Getting paid to party: what is the difference between work and play?

July 17th, 2010 by

Work and play: as concepts, they couldn’t be further from each other – right? Today, these two conceptual opposites are increasingly getting mixed up. Korean professional gamers make a living by competing in multiplayer games like StarCraft in front of television audiences of millions. Hundreds of thousands of virtual gold farmers in China, Vietnam and elsewhere are paid an hourly wage to harvest treasures in online games like EverQuest 2. And most recently, companies like CrowdFlower have started to hire gamers and online community members to carry out real chores like categorizing search engine results and verifying links. The catch: these workers are paid in virtual currency.

No wonder some punters are starting to say that in the future, it will no longer be possible to distinguish work from play. Rather than repeat the same prediction, I would like to use this essay to put forward an even more radical idea: it never was possible to distinguish work from play in the first place.

The meaning of work
The common sense way to distinguish between the two concepts is that work is productive, whereas play or consumption is unproductive, even destructive, as it consumes value created through work. This view was espoused by early economists such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx, but modern economists consider it flawed. There is nothing intrinsically valuable in toiling. Moving rocks from pile A to pile B will be of no use unless someone desires those rocks to be moved. In fact, misguided work can be not only unproductive, but simply destructive: think about excessive bureaucracy, spam advertising and drilling holes in the sea floor that risk irreparable damage to our environment.

Smith and others soon realized that economic value is actually produced or willed into being by consumers, whose demand for a good or service gives work its meaning. This is called the subjective theory of value, and it is how modern economists regard value. Inasmuch as play produces enjoyable sensations that the player considers valuable, it is a productive activity: something akin to working to satisfy one’s own demand, and possibly also of others involved in the same game or activity. Many people also enjoy volunteering for charities. As a result, it is not possible to distinguish between work and play simply by saying that one is productive while the other is not.

Follow the money?
Surely we can still make the practical distinction that work is something that someone will pay you money for? Not unless you are willing to say that housework, subsistence farming and slave labor are not work, but play. Unpaid work is often excluded from indicators such as GDP because of the practical difficulty of tracking it, but this is recognized as a shortcoming of the indicators. Work that is unpaid in one country is often part of the money economy in another, so payment would be a very arbitrary yardstick for work. Activities like casual gambling and taking part in a game show can moreover be financially lucrative, even though you would probably consider them play rather than work.

And so we reach the final attempt at distinguishing work from play. Even though house chores and online games are both unpaid activities for me, from my perspective there is surely one big difference between them: I’d much rather be playing Crown of Byzantus than washing dishes. Indeed, this is how an economist would usually model the relationship between work and play: play is something you prefer over work. In order to get you to forgo some play in favor of work, an employer must bribe you with something you prefer even more (up to a certain degree): a salary, a flattering title, a possibility of bonuses, and so on. Similarly, in order to be able to work less and play more, many people are willing to pay someone else to do their cooking and cleaning.

Sounds intuitive? The problem with this definition is that it is entirely subjective. If you love your design job and hate clubbing, this definition says that your job is play and clubbing is work. While that is a cool way of looking at your job, it means that this definition, like all the others, fails to give us any actual rule for distinguishing work from play.

Pass me the champagne, I’m working
The truth is that “work” and “play” are labels our culture attaches to activities by tradition. Some things are labeled as work, some things as play, and others as something completely different. The labels carry with them certain meanings and moral values: for example, things that are labeled as work tend to be considered useful, regardless of their actual contribution to society. As culture changes, so do the labels: think about how the status of jazz musicians has changed from dangerous subversives in the 1920s to high-brow entertainers in the 2000s. Today, professional gaming is apparently starting to be accepted as a legitimate career choice in Korea, while the World Bank is commissioning a study on gold farmers. Scholars like me have chosen to write about game economies, which for better or worse, tends to have a legitimizing effect on the subject. It thus looks like the cultural boundaries of work and play are on the move. If you are not confused about work and play today, you probably will be tomorrow!

Let me finish with a scene from here in Tokyo illustrating that it is not only the new born-digital jobs that challenge conventional notions of work and play. Imagine yourself chatting with the ladies at a cozy club in a Shinjuku nightlife district, whilst sipping champagne, cocktails, whisky and cognac – sound like a fun way of spending your leisure time? What if you got paid to do it? What if, instead of paying for every drink, you actually got paid more the more alcohol you consumed – would you still consider it play? Low on cash? No problem, just grab that Moët and pour yourself another glass! This is not a wannabe playboy’s dream, but a real dilemma for thousands of Japanese guys. They work as hosts in so-called host clubs, drinking establishments catering for wealthy (mostly) young women. I would not recommend it as a job for anyone, as it is hard on the liver and the head, but it is said to have its fun moments!

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  • Alexander

    Looks like all the discussion is on Twitter/Facebook these days, so nobody comments in the actual blog anymore :/

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  • Virtual Faqs

    I agree that work and play is tough to define and really comes down to subjective definitions.

    From a MMORPG perspective, you are actually playing from the time you start the game until the time the game ends by the traditional play definition. However there are many times in that game that are considered work.

    When I've killed a monster 100 times and finally get that rare item I want that is fun, but those 90+ times it took for me to kill that monster is work. Of course this is subjective but for the majority who play MMORPGs, I really doubt anyone is having fun after killing the same monster the 5th time without some kind of reward.

    Really this is no different than athletes and movie stars. I guess these aren't your typical jobs. Maybe that's it.

  • Vili Lehdonvirta

    Virtual Faqs, that's a very good point about the microstructure of work/play: both involve cycles of pleasant as well as unpleasant moments. In a MMORPG, you put up with the grinding in order to get the rare item. At office, you put up with boring meetings in order to get the paycheck, or to bring an interesting project to fruition. The rewards motivate people to go through the drudgery.

    If this is so, however, why do game developers insist on including unpleasant drudgery in their games? At the office, some drudgery may be unavoidable, but a game could just as well be produced without it. Just give people all the items and rewards, and they will be happy?

    The answer seems to be that the unpleasant moments give meaning to the pleasant ones, to an extent. Boring and repetitive sections accentuate the eventual fresh content. An item that you had to work hard for becomes personally more meaningful than a one that you got for free. And even if you buy an item for real money instead of working to get it, perhaps the financial sacrifice involved makes you feel more invested in it.

    This might be an interesting topic for research. I don't think it has been studied much. Concepts of framing and anchoring in behavioral economics might provide a starting point. Castronova also touched on this when he said “scarcity is fun”. Conventional research on motivation and incentives usually takes the drudgery as a given, and looks at how to construct the rewards. In this case, the problem is almost the opposite.

  • Vili Lehdonvirta

    Video related to the previous comment: “If Games Had Super Easy Mode”
    via Mikko Tuomela ^^