Working to Play in a Digital Age

9 04 2009

This is an essay written in my second year of undergraduate studies. The essay explores how the distinction between our notions of work and play have become intertwined within the digital era. Specifically, how do we separate notions of work and play within our leisure time in this new age?

Working to Play in a Digital Age

A new era of digital entertainment is upon us and it seems that no longer are we restricted in the ways in which we interact with technology for the purpose of entertainment. In the most basic sense we are no longer are limited to a predetermined scheduling of television programs, if we can afford and choose such a feature. More complexly, no longer are we restricted to the boundaries of our physical reality when seeking out technologically enhanced entertainment. Such is the case with the internet and video games. With statements such as these it would seem that the advancement of technology and media has allowed for us the ability to partake in greater experiences in leisure, that which we seek to obtain apart from the daily grind of work. Yet these statements alone would only represent a technologically determined thinker’s work. A more appropriate consideration of the effects of technology on work and leisure would consist of an assessment of not only technology, but apply a broader range of theory, ranging from an analysis of the reasons in which content is produced, and perhaps to the point of consumption as well. What will ultimately be argued in this essay is that an analysis of commodification of culture in a digital age will find that the line between work and leisure has become perpetually indistinct.

A Move towards Understanding Free Time
The need to assess what the new and coming digital age means to the areas of work and leisure requires a consideration of where the boundaries between work and leisure lie. Critical theorist Theodor Adorno would argue that “free time is shackled to its opposite” (Adorno 187). To Adorno, free time exists only as a form of work (Adorno 187). Adorno argues this by taking a Marxist approach to the subject of work and leisure by claiming that the existence and nature of free time is directly related to the capitalist mode of production (Adorno 188-191). This fits well as a theoretical approach to the issue of free time, work, and the digital age when considered in relation to Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on culture industry. To Adorno and Horkheimer the culture industry is seen as the commodification of mass culture and as a product of the capitalist economy (Bernstein 9). The significance of this lies in the fact that to assess free time in relation to work in a digital age means a turn to an assessment of the notion of culture as commodity. An understanding of the entertainment we choose to take up our free time in relation to its base in capitalist economy is one that is needed in a theoretical approach to understanding the boundaries between work and free time.

The intent of this critical approach is to assume that free time and work are becoming indistinct from one another due to the effects of a cultural industry as Adorno and Horkheimer would suggest (Bernstein 9). But as technology gains for the user more “freedom”, this assumption becomes the subject of debate. The question that is to be asked then becomes, how much of free time is autonomous to the user even when provided with the looming promise of technological progress. To answer this, an examination of current forms of technological entertainment is needed. Such an application will allow for a greater understanding of the extent of such a theory, in the sense of where this approach succeeds and where it fails. The focus will revolve around technology without becoming too broad by covering first the seemingly most familiar form of technological entertainment, television, and then path it’s transition on to the internet, of which will also be analysed. From there a critical analysis of video games, internet social spaces, and commodification of those users will be realised.

The Commodification of Free Time in a Digital Age
In Simulation and Social theory, Cubitt analyses Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry in relation to simulation theory (25-28). He outlines the two authors’ argument of the utilization of technology by capitalism a means for oppression and states that due to the enlightened rationality behind technology, Adorno and Horkheimer would see this as instrumental reason (Cubitt 26). As Cubitt notes, in Adorno and Horkheimer’s case this would lead to an exploitation of the human mind that is characteristic of the modern period (26). Cubitt uses Marcuse’s work to illustrate the notion that technological and instrumental reason can be taken as integrated into all facets of society and thus produce totalitarianism through the reduction of freedom to freedom to conform (26). While Cubitt considers this “unfashionable”, the implications of such a theory may merit worth when considered in an analysis of the relationship between free time and work (26).

