Notes on It’s As If You Were Doing Work: Do Nothing, Feel Fine

Pippin Barr’s It’s As If You Were Doing Work is a browser game set in the near-future, when robots will have finally and completely replaced the human labour force. The speculative browser game satirizes the interface of a Windows 95-era workplace desktop, complete with the operating system sound effects. Through the medium of a desktop UI simulation, Barr indulges in a little psychoanalytic Marxism, positing that while the practical need for human white collar labour may soon be automated away, an emotional need to feel productive will still remain. With tongue firmly in cheek, It’s As If You Were Doing Work offers to fulfill that emotional need.

It’s As If You Were Doing Work is predicated on the idea that because capitalism has trained people towards developing a pathological desire for wage work, that without it, people will feel rudderless and idle. This doesn’t mean that people, lacking the “incentive” of a wage, will not work—quite the opposite. Rather, the game is suggesting that white collar workers, weaned on capitalism and accumulated to a certain flavour of office busy work, may be compelled to continue performing this kind of work because they’ve been trained to a Pavlovian degree to associate wage work with meaningful productivity.

This means the player is tasked with filling out emails, completing surveys, obeying command prompts to press this button or select that option from a drop-down bar. Typing in any text field, whether in an app parodying Microsoft Outlook or Notepad, is mapped to a predetermined wall of gibberish or poetry, or self-help bromides like those found on the Instagram pages of influential entrepreneurs. Sometimes a popup tells the player to take a break, so those who get bored with filling out spreadsheets can change the desktop background or play Breakout on system-mandated breaks. You can try to complete as many discrete tasks as possible, or take your time and let the desktop fill up with different windows. You can close windows at will, or send half-written emails. The manager isn’t going to breathe down your neck to meet quotas or make good time. In fact, believe it or not, no one is making you do these things at all.

Obviously, craving mindless busy work is not any kind of rational outcome to capitalism; it’s more of a libidinal one. I believe that part of the game’s conceit includes getting bored and quitting. As charming or witty or serendipitously prosaic as some of the generated text may be, It’s As If You Were Doing Work doesn’t provide much for the player to actually do. That’s kind of the point: most white collar work is essentially as meaningful, fulfilling and necessary as the pale imitation seen in this game. Not to give away the punchline, but it’s right there in the title. This is alienated labour in pure form. You don’t know why you’re doing things, you don’t know who or what it’s supposed to be for, and in the end it doesn’t matter anyway. You are free now. You can go do something else.

I appreciated this game more than most that broach anti-capitalism precisely because it’s aiming to be art rather than didactic propaganda. Propaganda isn’t inherently bad and in some contexts I think it’s actually very necessary, but It’s As If You Were Doing Work is approximating an experience, a sensation. It’s trying to get at something sensory that theorists have tried to articulate, but is much harder to put into words than it is to feel. This is the kind of thing I think games are perfectly situated for: communicating feelings or sensations to the player through touch and interaction, through the mimicking of tasks, and ordering them in just such a way that something is revealed about the act of doing these things. This creates space for reflection: what does “work” mean to different classes of people? Why are some forms of work considered more legitimate than others despite what they contribute to the world? Does the probable automation of all things mean the end of all human endeavour?

The user interface being that of an outdated operating system, including sound effects, is a nice touch. It’s nostalgic in a way that conjures up an office from 10 years ago using software from 20 years ago. You can feel the static in the frayed carpeting, and the snag of the wheel in your office chair as it slides across a bump in the floor. You can smell the coffee burning in the pot and you can see the undefined stain creeping across the grey-white drop ceiling tiles. You know the place is a fire hazard and that the management responded to a waste overflow issue by removing all garbage cans except for the ones outside the office. You have a nagging pain in your shoulder and eye strain and you’re getting migraines more often but the work is not what you might call “physically demanding.” It’s more the existential slog of it all, the feeling of precious time going down the drain, and the exhausted impulse to just check out for the rest of the day that really drags you down.

It’s As If You Were Doing Work is approximating that feeling, and making us self-conscious about it. I don’t think this is a game with a ton of “replay value”, but I think that suits its overall themes anyway. The game is pushy and pointless and meandering and irritating, and it probably doesn’t need to exist. In that sense it captures its subject matter perfectly.