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Casual Playbor
by Jason Lipshin

A short history of the relationship between play and labor as seen through Zynga's Facebook game Farmville.

“Social participation is the oil of the digital economy.”

-Trebor Scholz[1]


In his short essay “Money for Nothing: Virtual Worlds and Virtual Economies,” Steven Shaviro traces what he sees as the historical trajectory for play under capitalism. Citing Max Weber, Shaviro points out how the Fordist regime’s adherence to the puritan work ethic was used to strictly separate labor from play: with the former exalted as “salvation” and the latter stigmatized as “diabolical.”[2] He continues that it is this dialectical tension that allowed twentieth century theorists such as Johan Huizinga, Roger Callois, and Guy Debord to re-appropriate play as a potential for defiance. Opposed to the strict regimentation and repetition of work on the factory assembly line, these theorists saw play as a subversive and irreducibly human activity occurring in a sphere completely separate from the realm of labor.[3]  Therefore, just as Chaplin’s playful dancing and impish attitude in Modern Times (1936) literally breaks down the well-oiled operations of the factory machine, these theorists similarly celebrated play as a kind of necessary agitation– a subversive antidote to the rational structures of a modern, productive society.


[Watch Clip 1, "Modern Times - Play and Labor"]


But as Alex Galloway notes in his book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, today, the entire distinction between play and labor has collapsed, problematizing the liberating potential of the former. [12] The broad transformation from Fordist to Post-Fordist economies in late capitalist societies has transformed labor from an activity restricted to the enclosed space of the factory, to a multiplication of activities expanding out into numerous spheres of ambient life, in which “all of society is put to work”[4] under the auspices of play. For instance, in marketing campaigns for new media technologies, the rhetoric of this new labor is framed by its absence: utopian celebrations of video games’ playful empowerment and expansive spaces emphasize interactivity, individuality, customizability, and freedom of choice, without any attention to how play-labor is structured, coded, or exploited for capital. With the popular advent of Web 2.0 platforms, corporations have learned to expropriate value from many aspects of daily life previously attributed to play: “sexual desire, boredom, friendship…all become fodder for speculative profit,” as ubiquitous Internet surveillance monetizes personal data into a commodity. [5] Indeed, it is in this new context of control that contemporary labor has been able to hide so well under connotations of playfulness, and that play has been able to become more laborious, allowing Julian Kucklich to coin the neologism “play-bor.”[6]


As a game which in many ways encodes these shifting relationships between play and labor on the level of both its content and game mechanic, Zynga’s free-to-play (f2p), Facebook game Farmville represents a privileged space to investigate the particular ways in which power has been reconfigured in the move from an industrial to a post-industrial society. Take for example, Farmville’s play mechanic, which has been universally derided by game designers and purists alike, as notoriously boring, repetitive, and addictive. As can be seen in this clip’s video introduction to the game [Watch Clip 2, "Farmville - Play as Labor"], the key mechanic of Farmville mostly just involves a lot of clicking: to hoe a patch, you click on a square; to plant a seed, you click on a square; to harvest your crop, you click on a square. This three-clicks-per-square regiment is the main process by which players in Farmville gain Farm Cash, and in its execution, one can easily imagine how the routine of planting and harvesting even a relatively small patch of squares (i.e. 14 x 14 = over six-hundred clicks) can start to give a player carpal tunnel.[7] Thus, in almost a parody of the Post-Fordist condition, Farmville’s gameplay represents the older labor of farming while simulating newer labor in the machinic space particular to the contemporary convergence of work and play. Inevitably, it is through Farmville’s painfully tedious button mashing that the space of the computer screen, the arena of both Post-Fordist leisure and work,[8] allegorizes its own operations of power.


Furthermore, while Farmville has literally become the most popular game in the western world (even surpassing the number of players attached to World of Warcraft (1994-2010) and the Nintendo Wii (2006)[9]), it is clear from just a cursory glance at the kinds of video responses to the game on Youtube that even devoted players of Farmville experience the game as a kind of work. For instance, in this quite typical clip from an avid Farmville player, the emphasis is on finding cheats that speed up or relieve the player from the simulation’s repetitive and tedious play – paradoxically, the player is invested in finding creative ways to play the game less.


