Encircle me

Platformers are dead. I mean, you’d think, right? On one end of the spectrum, Super Mario Maker is an explicit acknowledgement that there’s nothing left to do in the genre except keep cranking out levels. On the other, the puzzle-platformer trend is an implicit argument that platformer gameplay isn’t meaningful unless you weld another genre on top of it. Contrary to popular belief, however, there are new things under the sun; anyone saying otherwise is just rationalizing their own lack of imagination. What I’m getting at here is that Circa Infinity is an original platformer.

circa_infinty_scouting

The game’s hook is that it takes place around the perimeter of a circle rather than on a flat plane. This seems like a gimmick, the difference being simply a matter of visual transposition, but it’s not. It has a substantive effect on how the game plays. You start on the outer rim of the circle, and you progress by first “warping” into the circle from a specified point, thus positioning you on the inside of the perimeter, and then jumping from there onto the outside of another circle located inside the first, “zooming in” in this fashion until you reach the goal. Generally speaking, the outside of each circle is safe, while the inside contains enemies that you have to avoid (you can’t attack in any way). Thus, the time when you’re on the outside functions as a sort of scouting phase, allowing you to see everything that’s going on on the inside: where the monsters are, how they’re moving, and where you’ll need to move relative to the warp point. Once you dive in, then, you’re fully prepared. You’ve already seen everything that you’re going to have to deal with, so there’s no trial-and-error effect.

This solves one of the big problems with platformers: you have to be able to see what’s up ahead in order to play effectively, and this isn’t always possible. This has always been the critical flaw of the Sonic series, which is focused on speed, and which therefore necessarily makes it difficult for you to know what’s up ahead in time for you to actually do something about it. It’s a common experience in Sonic games to be blithely running along and then suddenly have some spikes show up right in front of you, and this is stupid (also, why are spikes used as an obstacle in a game where you play as a hedgehog?). There’s nothing interesting about failing like this; it might as well have been a random event. The series has tried to resolve this problem in different ways, and none of them have really been satisfactory. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is actually not very fast, it’s much more of a standard jumping-across-obstacles platformer. Whereas Sonic Rush offers a mechanic that lets you blast through anything that you hit while running, which solves the problem by trivializing it. These are just the most blatant examples of a general problem; even Mario games have the same issue. You’ll often be unable to see where a long jump leads or where an enemy is coming from, turning the gameplay into guesswork. Circa Infinity offers an approach as correct as it is simple: you first show the player what they’re in for, and then you let them have at it.

It also offers a novel approach to the checkpoint dilemma. This is a fundamental conflict between two theories about how to manage the failure loop. One school of thought holds that, once a player has “solved” an obstacle, forcing them to go through it again because they failed at a different obstacle merely enforces tediousness; ergo, you place a checkpoint after each significant challenge. But action games aren’t about solutions, they’re about performance, so it makes sense to require the player to be able to navigate obstacles consistently, rather than allowing them to just get lucky once and move on; this implies that checkpoints should be as infrequent as is reasonable. Mario games split the difference by offering one checkpoint halfway through each level, preserving the arduousness but not being a dick about it. Circa Infinity has a more dynamic approach: failing sends you back one circle, forcing you to replay exactly one previously-completed obstacle each time you fail. This might not sound like much of a difference, but what makes it interesting is that it allows failures to cascade. If you get frustrated or impatient and you screw up a circle you’ve already completed (or if you lucked your way past a circle the first time and now have to solve it for real), you’ll get knocked back again, and this will keep happening until you calm down and start doing things right (there’s a limit that prevents this from becoming completely obnoxious: some circles are completely safe, so they function as “hard” checkpoints; once you’ve reached one, you can’t get knocked back any farther). Thus, the game does not merely use checkpoints for the sake of player convenience – it uses them to enforce a specific approach to its obstacles.

