Working at Playing

Nick Yee is a PhD student at Stanford's Communication Department. One of his articles has just appeared in the new issue of Games and Culture magazine, titled "The Labor Of Fun" (PDF - from Yee's own site). In it he addresses the apparent "blurring" of the lines between what we traditionally consider labor and entertainment.

Does this sound like your idea of fun?

Pharmaceutical manufacturing is one of many possible career choices in the game Star Wars Galaxies. Some other career choices include: bio-engineering, architecture, fashion design and cooking. Third-party career planning tools are available for the undecided1. Pharmaceutical manufacturers create their products by combining raw resources. These raw resources, such as chemicals or minerals, must be located using geological surveying tools and harvested using installations bought from other players skilled in industrial architecture. Resource gathering is a time-consuming process that involves traveling and constant maintenance. Typically, pharmaceutical manufacturers rely on dedicated resource brokers instead. The attributes of the final product (i.e., duration vs. potency) depend on the attributes of the resources used, however, resources vary in quality, accessibility and availability. Thus, manufacturers must decide which products take the most advantage of the resources available to them and must also take into account the demands of the market.

Raw resources are converted into subcomponents and final products using factories2 (also provided by player architects). Mass production introduces a constant supply-chain management problem and manufacturers must ensure a steady supply of needed resources in the correct proportions. With final products in hand, manufacturers now face the most difficult problem - each other. In Star Wars Galaxies, everything that is bought or sold has to be bought or sold by another player. The game economy is entirely player-driven. Manufacturers must decide how broad or narrow their product line should be, how to price and brand their products, where and how much to spend on advertising, whether to start a price war with competitors or form a cartel with them. Thus, manufacturing pharmaceuticals is not an easy task. It takes about 3-6 weeks of normal game-play to acquire the abilities and schematics to be competitive in the market, and the business operation thereafter requires daily time commitment.

Ok, so it does to me. But then, I have problems.

The ability to capitalize on these efforts by selling virtual items for real money seems like a new expression of an old desire to find new and more enjoyable ways of simply making more money. That the effort is now an online game instead of, say, bartending a couple nights a week for spending cash, is really only a detail in that case.

Yee also addresses the central problem facing game providers: how to keep people hooked without having them burn out. The reward schedule probably has a diminishing marginal return (it takes forever to advance at higher levels and thus requires a large amount of repetitive activity), so how do you get people to not just walk away? There are, of course, the social aspects of game playing. Eventually, however, I think companies will have to deal with the intellectual property rights issues that arise with virtual work product. I'd expect to see some sort of licensed sales arrangement, or even a sponsored marketplace; a PayPal ATM at the back of the virtual Creature Cantina?


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This page contains a single entry by published on March 15, 2006 4:00 PM.

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