are not to leave the building without permission. The nurse takes pulse and temperature readings between 11:00 A.M. and 11:30 A.M. daily. No one is exempt. Skaters must attend all meetings, meals, and training periods. Skaters must have their skates repaired and ground by 5 P.M. daily. Skaters are responsible for their conduct and ap-
pearance must always be beyond reproach. Skaters can draw funds once a week when needed. Regulars can draw as much as $2.00 per week; fill-ins and new players can draw $1.50 per week. In his book Roller Derby to Roller Jam, Keith Coppage, who worked closely with Jerry Seltzer, Leo Seltzer’s son, states that things like drinking, sex, and fighting were also forbidden, but not mentioned in a document. Skaters were even discouraged to have relationships with “civilians” that weren’t in the league. These strict rules were Seltzers’ way of keeping Derby’s reputation smear-free.
Still, the skaters had a kind of family, got a chance to travel around America, and were guaranteed $25 dollars a week during the depression. In 1937, a significant adaptation was made to the Roller Derby. After a series of fouls, Leo Seltzer permitted the referees to allow contact, on a whim. “The game left forever its graceful, speedy marathon beginnings, moving into the realm of ‘mad whirl’”, remarks Coppage. The new rules written that very night differ only minisculely from modern Derby’s rules.
Barbee and Cohen, page 15
In 1937, a bus carrying most of the Transcontinental Roller Derby was heading from St. Louis to Cincinnati. A front wheel blew out, sending the bus swerving into a bridge support. Only four of the twenty three skaters, paramedics, and support staff survived. At this time, the Transcontinental Derby was composed of only two teams, so essentially the whole crew was wiped out. In honor of the deceased, Jersey #1 was permanently retired. Previously, Jersey #1 had already been considered bad luck. The only fatality in play of roller derby was of a skater bearing #1. Stewart Erwin tripped over the inside of the track, but continued to skate through the rest of the game. Later, Erwin died
from internal injuries. The show went on. At that time, Derby had an immense fan base (mainly due to the new contact-friendly rules). By 1941, the derby was built back up into eight teams, out of quite a selection of wannabe derby skaters. This growth did not last long. Most of the male skaters were drafted into the World War 2, once again shrinking roller Derby into two teams. After the war, Seltzer had no trouble building his teams back up, but he also wanted to further build up the viability of Roller Derby. Nothing was better publicity than television, and nothing was more prestigious than New York. It was commonly believed that if they could make it in the Big Apple, they could make it anywhere. In 1948 they moved into the city and started playing in the Armory on Nov 29. Seltzer went to The Dumont network, and the cameras went rolling. Since television was just starting up, they needed to cover the air. With only a few hundred spectators, fewer of whom were paid, they moved everyone into one section of the bleachers so the camera men could have full bleachers in the background. Leo and his wife were up all night taking reservations for the next game, which sold out at 5,300 tickets, $3.30 each. After that, all the television networks were swooning.
Derby was perfect for television, and television was perfect for Derby. Derby was energetic, easy to follow, and somewhat glamorous. At the time, the “hypnotic” effect on the constant motion was fascinating to the producers, since it was the first sport on television besides baseball. Television, at the time, provided the perfect advertisement. Most TV sets were in public places, not American’s homes. People would gather in front of store windows to see derby.
Derby was aired as a prime time show. Broadcast four times a week, it was the most popular show on ABC. When Seltzer wanted to bring the 1949 season to an end with playoffs, ABC wasn’t happy. They told him to choose between all or nothing. Live Derby was broadcasted live, all year long. Quickly the fans stopped coming to live Bouts and watched them on TV instead, or not at all. Overexposure killed it. After Derby finally went off the air, no other networks would agree to a contract. Television was killing all live entertainment at the time, and getting more sophisticated. Derby was doing the opposite, and becoming a trash sport, if a sport at all. Engineered to entertain, Derby was in many ways a show. Difficult to play on a non-professional basis, Seltzer realized the difficulty of marketing to kids would be a great obstacle in ever establishing Derby as an a-list sport.
They continued to fight a losing battle, with the addictive aftertaste of success taunting them.