But these are just minor technical points, you’ll say; they don’t change the fact that this is the same old get-to-the-goal gameplay. True, but the final effect of a game is determined by its individual design choices. So the reason this stuff is important is that it makes Circa Infinity feel like something more than Aestheticized Action Platformer #644. Giving the player advance information and encouraging them to use it makes the gameplay thoughtful in a way that even complex action games rarely are. But execution still matters; some levels have rigid solutions, but this isn’t a puzzle-platformer. So what’s really notable here is that this game achieves a rare synthesis: it requires you to observe and analyze and come up with a plan of action, and then to execute that plan with focus and physical precision. It connects the animal to the cerebral in a way that is not just “fun” but is, frankly, a significant part of what it means to be human.

circa_infinity_trainwreck

Each level also has its own specific conditions, and their progression builds towards the overall effect. The first is a simple introduction, setting up the framework with standard run-and-jump gameplay. You get an idea of what the game is like, but you can pretty much finish it by just flailing around. The second level is more rigidly designed, forcing you to take what you learned in the first and apply it more seriously. You can’t get out of jams by dodging frantically around them; you have to think before you act. In the third level, you control two characters simultaneously on opposite sides of the circle, which requires you to account for both perspectives when deciding how to move. This is when the planning aspect really hits home: the correct path for each level becomes non-obvious, so you really have to keep a sharp eye on the layout of each circle and execute your actions with a plan in mind. Even the basic task of entering the inner circle requires conscientiousness: if you enter from the wrong place or at the wrong time, you might be unable to avoid getting hit.

And that’s where the game peaks. The fourth and fifth levels have the same structure as the third, but simply pile additional requirements on top. These fail to add anything significant to the gameplay; on the contrary, they detract from its effectiveness. There gets to be so much accumulated mechanical cruft that navigating each level becomes simple tedium. Any of the additional mechanics may or may not have been interesting on its own, but piled up like this they just become a mass of annoyances. The experience starts to feel less thoughtful and more mechanical, like filling out a checklist.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the outer rim stops being safe, so planning becomes both more important and less doable. This might have been a great twist if it had been allowed to exist by itself, but nothing introduced in the later levels is allowed to do so; everything being crammed together makes the levels hard in a boring way rather than challenging in an interesting way. The individual mechanics are all viable, but they aren’t taken anywhere. If one level had, for example, been about not having time to plan, and if the stages had been designed with the intent of creating an experience based on this dynamic, then this could have been an interesting effect for the game to explore. (An important aspect of the now-standard Braid framework is that each level has a characteristic mechanic and they don’t overlap; this allows each level to focus on creating one specific effect.) As it is, this failure points to the real heart of the problem: Circa Infinity does not appear to have been designed with any particular intention at all.

I’m not referring to the intended goals of the designer; as a rule, I don’t care about people’s intentions. I am referring to the fact that the game itself evidences a lack of purpose. Each stage records your time and your failure count, and displays these to you when you finish. This is actually quite annoying, because it makes you feel like you’re being graded on your first run through the game, when you’re still experimenting and trying to figure out how things work. More importantly, it strongly suggests that the game is geared toward achievement-heads who only care about getting The Best Score, rather than people who want to have a good experience playing a game.

It’s also entirely typical: in order to compensate for the fundamental hollowness of the basic level-completion goal, players have long been setting extra challenges for themselves, and winning without damage or in the shortest possible time are the two most common examples. In other words, what Circa Infinity is doing here is, lacking any goals of its own to offer, simply falling back on established genre procedures – despite these procedures being directly at odds with how the game actually plays. Remember that stuff I was saying about planning and execution? Well, implicitly rushing the player through the levels via an omnipresent timer is a great way to get them to ignore that dynamic. And remember how well the checkpointing in this game works? Well, treating mistakes as failures rather than opportunities to learn makes that a bit of a moot point.

There are also some ideas that just aren’t utilized wisely. The enemy types are for the most part very simple: some run, some jump, some hover overhead, and in combination they define which routes are feasible. This simplicity aids the game’s planning aspect by making it very clear what you have to deal with. But there’s one oddball, which is, fittingly, the ghost. Ghosts persist through two circles each, though, strangely, the reason they do this isn’t because of ethereality, it’s just because they’re bigger than the other enemies. The point is, ghosts can still get you even after you’ve passed the circle in which they first appear. Once again, this is a potentially interesting idea that is not actually used for anything. It could, for example, have been used to require the player to plan out an approach to multiple circles at once. But because ghosts don’t move, and because getting past them just requires performing an arbitrary action, they’re basically just an annoyance during the planning phase. They become just one more thing to add to the pile of obstacles you have to worry about; they don’t actually require you to play differently.

