Unalienated Labor and the Gameful Life

[Editor’s Note:  I wrote this piece for Potash Hill, Marlboro College’s Alumni Magazine.]

Unalienated Labor and the Gameful Life
By Will Brooke-deBock ’87

Will Brooke-deBock took the opportunity (in his words, “weaseled the opportunity”) to participate in Jerry Levy’s Classical Sociological Thought last semester, 25 years after taking the course for the first time. Here he shares his ruminations about what Karl Marx might make of Super Mario Brothers.

In the Marlboro tradition and practice of sociology, theory is never enough. Students are encouraged to apply and test theory against empirical realities. They are challenged to examine the veracity of the theory in terms of historical, social, psychological and cultural forces and their impact on the lives of real people. If the theory is found wanting or the social milieu surprising, the student is encouraged to sharpen or modify his or her analytical approach to the topic at hand. In this case the topic is online gaming, something that didn’t even exist the last time I read Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic, The Theory of the Leisure Class, let alone when he wrote it.

Consider the facts: 1) all of the classical sociological theorists have been dead for at least 80 years, 2) the majority of the major theorists were white, and 3) most of them were men—yes, classical sociological thought is the study of dead white guys. Actually, to be fair, the Marlboro tradition of sociological theory does teach theoretical approaches that include women and African-American writers, and certainly is open to many voices beyond the classical canon. Nevertheless, classical sociology thought needs to be considered against the historical and social realities of the 21st century if only because the world of Marx, Weber, Veblen and others described has continued to evolve or, at least, change.

One can imagine that the second decade of the 21st Century would prove an interesting time for the study of the theories of Karl Marx, the famed German philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist. Today we have the Occupy Wall Street movements, the Arab Spring and various student protests that have emblazed “pepper spray” as a social meme and cultural terror on our collective conscience. Even the Harvard Business Review, arguably the representative of intellectual pursuit in the world of business, has gotten into the action with an article titled “Was Marx Right?,” a surprisingly balanced account of some of Marx’s criticisms of capitalism.

Yet, even as activists take to the streets, even as intellectuals discuss the implications of dissent in our times, large segments of the world’s population are engaged in activities that, at first glance, seem to be the polar opposite of this political phenomenon, namely: “gaming.” Although it’s not quite 99 percent, an astounding 183 million people in the United States identify themselves as active gamers. Internationally, the online gamer community includes 105 million in India, 100 million in Europe, 200 million in China and 10 million in Russia. It’s fair to say that, worldwide, there are millions and millions of people engaged in what to many would consider frivolous, non-productive and escapist activities.

Sociology professor Jerry Levy talks about gaming and other social media not as just a fad or a trend, but rather, in the Durkheimian tradition, as a “social fact.” “You can’t deny it,” Jerry said, and this is coming from someone who may be one of the least competent users of digital technology I have ever known. “That means that whether you embrace it or not, you and society are being shaped by it. That’s what a social fact is; it is rock solid, whether you choose to embrace it or reject it.”

Considering the work of Karl Marx in light of the fact that gaming is growing social phenomenon in the 21st century, one might easily coin a phrase like “World of Warcraft is the opiate of the masses”—or substitute “Halo,” or “Super Mario Bros.” Apparently, the gaming opium dens of the 21st century have a lot of vices from which to choose. I have to admit that this is a tempting concept—especially when I have to almost crowbar my 12- and 8-year-old sons from the various screens they sometimes seemed glued to.

Tempting, but probably wrong. 

In Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, game designer Jane McGonigal, shares interesting statistics and empirical analysis that put gaming in a more positive light. Like many similar books (Jonah Leher’s How We Decide or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows spring to mind), the main theoretical orientation is in the realm of neurochemical processes. McGonigal posits that there is a sense among gaming communities that “Reality, compared to games, is broken.”

“Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential,” writes McGonical. “Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy.”  Ultimately, games make us happy and, as she argues, can actually change the world, because they leverage the neuronal and chemical processes of the brain that make us happy. Maybe that opium metaphor is not so far off after all.

But for the social philosopher and theorist, one needs to dig a little deeper. Let us first consider Marx, the young Marx of the Economic Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. These are the writings that are often thought to establish Marx as a humanist, and, indeed, were important to the new left during the 1960s. Here we are introduced to Marx’s concepts of alienated labor. Marx writes:

 “This fact expresses nothing but this: the object which labor produces—the product of labor—confronts it as an alien being, as a power independent of the producer…. [T]his realization of labor appears as the loss of reality of the worker, objectification appears as the loss of the object and bondage to it.”

It appears that Marx, too, considered reality as flawed. For Marx, labor is alienated when: it is external to the worker; it is not voluntary, but coerced, and; it is not his or her own, but is somebody else’s. In The German Ideology, Marx describes a scenario of an unalienated laborer:

 “…while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, society regulates the general production and this makes it possible for me to do one thing to-day and another to-morrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

I have to admit that when I was first introduced to Marx in the 1980s, it was hard to read passages like this without thinking of “back-to-the-land” communards living together in intentional communities—sometimes with the worst stereotypes in mind. The concept of alienated labor rang true to me, but the alternatives of what unalienated labor would really be like rang flat and hollow.

But consider McGonigal’s four defining traits of a game: a goal, giving the game a sense of purpose; rules, which guide the way one can reach one’s goal and, by definition, foster creative and strategic thinking; a feedback system, so you always know how you are doing, and ; voluntary participation—it wouldn’t be a game if you had to play it. McGonigal also cites non-essential traits of some games, including interactivity, rewards, competition and winning. Even with this abbreviated list, one gets the sense that we’re not describing the mechanisms of a multi-billion-dollar escapist industry, but something meaningful, purposeful and profoundly human.  

She boils it down to this: “Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.”

I have not found a better contemporary conceptualization of unalienated labor in the 21st century. With or without intending it, McGonigal has turned the concepts of work and play on their heads, challenging us to reconsider the importance of games and a “gameful life.” Her work has opened up the discourse about meaningful work to many voices and perspectives, including those of the classical sociology theorists.

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2 responses to “Unalienated Labor and the Gameful Life

  1. Although I do not do any gaming online myself, I encourage my students to use all the games that they can to learn about medical transcription and its associated specialties to be successful in their careers. We also play a Jeopardy type game to review for our final exam, and they learn a lot and love it. And yes, all the new brain research shows that you need to do new and different things because they can create new “synapses” until you die, that keeps the brain alive and functioning at full force! Some of my students could use a few more functioning synapses… so game away!

  2. Thanks for this. I’m hoping it is what it feels like — namely, the beginning of a deeper exploration of the real value of the current buzz around gamification. I’m fascinated by McGonigal’s work. She (and Gabe Zichermann, among others, I’m sure) help us see that beyond 1) the application of game elements to work (badges, leaderboards, etc. — which happens to elide the requirement for voluntary participation), and 2) work apps that feel like games (see SAPs sales lead sorting prototype http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnK_YhzpqiU), there is 3) the realm of work that embodies, draws upon, and nurtures the “zone” one reaches while gaming. At this level, the point is not, as critics of gamification think, to “let workers play.” It is rather to recognize that gamers *work really hard* — and have a great time doing it.

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