Coppage, page 29
They scavenged for sponsorships. Seltzer did everything himself, and this came off as unprofessional. He didn’t give up, and soon was $10,000 in debt. “I am prepared to gamble everything on the future of Roller Derby”. In 1953, Seltzer moved the derby out to Southern California, where they stayed alive. Running the derby mostly out of loyalty to the skaters, he became much more interested in real estate. The skaters kept training as hard as ever, but without fanfare. Roller Derby was not picking up. Seltzer decided to move to the Bay Area, with his son’s help, who’d previously been involved in Oscar Seltzer’s (his uncle’s) Official Roller Derby skates brand. Jerry gradually became more involved until his father retired, and he inherited the “cash calf”.
Jerry Seltzer started making changes fast. “Television came knocking for another date” (Barbee and Cohen 23). He got their weekly games onto KTVU, a new independent Oakland station, which grew to become a huge news station today. Since there were only three other networks in competition, this was an instant boost. Jerry also renamed the California Bombers the Bay Bombers (with a vision of other California teams), and opened a training school in Oakland, where they promptly turned out fine skaters by throwing chairs at them to teach them to jump.
In 1959, video tape hit the market, and Jerry hopped on it. Video tape wasn’t very popular with other shows, but the slight quality upgrade made a huge difference for derby because it is in constant motion. Since they did so well in the ratings, other stations wanted to air Derby too, and a bicycle chain of stations trading tapes was created. Quickly the chain grew, and over 120 stations were airing games weekly, with a personal skater interview to wrap it up . Jerry always made sure the tapes emphasized that they were not the real deal. He’d have the announcers encourage people to come see the real roller derby, live, and the commercials would always cut out fights and leave viewers with an unsatisfying glimpse of skaters being carried out on stretchers without showing the action that led to the injury. Jerry was much less into prestige, and more practical than his father. He cared about ticket sales, not how the media portrayed Derby. He’d been around during Derby’s previous failures, and had a good idea of what to avoid. “Make of it what you will” he said, and his philosophy worked. One sample of a radio interview with Jerry follows: Radio Interviewer: Some people say that if Roller Derby wants to get more respect it should be more like, say, baseball in its approach. Jerry Seltzer: That’s definitely true but hard as I
Coppage, page 38
try I can’t convince our skaters to chew tobacco and scratch themselves His management brought Derby into its true heyday of the 60’s. The Bay Bombers were phenomenally successful, due to their vast fan base.
The skaters were responsible for many fan’s devotion. Charlie O’ Connell and Joan Weston were the wheels on the Bomber’s skates. O’Connell is said to be responsible for the lowering of the track, from 45 degrees to 38 degrees, to better show off his footwork talents. He also created the pivot position, so he could be in the front of the pack and more easily visible to cameras. That alone portrays what type of player he was. In ‘58 he became the Bombers’ coach, coinciding with the team’s spike in success. His management worked well with Jerry’s hands-off attitude. Joanie Weston was Roller Derby’s golden girl. The Bomber’s captain, she was the height of the public’s adoration. There were other skaters promoted as home team queens, such as Sandy Dunn, and Delores Tuckers, but none came close to Joan. She was charming, and outstanding at softball and surfing, making a great athlete and interviewee. Even her punching sprees, infractions, and helmet throwing fits did nothing to sway the audience from the golden girl identity. Jerry had a surprisingly simple formula for their success. He’d air the home games for at least thirteen weeks. Then, check which areas had the highest ratings and most fan mail coming in. He’d make sure the word was out in their destination at least six weeks in advance, on the telecast and in the entertainment section of the paper. A photo of famed skater Charlie O’Connell and a photo of the girls with their hair askew always did the trick. The best cities would host “one night only!” Two million tickets were sold in over a hundred cities,
and eight million viewers were watching Derby on television by the 1970. The Bay Area was Derby’s hot spot, but touring was what really made the money. The tour financed the home season, but the tapes of home games made the tour successful. Experiments to lengthen the tour and bring in more money had the team’s names and skater’s locations switching so fast, even they couldn’t keep up with it. Once in an interview skater Nick Scopas attempted to claim his team was the best, only to credit the wrong team. The season-to-season living had Derby constantly at risk of failure. The signs of apocalypse were subtle, until sure doom hit. A rift within the skaters, and with the management, opened and swallowed the whole business.
The relationship between the skaters and the Seltzer’s had been relatively harmonious, until ‘72’s travel season came with a strike.