About that arbitrary action: because ghosts are so big, you have to duck under them instead of jumping over them (because they float above the ground. Look, it’s fine. Metaphors don’t have to be coherent). And this is bizarre, because Circa Infinity does not actually have a duck move. Pressing down causes your character to sort of melt into the circle beneath them, which is how you activate the warp points to move to the inside of each circle. But when you encounter your first ghost, you suddenly have to realize that this move can also be used while you’re not on top of a warp point, and also while you’re moving, which allows you sort of “slide” under the ghost. This is stupid. It looks stupid and it feels stupid. I’m inclined to leave it at that, but I’m also already here, so I guess I might as well explain why this is an actual substantive gameplay problem.

In Mario games, doing a high-bounce off of an enemy gets you more height than jumping normally. This doesn’t make physical sense, but it does make intuitive sense. Bouncing off of an enemy is a more complicated action than simply pressing the jump button, so it feels like you should get more out of it. This is sort of like how in movies there’s a big poofy sound effect whenever someone gets punched in the face. In real life, getting punched doesn’t really produce much of a sound, but it’s kind of a big deal (in that it breaks an implicit barrier), so it feels like there should be a big distinctive sound associated with it. “Enhancements” like these aren’t bad because they’re unrealistic; on the contrary, they’re good things precisely because they’re better than reality – they make more sense. Art is, after all, largely the attempt to make sense of a senseless world.

The problem with Circa Infinity‘s ducking mechanic is that it doesn’t make any particular sense. As mentioned, the way it’s tacitly introduced makes it seem like an unintentional consequence of a completely different mechanic. Which could work, except that this is an abstract game and everything about it is completely arbitrary. This isn’t a case where you’re experimenting within a game world and you find a way to combine your abilities to do something new, or anything like that. It’s just an arbitrary required action that happens to occupy the same button mapping as a different arbitrary required action. Specifically, ducking doesn’t get you anything that jumping doesn’t already provide. Functionally, it’s the same action: you move past an enemy while pressing a certain button that allows you to avoid it. You can duck in Mario games, too, but there ducking is a different type of action than jumping is: you stay still while avoiding an obstacle that’s moving above you. This increases the number of ways in which you can interact with the game world and gives you a different strategy for avoiding certain types of obstacles. In Circa Infinity, ducking is just another dumb thing you have to remember to do every once in a while. It’s also completely static; the only thing it’s used for is getting past ghosts. It doesn’t feel like you’re interacting with a structure, it feels like you’re bubbling in the answer on a test.

There are other problems; the boss battles, for one, are just sort of there. Because the game’s effect is dependent on the aforementioned aspects of the level design, the boss battles don’t really add anything; they feel obligatory (especially because there isn’t actually an attack mechanic; “ducking” is repurposed again for damaging the bosses). But all of these things are “problems” only in the sense that Circa Infinity doesn’t appear to have been trying to get them right in the first place. This is a video game, and video games have boss battles at the end of each level. Why would anyone ever try anything else?

circa_infinity_abstract

When I talk about “purpose,” I am not claiming that Circa Infinity should have had some kind of story or message plastered on top of it. I meant what I said earlier: the mindset that the game creates in its best moments is meaningful; it is an effect that goes beyond a simple “message.” This distinction is related to the problem a lot of people have with abstract art. People have the idea that a painting is supposed to be “of” something, and can therefore be judged based on how well it represents the thing that it’s “about.” The Mona Lisa, to take an obvious example, is appreciated for the way it captures a subtle emotional state. Whereas something like a Rothko is “just a bunch of colors”; it doesn’t “represent” anything. But of course every painting is “just a bunch of colors”; even a photorealistic portrait isn’t actually real (neither is a photograph – and neither is the image that you actually see with your eyes). Art doesn’t have to be be representational; what is has to do is affect the viewer. (Really, everyone should understand this point very well, as the most popular art form, music, is almost never representational and almost always operates by creating a direct emotional effect.)

