Dave Werdan always wanted to be a truck driver.
On Middle America road trips with his family, Werdan as a child would gaze out the window and watch the trucks go by, giddily imagining himself driving one.
"It was just the adventure behind it," he said. "You go everywhere!"
A dozen years later, behind the wheel of his 2010 Peterbilt 579, the life of a trucker isn't so glamorous. Backing twenty feet of metal into a parking spot can be stressful. Waiting hours outside a warehouse to load cargo into your trailer can be tedious, especially if the radio stations are fuzzy. Successful, safe deliveries often require ten-hour shifts, throughout which Werdan, 23, must be awake and alert. Werdan's schedule—one month on, one week off—would wear on most people. But during his week off, after a month on the road, he grinds on American Truck Simulator, a 2016 PC game simulating the minutiae of truck-driving.
"The actual trucking experience cannot always be that pleasant. It has its moments when you just want to strangle people," Werdan told me. "ATS is like the best bits of the job."
There's always a parking spot.
"You never have to wait," Werdan said. "You go to the marker. You take your job. You hook up your trailer and you go on."
The game, released earlier this year, has received praise for a simulation of a notoriously tedious job. Players drive through the Nevada desert and California cityscapes to deliver a variety of cargo (none of it overweight) in a sort of streamlined trucker's daydream. Each job brings players closer to their fantasy truck and higher-paying gigs. ATS's parent company, SCS Software, uses words like "haul," "doing jobs" and "long journey" to advertise the game.
"It's like a drug," Werdan said.
The vocabulary of digital labor has, slowly and subtly, crept into the way we talk about gaming. "Grinding" levels on an MMO evokes the scraping sounds of pestle against mortar. "Farming" for crystals has us scurrying from mob to mob, collecting valuable units until they "stack" and sell at the nearest city's marketplace.
The hard separation between work and play, between our 9-to-5s and digital escapisms, has softened in the years since the US government in 1980 allegedly repurposed Atari's Battlezone as an Army training exercise. Our desire for productivity, however, has not.
German sociologist Max Weber, concerned with the rise of capitalism, described how under capitalism, our self-worth is inextricably tied to our productivity. Our obligation to the concept of labor and the material goods it provides is, to him, the main motivating force behind our daily lives. In many circumstances, capitalism has influenced us to view our careers as "callings," which we desperately cling to for a sense of purpose.
"Labour must… be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself," he writes in "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" (1905), "a calling… which is necessary to capitalism."
If the impulse to productivity is the fuel of capitalism, then it's unlikely that impulse fades when we're off the clock. Integral to the capitalist ethic is a powerful threat of idleness that, in many cases, game developers have taken advantage of. Or, the reverse: a love of work so powerful that it governs our definition of "play."
Out of this dynamic, a new sort of gamer has emerged: One uses video games to perform the ghosts of her daily labors.
Increasingly, video games that mimic real-life occupations have become a choice post-work cocktail of entertainment and relaxation. A true love of work has become principle of good American living, but against the background of overly-demanding bosses and tedious paperwork, our ideal work life can feel like a shadow cast against our daily grinds. If Weber is right—that we are automatons programmed with the desire to make, do, spend, and acquire—performing simulations of our chosen labor without the same material benefits could, perhaps, fulfill capitalistic impulses ingrained deep within us.
That's where the games come in.
"Certain people really like their jobs, even when they're not glamorous"
Jennifer Brown, a 36-year-old city planner in Multnomah County, Oregon, plays a lot of SimCity BuildIt. City planning, she maintains, is her calling insofar as she enjoys problem-solving and geography. Recently, though, she's been struggling with a vacant piece of property overlooking the Columbia River and Portland city skyline. Because of a nearby creek and hillside, the lot is unbuildable. Oregon's zoning laws, put in place to preserve the natural environment, as well as ordinances regulating building colors, writing reports, and designing around complicated land formations, forces Brown to consolidate the job's abstract joys with its material frustrations.
And yet, after an eight-hour workday, Brown invariably flops down on her couch and calls up SimCity BuildIt on her iPad.
"In SimCity, it's an incredibly simplified version of city planning. For me, playing it lets me put my mark on things and come up with my own ideas instead of executing other peoples'," she said.