Coppage, page 89
The protesters wanted a shorter season, more pay for rookies, and more pay for traveling. Joanie and Charlie were being paid roughly $50,000, while other veterans stood at $10,000 tops, and $5,000 for rookies. Jerry was stunned, but claimed he didn’t have the money to give the skaters. The welfare of the derby and the skaters had always been directly connected, and the derby wasn’t doing very well. They bluffed off the riot by claiming to have plenty of replacement skaters. The Derby family was never the same after that. 1973, the oil embargo hurt Derby as much as anyone else. On one occasion while on tour, a stop was extended because they didn’t have enough money to transport the skaters. Regular Derby attendees took a hit as well, leading to less of them. In addition, KTVU moved Derby to Saturday nights. Der-
by’s popularity was going downhill. Jerry planned a 1973 triple header play-offs in New York, as a last attempt to stay in the game. The media was all over the final bash to wrap up the season, and interest was up. Jerry had taken interest in computerized ticketing, a decided to try a popular company called Ticketron. This would eliminate lines and allow fans to choose their seat. Buying tickets in advance wasn’t new, for they’d been sold at outlets like Sears when sellouts were frequent. Jerry called in the day before the triple header, and was informed that 29,000 tickets had been sold. The morning of, he checked again, and was told the same number- an impossible scenario. Then, he was informed that Ticketron’s computers had been down for the three days leading up to his play-offs, and no fans had been able to buy any tickets. After a wave of media grieving skater Joanie Weston’s death in 1997, Stephen Land, an affiliate with many television networks, was one of many to ask, “Whatever happened to roller derby?”
Resources Larry Gitnick (2010) The Roller Derby Chronicles. Documentary film. Keith Coppage (1999) Roller Derby to Roller Jam Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen (2010) Down and Derby Newspaper clipping image hosted on the blog of Jerry Seltzer, rollerderbyjesus.com
Labour of souls The work ethic of demon’s souls Corey Milne
In 2013 Corey graduated from the University of Strathclyde with a Masters degree in Digital Journalism. He specialises in examining video games from a cultural standpoint.
One wrong step to the left and I lost over 70000 souls. Punished for a split-second hesitation. Demon’s Souls (2009) makes people work hard for everything they get.
Each of the game’s boss demons present a Herculean task in and of themselves. Simply fighting your way to them is no walk in the park, never mind the actual duels with giant steel clad knights, bellowing dragons that blot out the sun, and fiery demons of the deep. There are two main goals within the narrative of the game.
First the player sets out to defeat the demons and vanquish the mighty Old One. Second, the player must amass souls, which are used as currency, to spend on empowering both their character and their equipment. This in turn makes it easier to collect souls in greater numbers, and the cycle continues until the player subdues the Old One. It encourages you to build upon early successes to ensure future success. This system of progression is a staple within the medium, and role-playing games in general. Most have you collecting experience points as you journey through worlds, crafting stronger weapons and spells. Players have grown used to the idea that if they work hard they will be rewarded, which is essentially the underlying promise of capitalism.
Demon’s Souls offers this well known contract of progression and in turn highlights the grinding reality of modern capitalism. It took me around 70 hours to get through my first full playthrough, taking place over many months. In the end the Arch-Demons were defeated, the False King revealed, and the Old One was returned to slumber. It is here, at the point of victory, that Demon’s Souls shows the ace up its sleeve. After the credits roll you are given no resolution. Your noble knight stands once again in the Nexus, the hub of the game, with the demons reincarnated and more powerful than ever before. The false king sits once again upon the Boletarian throne. Nothing has changed, and you are invited to go through it all over again. Stonefang Tunnel is Demon’s Souls’s industrial heart. All throughout the upper levels of the mines you will find scaled creatures hacking at walls with pickaxes, or sorting through ore deposits looking for valuable minerals to collect in their sacks. Often, if the player does not engage them they will ignore the player in return, absorbed by their re-
petitive work. The significance of their scaly appearance is brought to light when the player meets Blacksmith Ed in his secluded workshop, always busying himself at his anvil. He is similar in appearance to Blacksmith Boldwin who sits safe in the Nexus. It is clear that Ed, residing in Stonefang has begun his metamorphosis into a worker drone. Scales, like those of the workers, grow on his body. A physical manifestation of the psychological effects of dull and repetitive work. Even when the officials are killed, or the demons no longer rule, the denizens of Stonefang continue to toil.
