Untitled Goose Game became a massive, surprise hit—and a meme—in the month since its release. It did so, in part, by offering a counterintuitive way out of the quandary of game-play’s fundamental aggravation: Someone has to play the game, but that someone needn’t be you. It might even be more fun not to play the game than to play it. Untitled Goose Game is a game about work’s ubiquity in the guise of a game about leisure’s frivolity. And like all labor, the best way to get it done is to farm it out to others. Let the memers honk their geese so you don’t have to.
Game-play—the work of working a game—is fundamentally irritating, at least in comparison with other media forms. It’s easy to pass the eyes over the pages of a book, or to bathe in the waves of image and sound at the cinema or in your living room. Moreover, these forms skip over the boring parts by editing them out: You don’t have to watch a character traverse the stairs, sidewalk, subway, and elevator to get from home to work. But in games, you are the character, and thus you must pilot him (or her, but usually him) through every detail that the simulated world demands. Role-playing gamers sometimes talk about “grinding”— completing boring, repetitive tasks to advance their character’s abilities in order to make progress—a term that exactly mirrors the drudgery and toil of labor.
The game theorist Julian Küchlich even coined a portmanteau, playbor, to describe the fusion of work and leisure in contemporary life. In FarmVille, for example, players exploit their network of friends and acquaintances to advance their progress in the game, and thereby the material benefit of Zynga, the company that publishes the game. In Super Mario Maker, players pay for a software product that invites labor: making Super Mario Bros. levels for other owners of the software to play. Playbor isn’t for just games either: It also describes the digital economy more broadly. When you post to Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, for example, your leisure (sharing with friends) doubles as unpaid work for social-network services, which use the results to sow others’ leisure. Likewise, when you feel obliged to check work email or Slack at all hours, you confuse work with leisure until no boundary exists between the two.
But email is undeniably work, at least, and social media can be construed as interpersonal communication. Games, by contrast, are supposed to be entertainment—and yet they demand toil in leisure’s pursuit. The game designer Paolo Pedercini sees that contradiction as a fundamental feature of the medium. Games, he argues, are the aesthetic form of instrumental reason—that is, order, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness as art. Tetris aspires for the rule of order over disarray; civilization presents natural resources as a means to global domination. Solutions, control, metrics, and outcomes rule. Even when a game does not literally exploit its players’ leisure for its creator’s gain, it orients the player toward formal, often numerical goals that structure progress and, by extension, define enjoyment. The fact that consultants and entrepreneurs have applied game metrics such as points, levels, and badges in institutional settings, dubbing the effort “gamification,” only further entrenches the connection between games and work.