In Brown's digital city, Uncanny Valley, she controls where to place roads, landmarks, and train lines. Without a living, fixed environment and an already-existent grid, Brown can city-plan in a more streamlined alternate dimension.
"In reality, the actual environment is full of chaos: nonconforming lots, illegal houses and all the things you're trying to squeeze in under regulations. When I sit down and play this game, it's soothing because all those problems don't exist!"
These work-replica games provide gamers with tame environments in which they effortlessly produce commodities and organize their surroundings. In this void, productivity is quantifiable and discernible.
Matthew Sifonios, a professional chef who plays the restaurant sim Cook, Serve, Delicious, digitally reenacts his job after work in part because, in the game, he has complete control over the kitchen, "as if I was running a kitchen with clones of myself," he says. In Cook, Serve, Delicious, he faces fewer obstacles between prepping vegetables and getting steaks on the table. He doesn't get to smell or taste the 2D food he makes, but still feels a rush of productivity and accomplishment when he plays.
Notions of measurable productivity are programmed into the fiber of most video games. Control, gaugeable progress, streamlined processes and known goals—all the trappings of job satisfaction—are also the elementals of gaming. Game developer and Carnegie Mellon professor Paolo Pedercini, who created the existential vignette game Every Day the Same Dream about white collar employment, is preoccupied by the portrayal of labor and capitalism in gaming. He cites a desire for self-determination as one of the reasons why people simulate their day jobs with video games.
"Certain people really like their jobs, even when they're not glamorous," he explained. "What they don't like is being controlled or micromanaged or living in the messiness of this world under wage-labor types of relationships."
Long-criticized is the effect of capitalist systems of production on a laborer's alienation from their work. Self-determination—complete control over the design and production of labor's products—necessarily binds a worker and their work. Without this sort of self-determination, when a city-planner is carrying out the government's schemes instead of her own, ownership of labor can feel minimal.
Psychologically unsettled, many can turn to video games to compensate for this lack of control over work.
In his 2014 Indiecade East talk "Videogames and the Spirit of Capitalism," Pedercini explains why the constant collecting and managing of commodities in games is the apotheosis of capitalist ethics.
"Gamification techniques attribute arbitrary and quantifiable rewards in an attempt to incentivize certain actions such as generating content online, adopting a specific pattern of consumption, or acquiring 'positive' habits," he says. "The users' score is typically made public to leverage a desire for competition and status. . . Feasible or not, gamification is the object of desire of contemporary capitalism. . . It's the fantasy of measurement of the unmeasurable (lifestyle, affects, activism, reputation, self-esteem…), as measurement is a precondition for commodification."
However, without the traditional fruits of labor, like money and tangible goods, it is difficult to see how moving work onto a digital plane can feel even remotely productive. After all, Werdan's digital trucks aren't stocking actual Walmart shelves. Sifonios isn't getting paid to assemble pixelated hamburgers.
Gaming's effect on players' chemical reward system, however, is well-documented. Straightforward goals, obvious failures, and increasing compensations manifestly affect the brain's dopamine levels. Sifonios either succeeds or fails at cooking a meal in time to satisfy his simulation restaurant customers—and, with success comes a reliable bundle of cash. When reward systems at the workplace are much less clear, obfuscated by undefined goals, poor interpersonal communication and haphazard raises, these career simulation games can feel like the "playing house" version of life.
Dr. Jamie Madigan, author of Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People who Play Them, described how this simplification of the human reward system is "baked into" video games.
"In real life, you don't get constant feedback, clear goals, and predictable rewards," Madigan said. "You may never know if you're doing a good job or even be able to focus on the parts of a job that you want to or find most rewarding. But because video games can be shaped and directed by their creators, they can let players make meaningful choices, feel progress, and feel like they're important to other people. Those are key elements in any motivated behavior, and they're simply more present in games than in real life. We get a hit from that reward center in our brain much more frequently when we play games, relative to non-gaming activities like work."