It is the very image of man as a machine exploited for labour, mirroring the very worst of working conditions that raise stress levels and stamp out creativity. Farming, the process of repeating a task over and over again for a steady reward, is part of Demonâ€™s Souls as the way to obtain materials needed to upgrade weapons. Various stones of varying quality corresponding to certain weapon classes are found littered throughout levels, or dropped on death by enemies. To achieve perfection in Demonâ€™s Souls and be awarded its platinum trophy, the player must fully upgrade each weapon class to its highest level at least once. To do this they must farm purestones. The Pure Bladestone is one of the rarest items in the game with a drop rate of anywhere between 0.5% to 3%, and is only dropped by a particular enemy in the Shrine of Storms. There seems to be no reason why it is so difficult to find, other than to draw the player into the soul destroying, repetitive process that was earlier observed in Stonefang Tunnel. Players seeking the stone must run a gauntlet where they run to the enemy holding the item, kill it, pick up an item, commit suicide
and continue the cycle sometimes for many many hours until they strike it lucky. Suddenly the player might as well be mining in Stonefang Tunnel.
Just like assembly line work, the brain starts running on autopilot and before you realise it, you have killed this one enemy for more hours than you’d care to admit. Is this any different from thoughts one may have about the modern workplace? Toiling away day after day believing that your hard work will pay off eventually, that you will be rewarded because you were raised to believe in a fair system. Yet Demon’s Souls seems to conform to the idea that everything is based on luck. What do they say about promotions, “it’s who you know, not what you know?” You expend all this effort in the pursuit of an end goal, and it may happen, but more than likely, it won’t. This is what the modern capitalist system is to so many people. The recent economic recessions have revealed the old refrain, that if you go to university and get an education there will be a job waiting for you at the end, as a lie. In fact, hard work no longer pays off. In December 2013 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a report showing that “just over half of the 13 million people in poverty - surviving on less than 60% of the national median (middle) income - were from working families.” It revealed the number of people in low-paid jobs had risen, with “average incomes falling by 8% since their peak in 2008.” Poverty in the UK is not the realm of the work shy, no matter what the tabloids would lead you to believe. As in Demon’s Souls, any obstacle overcome is simply replaced with even more, tougher obstacles.
Demon’s Souls is a game about greed. It centres heavily around the idea of corruption. All of the characters you meet along the way all came to Boletaria as a choice, an act of free will, to fulfill a number of selfish and self-centred goals. Capitalism is by nature a greedy system. We work so that we can be rewarded, never content with what we are given. The corruption presented in the game is capitalistic corruption fuelled by greed. The Pure Bladestone tempts the player into this ruinous cycle, becoming trapped in a repeating series of events in the pursuit of more. In the end that platinum trophy is a meaningless symbol, but we allow ourselves to be taken in by it. We strive for more souls, more power, every time we overcome one of the game’s many obstacles. Our hubris grows as we invade each other’s worlds to take from them in grisly competition, and we barely notice the scales form as we endlessly chip away at the same vein, hoping to strike something precious.
for the Weekend Playing Romance of the Three Kingdoms X Austin Walker
PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labour, & culture. Research Associate for the Digital Labour Group.
Spectrums of Labour-Play Though “labour-play” has had long running presence in gaming, there has seemingly been a rise in the popularity of labour-games over the last few years. Series like EuroTruck Simulator (2008-2012) and Farming Simulator (2007-2014) can be found on Steam’s “Top Sellers” chart. Lucas Pope’s Paper’s, Please (2013) and Richard Hofmeir’s Cart Life (2011) gained critical attention not only for their “empathetic” qualities, but for how well they represented the procedures and textures of labour. Some games—like GameDevStory (2010), Prison Architect (2012), and the ever-popular Football Manager (1992-2014) series—might simulate manage-
ment instead of the “direct” work of operating farm equipment or counting out change, but we shouldn’t forget to count these as labour-games as well.