The point of a Pollock, for example, is to get you to look at visual art in a different way, to change the mindset you use to understand paint on a canvas. Circa Infinity works in much the same way: it takes the standard components of platforming and puts them in a new context where they operate differently. It changes the way you think about planning and performing actions in a game – and maybe even in life. Platformers do not require Braid-ification in order to be made meaningful; that’s certainly one option, but a game no more requires a pretentious short story layered on top of it in order for it to mean something than a painting has to represent something in order for it to create an emotional reaction.

This isn’t really a defense of abstract art. A lot of the stuff that winds up in art galleries is made by and for a tiny audience of art weirdos and is only understandable from within the set of expectations and assumptions that constitutes their milieu. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that everyone else is correct to point out that, from their point of view, such art is entirely pointless. It isn’t even a matter of preconceptions; most people simply don’t understand what they’re supposed to be looking at when they see a big blue square in a museum.

Indeed, this is the same problem that almost all video games have: they target only the audience that already understands them. (This is the actual significance of Braid: it challenged people who thought they knew how platformers were supposed to work.) They’re like the opposite of Wittgenstein’s talking lion: they cannot communicate because we already know everything they’re capable of saying. By making tiny adjustments to a conventional framework, they convince themselves that they are moving forward when they are merely pacing around a preestablished perimeter. It is into such a framework that Circa Infinity retreats from its potential. Its focus on pointless challenge, its formulaic structure, and its tabulation of meaningless statistics ensure that everyone who encounters it will either understand it as a typical “hard” platformer or dismiss it as something that is not for them.

No work can appeal to everybody, nor should one try. But there is a line between reaching out towards people and looking at yourself in a mirror. You don’t have to make a statement or light a beacon or raise a battle standard, but you do have to actually pick a direction to move in. Otherwise, you’re just . . . well, you know.

circa_infinity_running

Gamed to death

My post about level ups needs an addendum, as there’s a related issue that’s somewhat more practical. That is, it’s an actual threat.

The concept of power growth can be generalized to the concept of accumulation, the difference being that accumulation doesn’t have to refer to anything. When you’re leveling up in a game, it’s generally for a reason, e.g. you need more HP in order to survive an enemy’s attack or something. Even in traditional games, though, this is not always the case. There are many RPGs where you have like twelve different stats and it’s not clear what half of them even do, yet it’s still satisfying to watch them all go up when you level. This leads many players to pursue “stat maxing” even when there’s no practical application for those stats. Thus, we see that the progression aspect of leveling is actually not needed to engage players. It is enough to provide the opportunity for mere accumulation, a.k.a. watching numbers go up. This might sound very close to literally watching paint dry, but the terrible secret of video games is that people actually enjoy it.

The extreme expression of this problem would be a game that consists only of leveling up, that has no actual gameplay but merely provides the player with the opportunity to watch numbers go up and rewards their “effort” with additional opportunities to watch numbers go up. This game, of course, exists; it’s called FarmVille, it’s been immensely popular and influential and has spawned a wide variety of imitators. The terror is real.

Of course, as its very popularity indicates, FarmVille itself is not the problem. In fact, while FarmVille is often taken to be the dark harbinger of the era of smartphone games, its design can be traced directly back to the traditional games that it supposedly supplanted (the worst trait of “hardcore” gamebros is that they refuse to ever look in the damn mirror). Even in action-focused games such as Diablo II or Resident Evil 4, much of the playtime involves running around and clicking on everything in order to accumulate small amounts of currency and items. While this has a purpose, allowing you to purchase new weapons and other items that help you out during the action segments, it doesn’t have to be implemented this way. You could just get the money automatically whenever you defeat an enemy, as you do in most RPGs. But even in RPGs where this happens, there are still treasures and other collectibles littering the environment. This is a ubiquitous design pattern, and it exists for a reason: because running around and picking up vaguely useful junk is fun.

