Do you ever find the things you do for fun cease to be fun? Or, to put it another way, does your leisure ever become a task, a thing to complete, a chore to endure? If this sounds like the beginning of a self-help book it’s because I’ve never done this before, give me a chance. Maybe not. Maybe your leisure is safely well-adjusted and the demarcation between the two (labour/leisure) is stable. But several recent experiences of my own leisure and observations of the experiences of others’ forces me to call into question the relationship between labour and leisure, work and play. The best and probably the most alarming example would come from video games and their players. Gaming is one of the most popular leisure activities right now, and it’s associated (often negatively) with pure, cathartic play. The act of reading literature, while leisurely, has an air of intellectual sophistication that is presumed absent in the (‘thoughtless’) play of video games (although this perception has changed dramatically in the last few years, and the detractors continue to become old-fashioned and reactionary). Nevertheless, video games are still seen as an unproductive and wasteful diversion – the ultimate of leisure. But a recent phenomenon (as I like to think of it, anyway) has turned this situation quite perversely on its head.
There are a number of players who are quite obsessed with completion, whether that refers to the simple completion of any given game’s narrative, levels, stages, etc, or whether that refers to the more extreme and dedicated endeavour to collect achievements (a list of tasks set up by the developer which players might not usually consider doing). These achievements, once earned, pop up on the player’s screen with the triumphant notification of its completion. It’s not difficult to imagine how intoxicating this can be. So much so, in fact, that there are players who devote considerable amounts of time to the task of gaining ‘100%’ completion of games. The amount of time and effort put into this completionist practice is such that the idea of playing these games as a leisurely reprieve from forms of labour becomes disturbingly unconvincing. Many players often express their frustration and boredom with this task, justifying their dire experience by thinking of the reward – 100%.
To me, this has unsettling implications about the structure of our leisure. Because this doesn’t just apply to those achievement fanatics, but to any player who’s ever had the urge to complete certain unattractive sidequests soley for the sense of conquering that particular part of the game’s code; it applies to readers slogging through a novel they dislike thoroughly because they can’t quit before seeing the life-affirming 100% on their Kindle; to those who cringe at skipping filler, mediocre songs on an album they love because to do so is to listen incompletely. If leisure shows signs of labour, then labour can dangerously mix aspects of leisure in sinister ways (although ‘leisure’ now, in this particular circumstance, is so precariously dialectic that the distinction bears little meaning). Consider the recent ‘gamification’ of marketing strategies, where consumers are rewarded with points (achievements?) for their loyalty, or when businesses ‘motivate’ their workers by setting up game-like feedback systems in which employees earn rewards (a Twix? Please, infantilise me more). In these situations, ‘completing the game’ becomes ‘being a loyal consumer’ or ‘being a loyal employee’ which, of course, is incredibly fun for the businesses, but for you? Well, as long as there’s a free cup of coffee after the 10 paid cups, or a Twix, who could complain?
So, returning back to the players themselves, why do they do this? Well, one answer is that the challenge, despite its often debilitating effects, is genuinely fun. I can believe this. There’s a reason why the masochistic play of Dark Souls became a phenomenon. And yet I know people who buy games they are not even particularly interested in because they include a short and easy list of achievements – in other words, a quick fix. Or people who play a game well beyond the point of enjoyment (genuine fun) simply to reach 100%. To me, this suggests the influence of a deeper framework. Another answer to the ‘why’ of obsessive completion is the fact that the virtues of completion and progression derive from the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment era. These values, despite the myriad historical disasters undermining them, still pervade our society. So that the desire to convert the unknown into the known (a kind of completion) is not dissimilar to the aggressive pursuit of 100%. That is, the ideal of the known world (a world subjected to or enslaved by complete ‘knowledge’), with the accompanying assumptions about the linear progression of humankind, is an ideal which comforts and encourages those chasing the 100%. It can be complete. I can be master. I dominate this space. In this context, the player is a kind of coloniser of the game world. And the capitalist assumptions which naturally develop from humanist, colonialist values are visible too: a player, rationalising his 100% obsession, once said ‘I just like to see the numbers go up’.
I’m not saying these players, or any other consumers with similar approaches to leisure media, are mindless, brainwashed droids. What I’m saying is that this behaviour, more than a quirk of personality or a form of OCD, is a symptom of something much larger.