It follows that one way to categorize these games is on a spectrum of direct control. On one end are games which focus on the mechanical representation of manual labour activity, whether that’s driving a bus or cooking a hamburger. On the other are games which focus on management, with players making strategic choices about business operation or employee scheduling. Again, this categorization scheme is a spectrum, with many games appearing across its breadth. It’s a productive tool, as it can help us analyze trends across the market, contextualize our own designs, and identify both problematic and productive representational tropes of labour in games. There is, however, a second spectrum that this first axis intersects with: the labour-leisure spectrum. On one end of this spectrum are games which focus on the mechanics and systems of the work represented. In a game like Cook, Serve, Delicious! (2012) there is a range of play activity (from the manual labour of grilling burgers to management labour of choosing daily specials), but all of the play is about the job. On the other end of the spectrum are games in which labour is rendered as a fully optional distraction. Here I have in mind the taxi driving of Grand Theft Auto (1997-2014) or the blacksmith mini-game of Fable 3 (2010), which offer bonus rewards or extra resources for those who pursue them, but are non-critical to the completion of the game’s main objectives. While games exist on both ends of this labour-leisure spectrum, games in the middle are deeply under-represented. This is a missed opportunity, because when a game does offer both a well-de-
veloped labour simulation and also play activities that go beyond the job, each side takes on additional character, and the game as a whole becomes able to speak to the relationship between work and leisure. While number of games do attempt to balance the two, their synthesis of “labour-play” and “leisure-play” is lacking (though the games themselves remain enjoyable). The Sims series, allows players to balance career and personal life at their whim, but only the active “professions” of The Sims 3: Ambitions (2010) gives players control over the moment-to-moment practice of work. Harvest Moon (1996-2014) gives players lots of autonomy in how they work, but the “life sim” segments are limited in mechanical intricacy, effectively representing social life as just one more crop you need to water.
Clocking in to the Third Century One game which illustrates the value of designing varied, developed, and interconnected labourand leisure-play systems is 2005’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms X, developed by Koei. Of the twelve main-line Romance of the Three Kingdoms (19882012) games, nine put the player in the role of one of the dozens of warlords of the Three Kingdoms-era of Chinese history. In the seventh and eighth entries, for the first time, players were able to play as a lesser officer in service to one of these warlords, stepping into the shoes of military officers and regional bureaucrats. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms X, Koei expanded these options in scale and diversity, and seated them in a new framework which highlighted the player’s position in the world as an individual separate from their organizational ties. The first major change is about the representation of time: In previous RoTK titles, players operated on the scale of weeks or months—now every day is simulated. Second, past games limited the action to towns and cities, but RotKX lets players move freely across an open map of China, encountering NPCs and events in the spaces between set-
tlements. The result is a world filled with moving pieces: today you may run into your rival in a neighboring city’s marketplace, then pass a massive army on your way home, so that tomorrow you might spend your time at home studying poetry with your spouse, who is herself just back from a military campaign.
In effect, this framework shifts the focus of the game from one of national-time to personal-time: a country may move in weeks or months, but we live our lives day to day. Inside of this personal framework, players must manage both their professional and personal lives. When not playing as one of the major warlords vying for control of China, a player takes up a role as any of the hundreds of individuals in service to one of these figures. As an officer, players must perform a broad range of tasks assigned to them by their nation’s leader, regional governor, or local prefect. On top of these assignments, players can also respond to requests posted by a city’s civilian inhabitants, pursue social relationships, and undertake a number of other activities that primarily serve the individual instead of the employer. Both sides of this division deserve close attention. As an officer for one of the Three Kingdoms rulers, a character can play the role of soldier, bureaucrat, tactician, diplomat, overseer, or law-enforcer. In most cases, the player serves as a combination of these, favoring the activities that their chosen character’s stats suggest they’ll excel at. While many of the tasks given are simple “skill checks” (Is your character’s “Intelligence” score high enough to improve the technology level of a city?), there is also an array of activities tailored
specifically for these tasks. Players commanding a diplomatically-focused character will often engage in debates, which are represented as a tricky (and fun), resource-based, line-making game. Characters ordered to wipe out bandits in the marketplace shift into a turn-based dueling game, built on hidden information and anticipation. Each of these games draws on the character’s stat levels, as well as some special “skills” that can only be learned through studying with a character’s friends and colleagues during their free time—already we see how the game represents the blurring line between labour and leisure time. Both the “bureaucrat” and “war” play exist at multiple tiers of action. At the “local” or citybased level, minor bureaucrats can choose from a set of tasks offered by their lord, such as improving local facilities or researching a region’s markets and then retrieving goods or key personnel from a nearby town. If the player has become friendly with their boss (again, during their leisure time), they may also be able to successfully suggest a task of their own. Players can also take the role of mid-level politicians, becoming prefect of a single town or being put in charge of district of cities as a “viceroy.”