This pattern goes all the way back to the beginning. Super Mario Bros., for example, had coins; they’re one of the defining aspects of what is basically the ur-text of video games. Again, these coins actually did something (they gave you extra lives, eventually. Getting up to 100 coins in the original Super Mario Bros. is actually surprisingly hard), but again again, this isn’t the actual reason they were there. They were added for a specific design reason: to provide players with guidance. Super Mario Bros. was a brand-new type of game when it came out; the designers knew that they had to make things clear in order to prevent players from getting lost. So one of the things they did was add coins at strategic locations to encourage the player to take certain actions and try to get to certain places. And the reason this works is because collecting coins is fun on its own, even before the player figures out that they’re going to need as many extra lives as they can get.

The coins here are positioned to indicate to the player that they're supposed to jump onto the moving platform to proceed.

And there’s something even more fundamental than collectibles, something that was once synonymous with the concept of video games: score. Back in the days of arcade games, getting a high score was presented as the goal of most games. When you were finished playing, the game would ask you to enter your initials, and then show you your place on the scoreboard, hammering in the idea that this was the point of playing. Naturally, since arcade games were designed to not be “completable,” this was a way of adding motivation to the gameplay. But there’s more to it than that. By assigning different point values to different actions, the designers are implicitly telling the player what they’re supposed to be doing. Scoring is inherently an act of valuation.

In Pac-Man, for example, there are two ways you can use the power pellets: you can get the ghosts off your ass for a minute while you try to clear the maze, or you can hunt the ghosts down while they’re vulnerable. Since the latter is worth more points than anything else, the game is telling you that this is the way you’re supposed to be playing. The reason for this, in this case, is that it’s more fun: chasing the ghosts creates an interesting back-and-forth dynamic, while simply traversing the maze is relatively boring. Inversely, old light-gun games like Area 51 or Time Crisis often had hostages that you were penalized for shooting. In a case like this, the game is telling you what not to do; rather than shooting everything indiscriminately, you were meant to be careful and distinguish between potential targets.

So, in summary, the point of “points” or any other “numbers that go up” is to provide an in-game value system. What, then, does this mean for a game like FarmVille, which consists only of points? It means that such a game has no values. It’s nihilistic. It’s essentially the unironic version of Duchamp’s Fountain. The point of Fountain was that the work itself had no traditional artistic merit; it “counted” as art only because it was presented that way. Similarly, FarmVille is not what you’d normally call a “game,” but it’s presented as one, so it is one. The difference, of course, is that Duchamp was making a rather direct negative point. People weren’t supposed to admire Fountain, they were supposed to go fuck themselves. FarmVille, on the other hand, expects people to genuinely enjoy it. Which they do.

And again, the point is that FarmVille is not an aberration; its nihilism is only the most naked expression of the nihilism inherent in the way modern video games are understood. One game that made this point was Progress Quest, a ruthless satire of the type of gameplay epitomized by FarmVille. In Progress Quest, there is literally no gameplay: you run the application and it just automatically starts making numbers go up. It’s a watching paint dry simulator. The catch is that Progress Quest predates FarmVille by several years (art imitates life, first as satire, then as farce); it was not parodying “degraded” smartphone games, but the popular and successful games of its own time, such as EverQuest, which would become a major influence on almost everything within the mainstream gaming sphere. The call is coming from inside the house.

Because the fact that accumulation is “for” something in a game like Diablo II ultimately amounts to no more than it does for FarmVille. You kill monsters so that you can get slightly better equipment and stats, which you then use to kill slightly stronger monsters and get slightly better equipment again, ad nauseum. It’s the same loop, only more spread out and convoluted; it fakes meaning by disguising itself. In this sense, FarmVille, like Fountain, is to be praised for revealing a simple truth that had become clouded by incestuous self-regard.

There is, of course, a real alternative, which is for games to actually have some kind of aesthetic value, and for that to be the motivation for gameplay. This isn’t hard to understand. Nobody reads a book because they get points for each page they turn; indeed, the person who reads a famous book simply “to have read it” is a figure of mockery. We read books because they offer us experiences that matter. There is nothing stopping video games from providing the same thing.

