False Productivity

This has been brewing in my head for a long time, but this post from Tadhg Kelly of What Games Are prompted me to write it.  Particularly, his article addresses the idea that Ian Bogost’s raging against Farmville and Minecraft  is useless. (Read Shit Crayons for the best example of this rage in my mind)

I’m not the type of person to do things that don’t serve some purpose, be that exposure to a new source of ideas, a time to think about things, or an actual physical outcome. This means that, often, I am trying to divine what value I get out of the things I do most.

Some things are easy.  I play Bomberman with my wife because it builds our relationship and is great fun.  I go to work because I learn new things and get paid.  I use Twitter because it’s an amazing source of new ideas and inspiration (sometimes, other times it’s quite crap and I have to turn it off).

But other activities are harder to define as useful. For example, playing Twisted Metal is not exactly solving any problems or creating anything of real worth.  However, this obvious lack of surface value hides something deeper: time to reflect.  If I’m playing a game that takes little more than mechanical skill, I’m more than likely reflecting on my day or an idea that I have.  I find that my most mentally productive times are while I’m doing something to occupy the more physical part of my brain, activities that are somewhat rote.

I usually judge the worth of any activity in particular by the feelings I have afterwards, or the new ideas that have formed. This line of thought has lead me to a problem.

I’ve been bothered for a long time about the feelings I get when I play certain games versus the actual outcome of that play.  I feel great about playing Minecraft: I’m digging out secret lairs, making tools, assembling new and interesting architectural structures, carrying around lava in buckets…great fun, right?  And it has to be stimulating in some way, or I wouldn’t keep doing it…right?

At the end of a session, I feel a vague sense of productivity, of having done something of value.  If I’m pressed to quantify that value, however, I come up blank.  I built a fireplace with a secret entrance, I mined a new vein of Redstone, but once the game is off, what have I come away with?  If my hard drive were to fall off a cliff, could I say that the time I spent creating these things was truly worthwhile?

It’s easy to throw things out that are obviously worthless to me.  Playing Farmville is an exercise in frustration and forced responsibility for nothing but bragging rights and a false sense of wealth.  Other people may experience some glimmer of creativity, or use it as a source of ideas, but I find that it takes up too much of my brain to be worthwhile as mechanical.  I find myself thinking about Farmville for the sake of Farmville.

(On a side note, Farmville is apparently part of Word 2007’s dictionary, as it auto-corrects it to a capitalized version…creepy.)

Minecraft is more difficult though, as there are no forced social obligations and it has interesting implications of building an entire world for yourself.   I feel like I’m doing something awesome, creating something to enjoy.  These are the same feelings that I get when I write something, make a game, design a level, or other pursuits of a creative nature.  Both require hard work and dedication, and a sense of how to express your imagination with the tools given to you.

But here’s the difference: Minecraft is a crappy tool of expression.  The materials are rare and take time and effort to discover, but no ingenuity.  Once discovered, they must be made into more useful materials, which is another function of time.  The game generates interesting structures, then has me investing hours of time trying to find and get to them.  All this adds up to give me a sense of slowly peeling away the layers of an onion, but in truth the core is rotten.  The heart of the game is creating things, and it takes every possible measure to prevent this. (Another sidenote: I feel like this is why Spore’s creature creator was amazing, but the game itself sucked.)

The end result is a game that takes up too much of my brain function to be useful as a time of contemplation, but not enough to actually stimulate worthwhile thoughts. Minecraft takes a natural urge, the urge to feel like I’m making things, and turns it into a useless pursuit of materials with no value.  I build chairs I can’t sit in, houses I can’t live in, tunnels I can’t use, and I do it not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.  This resistance to my creativity feels like I’m doing something productive, but it is a dishonest kind of work that could be avoided altogether.

This sense of false productivity that stems from useless work is deceptive, but important to identify.  And there are ways around it.

If Minecraft gave you all the tools right from the start, did not limit your materials at all, and truly allowed you to be a god of your realm, then it would be an amazing tool for realizing an entire world collaboratively.  In fact, it would be Sauerbraten, which is a first person shooter that’s actually a collaborative level designer in disguise.

If Farmville acted as a way to stimulate active discussion and trade between Facebook users, it couple be argued that it is at least enhancing relationships between people and letting them interact on a new level.  (Any good examples of this?  I’m not up on my social games.)

I agree that raging against things that frustrate and mystify us is not a worthwhile end.  However, rage and frustration are almost always the starting points to self improvement and the creation of a world that we truly desire.  When used correctly, they also lead to a greater understanding of our perceptions of the world through intelligent conversation and discourse.  Dwelling on rage doesn’t help, but using it to identify our problems does.  And sometimes it takes another person’s rage to snap us out of our belief set.  In fact, I didn’t even think about any of this until I read Shit Crayons.  I’d probably still be playing Minecraft, wasting my lunch hours.

So, Mr. Bogost, keep on raging, at least for my benefit.

Bonus Points: Tadhg argues that memetic evolution will let the crap die.  I disagree: look at reality TV.  Look at Farmville.  These things provide nothing of true value, but they fool us into thinking they do, so they last and last.  We feel like we are participating in a great social idea, but we are truly isolated and lonely, and in the end, we are wasting our time.  Our brains don’t naturally realize that what we’re doing is worthless, because these things are by their very design trying to trick us into thinking we are being productive and social.  I say kill the crap actively, because evolution can make mistakes.

Disagree with me?  Find me on Twitter and yell at me, or yell at me in the comments below.  Even better: do both!


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  1. #1 by Kam on August 14, 2011 - 10:47 PM

    It’s been said before by a number of people, but a lot of video games (and rpgs are the guiltiest of the bunch) are basically Skinner boxes in disguise. Push button, get reward. Push button, get reward. Push button push button push button askdghgejfjgghhhk and so on.

    It’s a similar illusion you’re talking about, except the illusion isn’t that you gain material goods but that you’ve done something creative. I’ve heard a lot of people talking up Minecraft and saying it’s like Dwarf Fortress (but easier and better) but I think the distinction is that something more complex emerges from Dwarf Fortress – the game becomes a story, complex and exciting and thrillingly unique with each go around.

    Or so I’m told. I still can’t figure out the UI.

    • #2 by Clint Emsley on August 15, 2011 - 5:23 AM

      Yes! That’s exactly what I mean. DF doesn’t waste my time on purpose, it just tries to murder me at every possible turn. Wrangling my fortress into something creative is a much more tactile and challenging experience, and at least makes me feel like I’m fully occupying my brain, and the complexity of the game is mind-boggling.

      Also, the UI sucks. That’s my only problem with it…

  2. #3 by Timmy™ on August 17, 2011 - 3:08 PM

    You sound like me.

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