When considering Cubitt’s reading of Adorno and Horkheimer, the suggestion of finding leisure within new forms of technological enhancements becomes an interesting one when arguing that technology may be subject to the economic factors that may govern its role. It would be appropriate then to consider the technology in a critical analysis of free time and work, to find out what factor it plays in answering the question of technological progress and free time. Thus, the framework of free time and work being subject to the effects of a cultural industry applied to the technologies influencing of free time would be appropriate. A look first at television will be necessary as to assess the prior limitations of technologies ability to enhance free time before assessing how these limitations translate into newer technologies that are meant to enhance the user’s experience of free time. Subsequently, a shift to the internet as the focal point of analysis will be made.

In Tapping into TiVo Matt Carlson first considers the previous ways in which audiences were set to receive information and entertainment from their television sets (Carlson 99-102). Carlson considers here the idea of control, and argues not for an authoritarian concept of control, but the notion that audiences must be built, that is they must want to view the content (Carlson 99-100). However Carlson moves on to suggest the scheduling of television and compares it to a transportation system arguing that it develops routine patterns which are integral to the integration of advertising content (100). What Carlson is arguing here is that the form of the technology was utilized in a way to allow for the commodification of audiences through analysis of patterns and scheduling (99-102). However Carlson shifts his argument to a new technology, the digital video recorder (DVR), which is seemingly enhancing television for audiences (102-103). What Carlson argues is that the DVR technology, specifically TiVo, is allowing service providers more options in the commodification of audiences (105-106). Some advantages seen are not only more television being watched by audiences, but rising value in previously lacking time slots due to time shifting capabilities and the capability for collection of user usage data (Carlson 105-106). Carlson’s argument begins to resemble Adorno’s notion of how we work for the leisure industry in our free time (190-191). This can also be seen in the arguments of Siapera.

Eugenia Siapera takes the audience as commodity argument into the realm of the internet by examining television and its relation to the internet audience. Siapera’s work can offer not only a bridge between understanding these two digital technologies, but provide groundwork for understanding audience commodification on the internet. Siapera suggests here that television websites are using the internet primarily in the same way it works to address audiences through its own medium, through the televisual, and because of this the potential of the internet as a medium will not be reached by this transition (156). Siapera finds that television audiences are treated the same online as they are treated offline yet makes an argument for the way audiences are primarily addressed (167-168). Siapera argues that the dominant mode of address is that of the audience as consumer, and an example of television sites providing online shopping links is given (167-168). Siapera’s work read in succession to Carlson’s offers an image of how Adorno’s notion of unfreedom can be read to transcend technologies as well as aspects of free time (188).

Through a direct look at the internet itself it is possible to see a more direct approach to treating the audience as consumers or commodities with arguments made by Campbell and Carlson. In their essay, the two compare internet surveillance techniques to Bentham’s conception of the Panopticon (Campbell et al. 586-587). The authors suggest that these surveillance techniques take the form of information gathering and aggregation which are used to control audiences (Campbell et al. 587). The two then suggest that the technology of surveillance, with regards to Bentham’s Panopticon coupled with internet surveillance, can be read as a critical aspect of the capitalist state (Campbell et al. 587). With this an example of the technique of utilizing technology for the assurance of worker efficiency is provided (Campbell et al. 587). With this the authors argue that the marketplace and capitalist workplace show parallels, suggesting that technology is employed by marketers to reduce uncertainty within the marketplace, and to increase advertising efficiency (Campbell et al. 587-588).

One of the more interesting arguments made by Campbell and Carlson is the notion that we exchange our privacy in order to participate (591-594). The two argue that consumers give into transactions that lack equity because marketers have concealed what Campbell and Carlson call the “consumerist Panopticon” (591-592). The two conclude their essay by considering the ability for us to choose whether or not we want to participate in this form of electronic surveillance, and conclude that since we have no control over the conditions of the marketplace, the power relations lack equity (603). Because of this, we tend to see ourselves at a disadvantage, and choose to sacrifice privacy in order to get ahead in the economic and social spheres (603). This argument renders it possible to see parallels between technology as well as the issue of free time and work through a medium in which free time is sought to be expended. Consumers give up freedom proper in order to participate in something that promises freedom within free time.