Aside from mimicking the system of incentivize-produce-reward-repeat that Weber attributes to capitalist economies, digital labor reenactments may also smooth over a job's ethical ambiguities. When reproducible productivity and coherent, completed tasks are the ingredients for addictive gaming, an ethical shift occurs: Rewards are laid out for the completion of tasks and not for emotional labors like empathizing with a friend or taking care of a sick parent. Role-playing games are often preoccupied by quests with material gains like weapons or gold; shooters by taking out an enemy.
While there has been, over the last few years, an influx of games dealing in the business of emotions, Madigan's capitalist reward pattern remains, by and large, unsurmounted by game developers. Like this, human values can take a backseat to getting the job done.
John Peters doesn't play Call of Duty.
"I call it a 'rollercoaster game,'" said Peters, who joined the Army right after September 11. "You're on a track: objective A to B to C, and so on."
Real soldiers, he explained, play Arma 3, a combat simulator within a "massive military sandbox."
Peters, 32, was what he describes as a "ground-pounder," with 132 confirmed kills when he was deployed in Afghanistan. He takes pride in his sniping skill to a degree that is both nerdy and a little obsessive. He has all of his calculations memorized—if an insurgent is 900 meters out, his bullet is 380 grains and he has an M14, the bullet might strike at about four and a half seconds, he recited. It's work he believes he is inherently accustomed to, but three Purple Hearts and three gunshot wounds later, Peters was shipped back to the States with an honorable discharge.
"I can look through the scope and know that the person at the other end of the barrel is a piece of code. I can kill this guy and not think twice about it"
Arma 3 is a shooter game in top form, playing to Peters' preoccupation with the tactical and physical realities of war. Its physics engine is first-class while its multiplayer mode simulates true-to-life squad relationships in which you rely on your team to complete a task. Its sandbox-style world lends players a certain sense of agency that Call of Duty, he says, can't approximate.
After a day of war on the mountainside, Peters and his comrades would play Arma 3, reveling in its accuracy to real life: "If you get shot in the arm, you're not a sniper no more!" However, there's one crucial difference. In real life, Peters' mental calculations are aimed at a human body he sees through his scope.
"You can emulate real life without real-world consequences," Peters explained. But for him, emulation isn't where the fantasy ends. When Peters plays action role-playing game Skyrim and comes face-to-face with a rogue bandit, he holds his mouse down and hacks away at the enemy, conscious that the insurgent is a piece of code.
"I don't wonder if the video game bandit has a family, a wife. Here's a piece of code. I'll shoot my own code at it and come out on top," he said. With Arma 3, the aesthetic is more similar to his day job's, but the ethical questions still aren't as pressing.
Outside the game, on the rocky Middle Eastern terrain, Peters looked through the scope of his rifle and saw a brother, a father or a son. He could end their world and cut them off from everything.
"Because of video games, I can look through the scope and know that the person at the other end of the barrel is a piece of code. I can kill this guy and not think twice about it," he said.
Eliding over another conversation about whether video games promote violence, Peters is indicating that, as a digital simulation of his job as a soldier, Arma 3 tempers ethical questions he might have about ending lives by placing productivity at the forefront of his priorities. Bodies down is the goal, and to get there, Peters can't waste a split-second on empathy exercises or his efficiency is compromised.
After progressing through the ranks, honing his skills and eventually leaving the Middle East with a wad of cash, Peters settled back down in Denver, Colorado, and took a job as a truck driver. Like Werdan, he is also fanatical about American Truck Simulator. He liked that, as a driver, his office changed every day, from Miami Beach to the Grand Canyon, but also took pleasure in the simple delivery of goods, transferring a product from point A to point B, both of which ATS aims to simulate. (Peters can no longer maneuver the truck's clutch because of his military days. He is now a police officer).
"ATS is all about driving the truck: sitting behind the wheel and putting in the miles," Werdan said. Werdan feels a dopamine rush after delivering cargo in ATS, but adds that it's nothing like the high he gets after delivering much-needed cargo to warehouses. Once, he delivered a load of snowblowers to St. Johns, Newfoundland, just before winter. That, he says, is why he loves his job.
And yet, in ATS, Werdan can own as many trucks as he wants after completing the requisite amount of trips. "As long as you have the money," he said, "you can buy thousands of trucks."
Werdan doesn't really feel the need. In ATS, he drives the same truck he uses on the job: a Peterbilt 579.