Here, a whole new style of labour-play opens up. Players assign their workers tasks (and issue rewards and punishments based on the results), manage resources, and respond to natural disasters and other city- and region-wide events. At these levels, too, the player still works under the direction of a higher tier manager (whether that is the district’s viceroy or the ruler of the whole force), and is always working to meet an assigned goal, like building up a surplus of food or capturing an enemy city. Even that military task might occur at different tiers of action, as armies can target individual cities, or can amass into huge formations and do battle not on local, location-based
maps, but in campaigns on the same overhead world map that the player travels on during their routine assignments or personal time.
Taking a Personal Day However, all of this labour-play is only compelling because it exists in relation to the activities players perform when not performing tasks for their lord. Like the simulated jobs, this “leisure-play” activity is varied and interesting. Players can travel across China solving problems and performing quests like a classical hero. They can spend their time accumulating personal wealth or becoming a collector of special weapons or artifacts. The player’s character can only develop close social bonds during this leisure-time, as they meet up with other officers in taverns, gatehouses, and on the roads between cities for a chat. Most importantly, it’s during this personal time that players can improve their character’s stats by studying with their peers (and with the nine special NPC “sages” who hold the most prized techniques.) Driven by these statistics, events, and relationships, the player might also be able to re-enact (or subtly-change) famous moments from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the canonical work of historical fiction by Luo Guanzhong which the series is based on. Besides their reference to the loved source material, the reason that aiming for these “what-if” scenarios is fun is because it requires not only knowledge of the original story, but also careful experimentation and manipulation of the game’s leisure and labour systems.
Playing RoTKX for any considerable time means learning to manage work and leisure time. The tasks you’re assigned have a hard deadline, but will likely require less time than is given to you. Players thus engage in something like the labour games performed by factory workers, where they attempt to perform at or slightly above required
standards, as to be rewarded for their effort, but not with such success that higher baseline expectations are put into place. Good RoTKX players learn how to climb the governmental ladder at a speed that also gives them the free-time to build personal strength (and allies to support them.)
Thus, on top of this time management, RoTKX lets players explore the blurry line between work and leisure. Why are you improving your intelligence stat? Is it because you see your character as someone who should be recognized for their wisdom, or because it will help you win the debate with your country’s political rival? For that matter, why do you want to win the debate? Because you want to do what your lord has commanded it, or because you wish to be known as “Lu Xun, the man who talked the Wei Empire into submission”? Have you been amassing personal wealth through professional and personal exploits so that you can purchase the rarest ancient tomes, or so that you can finance a military force of your own and set out on the national stage of conquest? RoTKX is at its best when it gets the player to consider questions like these, which go beyond the military-strategic layer and towards questions of identity and personhood.
Making History Making this even more interesting, the sort of play that is rewarded is based on the source material’s understanding of virtue. Just as SimCity carries an internal politics (in representing a world in which taxes will always make people unhappy, for instance), so does RoTKX offer a particular understanding of what it means to be a “good worker” (and further a “good person.”) This understanding is grounded in the novel, which places as much focus on the bureaucrats and politicians that directed the warring factions
as it does on the classically heroic warriors. In other games, the bureaucrat might be a sniveling background character, or a low level step on your path to a more dignified career. Here, successfully begging the strong military power to protect you in an allegiance may net you just as many fame points as defeating a great challenger in a duel. Simply working diligently on the farms and city infrastructure might make you more famous than either—and it will certainly let you rise in governmental rank more quickly. Romance of the Three Kingdoms X is a game with both managerial and “hands-on” labour-play, and in situating these systems in relation to leisure-play, Koei created a substantial and insightful simulation. Further, instead of attempting to perform an “ahistorical” representation of labour, Koei leaned into the specific depiction of work in the game’s source material. It’s hard not to judge other labour-games by the standards of RoTKX. EuroTruck Simulator is a blast, but I keep wondering: “What is my truck driver doing when he’s not on the road to Copenhagen or shopping for a new diesel engine? What’s he working so hard for? Has he made friends in these cities? How does that affect the character of his work?” In finding the “sweet spot” between the many axes of labour-representation, Koei produced a work that allows players to explore their own, contemporary relationship to labour and leisure. Not every game needs to put labour-play in relation with leisure-play, but as the genre finds an ever larger audience, I can’t help feeling like there is an opportunity for a new take. For something that accounts for both the work week and the weekend.
Games history ezine
Like on Facebook
Subscribe by email
Memory Insufficient is published on a Creative Commons Attribution - Non-commercial - NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. More information online
Memory Insufficient volume two issue four