Authors Chung and Grimes essay Data Mining the Kids sees the previously mentioned methods of marketers applied to the realm of online video game websites. The authors argue that youth oriented video game based websites subject users to privacy issues that parallel the ones explored by Campbell and Carlson. However Chung and Grimes further examine how privacy is forfeited by users in order to gain more ground in the video games hosted by the sites, which appears to be the case with (535-536). As the authors note, gives users the option of filling out additional surveys that span a number of different topics and preferences in exchange for “Neopoints” which are then redeemable as a form of in-game currency (Chung et al. 536). It is also worth noting that for these websites one must create a unique online identity that allows for easier tracking of user preferences by marketers (Chung et al. 536). This argument begins to highlight the key aspect of the free time and work consideration, that being the understanding of the content and the experience of the user, which can be seen through the example of the video game content and experience being directly affected by the commodification of the user.

Free time as work
In an analysis of free time and work at the level of the user experience a turn to videogames as the central focus will allow for a more concise argumentative path to be taken. What has been argued previously is that technology is subject to influence by the same forces which are responsible for the mixing of free time and work, that being the effects of a capital driven culture industry as defined by Adorno and Horkheimer (Bernstein 9). By examining merging of work and game content it is possible to see that it is not only the technology, but how the experience of the user plays a key role in answering the question of free time and work. With the technology of video games the experience relies around the content and form of the game. The question then becomes, what can be seen from an analysis of video games as sites of free time as work?

Keeping in line with the previous image of working for in-game content it is possible to provide examples that will illustrate the seemingly dire situation of the video game experience. Nick Yee makes a similar argument in The Labor of Fun in which he considers the notion of video games blurring the line between work and leisure. Yee focuses on the video game genre of massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG) in his analysis of games and work. Yee argues that in order for games to be successful, the player must perform work without becoming aware that it is work that they are performing and suggests that this serves the purpose of training users to “work harder” while at the same time enjoying the game (70). This argument is similar to one Adorno makes in his essay on free time in which he argues that free time should not be similar to work in order for the individuals abilities at the workplace to be enhanced (190). Yee suggests that the form of the game is intended to be designed to make players enjoy working by rewarding them for such work, which is a trait Yee links to behaviour conditioning (70).

An example of this can be seen provided by Yee with Star Wars Galaxies (69). Yee notes how players in the game have the option of pharmaceutical manufacturing (69). Yee then notes not only the complicated procedures one must consider, but the amount of time that must be invested in what players consider fun (69). Further, this argument can be demonstrated by noting that the word “grind” or “grinding”, which roughly means to perform repetitive tasks in order to further ones position within a game, has become ubiquitous within video game culture. The example of the pharmaceutical manufacturing provided by Yee could be read as grinding. Yee concludes by noting the work of Beck and Wade who seem to follow a line of thought similar to Adorno’s reasoning and suggest that the corporate world will have to adjust to the new gamer generation, but suggest that this conclusion misses the point (70). However despite Yee’s conclusion, the work of Beck and Wade can still speak for an analysis of free time and Work.

As noted earlier Beck and Wades work Got Game argues that businesses will be affected by the gamer generation through the skills they bring to the workplace. The authors argue that managers will be able to observe a competitive attitude within the game playing generation and suggest that to gamers winning matters (Beck et al. 81). Beck and Wade argue that this is because the game playing experience is very competitive and winning may be considered to be the most important part of it (81). It is then suggested that this perspective transfers into everyday life and shapes the perspectives of the gamers (Beck et al. 81). But as was suggested with Yee’s examination of Star Wars Galaxies, it is also possible to see echoes of Adorno’s claims of free time conditioning one for work in the grander scheme of things as Beck and Wade consider (Adorno 190).

Returning to the new genre of the MMORPG and as well, the multi user dungeon (MUD), Kevin Moberly examines MMORPGs as well as MUDs, in an attempt to assess how these games win the consent of players in order to keep them not only interested in the game, but to remain providing economic capital and thus working for game providers (219). To begin this Moberly cites the MUD as a commodity and then uses Marx to consider the MUD’s value as a virtual reality (219). With this it is suggested that the players of the game must work to create the meaning of the game and cites Althusser to suggest that this production links a “shared imaginary relationship to the material condition of the game” (Moberly 220). Moberly suggests that this observation is characteristic of Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry in the sense that it conditions players into reproducing relations of production that are depended upon by the culture industry (220).

