I’ve made several attempts to write this post over the last few days, each abandoned after some time. There is a familiar shade that has loomed large over me in recent weeks – burnout, like a shadow passing before the sun. I am tired, I feel distant from the world around me, and I have to drag myself to my desk whenever there is work to be done. Yesterday, when I made my most recent attempt to write this piece, I decided to take a break – I decided to play a game.
We are all familiar with the notion that games, or any art, can be used as an escape – something one does after work “to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again.” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997, p. 9) Why, then, would I turn to a game about labour? One about working under stressful and dangerous conditions, under management that dehumanizes me and values capital over my safety? Or rather, how did its developers make working as a dwarf feel so fun?
Aesthetics, Affects, and the Atlas of Emotions
Of the emotions under the Enjoyment umbrella, the three that I associate most with labour and work are Pride, Naches and Fiero – in the Atlas of Emotions they are defined as: Pride, “deep pleasure and satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements or the achievements of an associate,” Naches, “joyful pride in the accomplishments of one’s children or mentees (a Yiddish word),” and Fiero, “enjoyment of meeting a difficult challenge (an Italian word).” (Atlas of Emotions, 2021)
When I reflect on the years I’ve spent working, I don’t think of paychecks and meetings, nor frustrating customers or office politics – I think of the people I worked with, and the obstacles we overcame. I think of the 2IC at Woolworths who always had time to answer my questions, the software engineer at my first internship that refused to go home until he & I had solved a problem, the support team at a tech company who worked the hardest and received the least credit. That, in my mind, is labour in its most pure and cathartic form – camaraderie, people coming together to achieve things they never could alone, in spite of power structures that see them as little more than human resources.
So – how would one evoke these feelings in games? What does labour look like, aesthetically?
Deep Rock Galactic
In ‘DRG’, the player takes up the role of a dwarven employee, working for a company called, aptly, Deep Rock Galactic. As a miner, the player has been stationed on the “Space Rig”, a base in orbit above a mineral-rich planet that is the stage for the game’s many missions.
From the Space Rig, players can assemble teams of fellow dwarves (other players) and choose what missions to embark upon. Different missions will pose new dangers and hazards, although the most perilous missions offer the greatest rewards.
The Space Rig is not a store, it is neither corporate nor sterile – it is a place of work. There are grease stains under repair stations, there are tools scattered about busy workbenches, pipes strewn about the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Great care has gone into this area’s construction in order to make it feel lived in, worked in. It has the air of a break room – something that management owns, but undeniably a space that belongs to the workers.
This alone would not be enough to make DRG as beloved as it is – there is a profound sense of community and cooperation that runs through the game and its world. ‘Management’, the corporate powers that hold sway over the game’s world, are quick to remind the player that they are expendable – in a mission to gather ‘Morkite’, the escape pod will happily leave once it has received the gathered resources, regardless of whether or not the miners are aboard.
In a single-player game, this would quickly feel demoralising – not an escape from reality but a grim parody of it. However, DRG is first-and-foremost a game about teamwork – every dwarf has different abilities, and every team needs to work together to thrive. It is a game about communication, collaboration, weathering through tough times, and… about unions.
In the game, a player can press a button to have their dwarf shout. While there are many voice lines that this command can trigger (“Leave no dwarf behind,” “We are unbreakable,” “Rock on!”, etc.), the vast majority of them say “Rock and Stone!” in one form or another. While this could be read as a corporate slogan, it is never associated with management – it, like the Space Rig, belongs to the dwarves. The game never prompts the player to press this button, but if you hopped into a game right now, without fail you’d be met with a chorus of “Rock and Stone!”
It likely sounds silly to an outsider, but these simple things – a messy workspace, a dedicated button to celebrate, having agency over what work you do and when you want to do it – the result of all of this is a utopian workplace, labour at its most idealised and wholesome. I am proud when I see a fellow dwarf succeed, and thrilled when I overcome a difficult challenge alongside a handful of strangers – just as I was at the end of a 10-hour shift on Christmas Eve, or when an infuriating bug was finally solved only hours before a deadline.
Lessons and Warnings
By evoking union imagery, by empowering the player with choice and freedoms, by giving players the tools to both communicate with and help one another, DRG evokes the aesthetic emotions of camaraderie, accomplishment, pride and teamwork – turning labour into something people actively seek out during their recreation.
A cynical reader may see this and wonder: “how could this be used in real workforces?” ‘Gamification’ is a term used to describe the application of game design to menial or mass labour – it is a ‘buzzword’, something that promises increased productivity and worker satisfaction. On a personal note, it is something I have been asked to implement in two different software jobs, and the tone of these requests were dehumanising and pandering.
Because that is the trick with DRG, that is the magic that makes it work – it isn’t real. There is no way to spend real-world money to buy progress, there is no nepotism or exploitation, there are no union busters and no layoffs. Games cannot be used to augment real labour, because they each exist for very different motivations (Bulut, 2013).
R. G. Collingwood says that commercial art both is and isn’t art, that it is “denatured by subordination to a non artistic end; the end of representation.” (Collingwood, 1958, pg. 44-45) There are many lessons to learn from the aesthetic design of DRG, but the greatest is perhaps its simplest – stay together. Never leave a dwarf behind, join a union.
Rock and stone.
Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. (1997). Dialectic of enlightenment (Vol. 15). Verso.
Atlas of Emotions. (Accessed August 1st, 2021) Enjoyment http://atlasofemotions.org/#states/enjoyment
Bulut, E. (2013). Seeing and playing as labor: Toward a visual materialist pedagogy of video games through Walter Benjamin. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 35(5), 408-425.
Collingwood, R. G. (1958). The principles of art (Vol. 11). Oxford University Press.