[Watch Clip 3, "Farmville - Paradoxical Cheats"]


Such a situation is reminiscent of Adorno’s prescient vision of how the structures of labor infiltrate free time, as while laborious play would seem to be anathema to the very definition of gameplay, Farmville keeps its players hooked by structuring this core play mechanic around a system of extrinsic rewards – virtual consumer items and decorations for your farm gained by trading in your hard-earned Farm Cash. Thus, while initially there may be the implied hope that present-day grinding and the accompanying accumulation of property and goods will eventually lead to uninhibited play in the future, much of the irony of the game lies in the fact that more property necessitates more labor and care. Because Farmville operates in conjunction with the Facebook platform, your tiered set of virtual display trophies function like the most perfect instantiation of “keeping up with the Joneses” – outside of social capital, these items give you no new abilities, operations, or even challenges, but staying “competitive” requires more and more of your time and labor. The game is, thus, both banal and infinite – it is never ending and always the same.  As the player’s proliferating rewards can only come attached to an endless loop of responsibilities and social obligations towards those properties, it is clear that Farmville mirrors the condition of subjectivity under contemporary consumer capitalism. 


However, perhaps the most startling example of the contemporary convergence of play and labor comes in Farmville’s use of “lead generation” surveys.  As can be seen in this scathing expose from Newsydotcom [Watch Clip 4 - "Farmville - Scam Expose"], completing these surveys in Farmville allow players an opportunity to get Farm Cash and other virtual items more easily in a way which (again) escapes the tedium of the game’s laborious play. By casually divesting their personal information and/or thoughts on various consumer questions, players of these surveys, in effect, reify their online selves into information commodities to be bought and sold by marketers eager to exploit crowdsourced, R & D research.[10] In this new, networked regime of control, personal information has, thus, become the new capital for marketers, and free labor (under the auspices of Web 2.0 participatory play) has become the new means by which to obtain it. Thus, in its merger of the ethos of empowered consumer play and the labor of identity management under surveillance, these surveys create a space in which consumption, production, and play merge in heretofore unprecedented ways. Notwithstanding Zynga’s CEO blatantly admitting that he did “every horrible thing in the book just to make money,” it is striking that monetizing and exploiting play to such an extent is even a part of the CEO’s toolkit – in the days of Charlie Chaplin, play was seen as the antithesis of productivity.  For just a simple game about farming, it is striking how Farmville posits a space not unlike Jean Baudrillard’s dystopia in which the player’s “freedom of choice is imposed on him.“[11]



[1] Eugene Lang College. “Introduction.” The Internet as Factory and Playground: A

Conference on Digital Labor.

[2] Steven Shaviro. “Money for Nothing: Virtual Worlds and Virtual Economies.”

[3] See Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, (New York: Beacon, 1971). 

His notion of “the magic circle” epitomizes this view of play as a place of leisure completely separate from the realm of work.

[4] Eugene Lang College, “Introduction.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Julian Kucklich. “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry” in Fibreculture, no. 5, September 2005.


[7] Ibid.

[8] Julian Stallabrass. “Just Gaming: Allegory and Economy in Computer Games” in New Left Review, no. 198, March-April 1993, pp. 83-106.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kucklich.

[11] Jean Baudrillard, “Consumer Society” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. (Stanford University Press, 1988),  p. 43.

[12] Alex Galloway. "Ch. 3 - Social Realism" in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 76.

Modern Times - Play and Labor by Charles Chaplin (1936) This clip epitomizes the perceived relationship between play and labor in an industrial context. Play is seen as a liberating and potentially disruptive force in direct opposition to the rigid segmentation of work on the assembly line.
Farmville - Play as Labor by FarmvilleFarmerTips (2010) Brief description of the clip and the critical context you are placing it in.
Farmville - Paradoxical Cheats by xbsjason (2009) Farmville's play mechanic is so incredibly boring that even avid players find creative ways to play less.
Farmville - Scam Expose by Newsydotcom (2009) Farmville's CEO admits that he did "every horrible thing in the book just to make money."