Considering Adorno and Assessing Aesthetic Value
After examining first technologies role in the merging of free time and work a move was made to consider both the content and experience of the user within the technology. However the perspective taken on this was one which considered the mode of production the key influence in affecting the boundaries between free time and work. What was intended to be argued here was not specifically a capitalist domination of free time, but an examination of the affects of capitalism on the technologies and cultural products that dominate our free time and the result of such an influence. What remains to be considered is the space for an analysis at the point of consumption. A reading of Walter Benjamin would lead one to consider the aesthetic value of these cultural products. In Alan How’s reading of Benjamin, Benjamin sees new forms of cultural expression, through mechanical reproduction as possibilities for sites of resistance, a move towards a world that is more democratic (77). This is due to the distracted state in which people observe movies in according to Benjamin (How 77). However Adorno would argue against Benjamin’s stance on mechanical reproduction by suggesting that the distracted state as a “symptom of regression” and attributed the distracted state to the notion that viewers were not living their own lives, but rather were subject to the will of companies (How 77).

Benjamin’s arguments highlight a key issue in the argument of free time merging with work, that being the perspective of analysis. The point at which the user consumes the media can not be ignored, yet in the same sense, an analysis of the nature of the content consumed can greatly benefit from theoretical frameworks that place criticism on the production of cultural products. In this essay a move to portray the values of Adorno’s critical approach to free time was made. As has been demonstrated here technology can read as subject to a capitalist economy, and as such, perpetuate Adorno’s claims on free time simply being labour for the capitalist system (Adorno 189-191). As well, when analyzing the content and experience, it was argued that the content was beginning to reflect the priorities of the capitalist system which produced the content intended to be consumed in ones free time (Adorno 190). Through the arguments made it is possible to see free time and work as remaining entangled, an entanglement which is perpetuated by the effects of a culture industry. However as noted earlier it is possible to take a different position on the notion of free time of work when assessing the point in which the content is consumed. This is even explored by Adorno in his essay on free time in which he considers the correlation between culture industry and free time, and notes that research has led him to question the effects of the culture industry on consciousness (195-197). Yet what remains from a consideration of free time and its relation to work is not only an understanding of the effects of a culture industry on our perception of free time and work, but an appreciation for the value of critical theory in allowing for such a conclusion to be realised.

Adorno, Theodor W. “Free Time”, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Routledge, 2001. 187-197.

Beck, John C. and Mitchell Wade. Got game: how the gamer generation is reshaping business forever. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

Bernstein, J.M. “Introduction to The Culture Industry,” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Routledge, 2001. 98-106.

Campbell, J.E. and Carlson, M. “ Online Surveillance and the Commodification of Privacy.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 46.4 (2002): 586-606.

Carlson, M. “Tapping into TiVo: Digital video recorders and the transition from schedules to surveillance in television.” New Media & Society 8.1 (2006): 97-115.

Chung, G. and Grimes, S.M. “Data mining the kids: Surveillance and market research strategies in children’s online games.” Canadian Journal of Communication 30.4 (2005): 527-548.

Cubitt, S. Simulation and Social Theory. Thousand Oaks, Cailfornia: SAGE Publications, 2001.

How, A. Critical Theory. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

Moberly, Kevin “Reality for Sale: Role-playing, Ideology and multi-user Dungeons.” Capitalizing on Play: The Politics of Computer Gaming. Ed. Ken McAllister, And Ryan Moeller. Indiana, Pa: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2004. 217-230.

Siapera, E. “From couch potatoes to cybernauts? The expanding notion of the audience on TV channels’ websites.” New Media & Society 6.2 (2004): 155-172.

Yee, N. “The Labor of Fun: How Video Games Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play.” Games and Culture 1.1 (2006): 68-71.




2 responses

11 04 2009

oh, I forgot to thank you for putting this up: thanks! i’ll copy+paste, .pdf, print and read it when i’m lucid.

15 04 2009

Np. It’s old so don’t be too critical haha. :S

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