Can Video Games Teach Us to Love our Work?

Truck driver. Shopkeeper. City planner. Restaurateur. Amusement Park Engineer. Oil prospector. These are all things that either someone can pay you to do, or that you can drop anywhere from ten to sixty bucks to pretend to do in your off time in games like American Truck Simulator, Shoppe Keep, Cities: Skylines, The Sims 4, Planet Coaster, and Turmoil.

These games fall under the broad umbrella of management sims, and they offer strange thrills like “designing the most efficient product flow system.” Most games give players some kind of job to do, but jobs like Some Jerk with a Sword, Princess Saver, Detective, Crusader King and Space Fighter Pilot are pleasantly exotic and unlikely to intersect with my life path in the normal way of things. Whereas, truck driver? Isn’t that the kind of thing we’re paying good money to forget about?

Yet these games can be entirely addictive, even if they do look a lot like work. Being able to see the results of your decisions play out in front of you is both wonderfully satisfying and also a recipe for constant microadjustments to reach some optimal state of resource management.

For me personally, management sims are the type of game to result in my being found three days later unwashed, unslept, unfed, and mostly returned to feral condition. I’m an INTP, so somewhere inside me a nerdlinger shoves up her glasses and says with glee, “Oh, you want me to design a system, eh?” And then I set to with a single-minded enthusiasm that blows out of the water even my most engaged and passionate real-life work efforts.

So is there a way to funnel the fascination of these gamified working simulators into our real-life work in order to increase our enthusiasm for filing TPS reports? Or can we at least take some hints from what these games tell us about ideal working environments?

While we can’t emulate the consequence-free environment of gaming, these sims offer tips to make work more engaging:

There’s a wonderful absence of sticky interpersonal relationships. There’s no game, as far as I know, that captures the torment of trying to ask your boss something for the fourth time without sounding passive aggressive. A real workplace might be best represented by turn-based combat with awkward associates, as in the “Offices and Bosses” role-playing game enjoyed by the inhabitants of the fantastical Foon in the Hello from the Magic Tavern podcast, but management sims leave out the clueless client and the overly chatty coworker to let you focus on your actual job. There are no three-hour meetings.

Autonomy and creativity make the work more satisfying. In Planet Coaster, part of the thrill of designing the perfect amusement park is the pleasure of artistic freedom when creating rides. Users can create structures as elaborate and detailed as Mt. Rushmore ride designed by one player using only the terrain tools. Even a city planner like Cities: Skylines offers a lot of creative freedom for developing a vision, whether aesthetic or utilitarian. You can experiment with new ways of doing things, unhindered by committee or rulebook.

Don’t be afraid to change the scenery. If you’re tired of hauling oranges from California to Nevada, the Truck Simulator games have you covered with the likes of Euro Truck Simulator, so you can haul olives from Italy to the Czech Republic. And in Turmoil, part of the greedy, oil-rush concept of the game involves completely destroying areas with oil drilling and moving on to new scenery with new challenges and treasures. While I wouldn’t suggest anyone apply quite such a slash-and-burn technique to their personal ecosystem, sometimes a change of scenery in the form of a new job, a new city, or just a new coffee shop to work in can be incredibly energizing.

Successes open up new skills. While many job perks in games are cosmetic, others will offer a more flexible approach and new tools that help you do your job. Games that offer perks to enhance your business dealings, like The Sims 4, tap into a growth mindset that’s been shown to enhance employee happiness. In Shoppe Keep, you can unlock a skill that allows you to dramatically mark up your face to face sales interactions and you can put your talent points into developing that skill, or branch off in a different direction like theft deterrance.

More, these perks and skills are unlocked at clear and reliable benchmarks that offer concrete goals. In Turmoil, a historic oil-rush management sim, saving up $30,000 will allow you to invest in a scanner that allows you to locate rich areas of the oil field. Each field’s profit can be directly related to the goals you’re trying to achieve, so it’s easy to understand the relationship between your work and its rewards.

Imagine if you could walk into your annual performance review with a simplified video game spreadsheet totting up your accomplishments and spend the rest of the meeting talking about how to implement the new skills you’ll be learning in the coming year?

Tunes always help. In American Truck Simulator, having the radio blasting great road trip music is part of the cross-country fun. But any mundane, repetitive work can be made a little easier to focus on if you listen to the right music, which may include video game soundtracks. These soundtracks are tailored to give you focus and a sense of achievement as you plough through repetitive tasks.

Know what you’re working towards, take responsibility for your work, and crank the music; maybe work could be just a little more like a game.

Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.
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Sophie Weeks
Born in Phoenix, Arizona, Sophie Weeks received a Masters degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2006 and completed her PhD in Victorian Literature at Rice University in 2013. She is the author of Outside the Spotlight, Unsettled Spirits, and The Soured Earth.

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