The catch is that doing this requires a realization that the primary audience for games is currently unwilling to make: that completing a goal in a video game is not a real accomplishment. As games have invested heavily in the establishment of arbitrary goals, they have taken their audience down the rabbit hole with them. Today, we are in position where certain people actually think that being good at video games matters, that the conceptualization of games as skill-based challenges is metaphysically significant (just trust me on this one, there’s evidence for it but you really don’t want to see it). As a result, games have done an end-run around the concept of meaning. Rather than condemning Sisyphus to forever pushing his rock based on the idea the meaningless labor is the worst possible fate, we have instead convinced Sisyphus that pushing the rock is meaningful in the traditional sense; he now toils of his own volition, blissfully (I wish I could take credit for this metaphor, but this guy beat me to it).

This is an understandable mistake. As humans, limited beings seeking meaning in the raw physicality of the universe, we’ve become accustomed to looking for signs that distinguish meaningful labor from mere toil. It is far from an unusual mistake to confuse the sign for the destination. But the truth is that any possible goal (money, popularity, plaudits, power) is also something that we’ve made up. The universe itself provides us with nothing. But this realization does not have to stop us: we can insist on meaning without signs, abandon the word without losing the sense. This is the radical statement that Camus was making when he wrote that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” He was advising us to reject this fundamental aspect of our orientation towards reality.

We have not followed his advice. On the contrary, games have embraced their own meaninglessness. The most obvious symptom of this is achievements, which have become ubiquitous in all types of games (the fact that they’re actually built-in to Steam is evidence enough). Achievements are anti-goals, empty tokens that encourage players to perform tasks for no reason other than to have performed them. Many are quite explicit about this; they’re things like “ 1000 more times than you would have to do it to complete the game.” Some achievements are better than this, some even point towards interesting things that add to the gameplay experience, but the point is the principle: that players are expected to perform fully arbitrary tasks and to expect nothing else from games. In light of this, it does not matter whether a game is fun or creative or original or visually appealing. No amount of window dressing can counteract the fact that games are fundamentally meaningless.

If you want a picture of the future of games, imagine a human finger clicking a button and a human eye watching a number go up. Forever.


While renouncing games is a justifiable tactical response to the current situation, it’s not a solution. Games are just a symptom. Game designers aren’t villains, they’re just hacks. They’re doing this stuff because it works; the problem is in people.

Accumulation essentially exploits a glitch in human psychology, similar to gambling (many of these games have an explicit gambling component). It compels people to act against their reason. It’s not at all uncommon these days to hear people talk about how they kept playing a game “past the point where it stopped being fun.” I’m not exactly sure what the source of the problem is. Evolution seems unlikely, as pre-civilized humans wouldn’t have had much opportunity for hoarding-type behavior. Also, the use of numbers themselves seems to be significant, which suggests a post-literate affliction. I suppose the best guess for the culprit would probably be capitalism. Certainly, the concept of currency motivates many people to accumulate it for no practical reason.

Anyway, I promised you a threat, so here it is:

“They are told to forget the ‘poor habits’ they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: ‘Climb the wall,’ others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, ‘I’m Peculiar’ — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.”

(Okay real talk I actually didn’t remember the bit about the “virtual award.” I started rereading the article for evidence and it was right there in the second paragraph. I’m starting to get suspicious about how easy these assholes are making this for me.)

What’s notable about this is not that Amazon turned out to be the bad guy. We already knew that, both because of the much worse situation of their warehouse workers and because, you know, it’s a corporation in a capitalist society. What’s important is this:

“[Jeff Bezos] created a technological and retail giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics . . .

Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”

What’s happening in avant-garde workplaces like Amazon is the same thing that’s happened in games. The problem with games was that they weren’t providing any real value, and the problem with work in a capitalist society is that most of it is similarly pointless. The solution in games was to fake meaning, and the solution in work is going to be the same thing.

And, just as it did in games, this tactic is going to succeed:

“[M]ore than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.

‘A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,’ said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, ‘The Amazon Way.’

. . .

Amazon has rules that are part of its daily language and rituals, used in hiring, cited at meetings and quoted in food-truck lines at lunchtime. Some Amazonians say they teach them to their children.

. . .

‘If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,’ said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.

. . .

[I]n its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more.

. . .

‘I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from.’”

It’s only once these people burn out and leave that they’re able to look back and realize they were working for nothing. This is exactly the same phenomenon as staying up all night playing some hack RPG because you got sucked in to the leveling mechanism. It’s mechanical addiction to a fake goal.

The fundamental problem here, of course, is that Amazon isn’t actually trying to make anything other than money. A common apologist argument for capitalism is that economic coercion is required to motivate people to produce things, but this is pretty obviously untrue. First, people have been building shit since long before currency came into the picture; more importantly, it’s obvious just from simple everyday observation that people are motivated to try to do a good job when they feel like they’re working on something that matters, and people slack off and cut corners when they know that what they’re doing is actually bullshit. The problem with work in a capitalist society is that people aren’t fools; the reason employees have to be actively “motivated” is because they know that what they’re doing doesn’t merit motivation.

The focus with Amazon has mostly been on that fact that they’re “mean”; the Times contrasts them with companies like Google that entice employees with lavish benefits rather than psychological bullying. But this difference is largely aesthetic; the reason Google offers benefits such as meals and daycare is because it expects its employees to live at their jobs, just as Amazon does.

As always, it’s important to view the system’s cruelest symptoms not as abnormal but as extra-normative behavior. The reason Amazon does what it does is because it can: it has the kind of monitoring technology required to pull this off and its clout commands the kind of devotion from its employees required to get away with it. Amazon is currently on the cutting edge; as information technology becomes more and more anodyne, this will become less and less the case. Consider that Google’s double-edged beneficence is only possible because Google is richer than fuck, consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company pulls, and then consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company would pull if it had Amazon-like levels of resourcefulness and devotion.

So, while publications like the New York Times are useful for getting the sort of “average” ruling-class perspective on the issues of the day, you have to keep the ideological assumptions of this perspective in mind, which in this case is super easy: the Times assumes that Amazon’s goal of maximizing its “productivity” is a valid and even virtuous one (also, did you notice how they claimed that this is happening because “technology wants” it to happen? Classic pure ideology). All of the article’s hand-wringing is merely about whether Amazon’s particular methods are “too harsh” or “unsustainable.” The truth, obviously, is that corporate growth itself is a bad thing because corporate growth means profit growth and profits are by definition the part of the economy getting sucked out by rich fucks instead of actually being used to produce things for people. This goes double for Amazon specifically, which doesn’t contribute any original functionality of its own, but merely supersedes functionalities already being provided by existing companies in a more profitable fashion.

And this is where things get scary. With video games, the only real threat is that, by locking themselves into their Sisyphean feedback loop, games will become hyper-effective at wasting the time of the kind of people who have that kind of time to waste. Tragic, in a sense, but in another sense we’re talking about people who are making a choice and who are consequently reaping what they’ve sown. But the problem with the economy is that when rich fucks play games, the outcome affects everybody. And when those games are designed against meaning, and all of us are obligated to play in order to survive, what we’re growing is a value system, and what we’re harvesting is nihilism. Bad design is a fate worse than death.

In this vein, I strongly recommend that you get a load of this asshole:

“’In the office of the future,’ said Kris Duggan, chief executive of BetterWorks, a Silicon Valley start-up founded in 2013, ‘you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I’m supposed to guess what’s important, a world filled with meetings, messages, conference rooms, and at the end of the day I don’t know if I delivered anything meaningful.’”

Can you imagine living in a world where values are determined by humans? It’s getting kind of difficult!

When the situation is this fucked, even the New York Times has its moments:

“Mr. Bohra declined to let any of his employees be interviewed. But he said the work was more focused now, which meant smaller teams taking on bigger workloads.”

You know you’re an asshole when the shit you’re pulling is so blatantly horrific that even the “paper of record” is scoring sick burns on you from behind its veil of ersatz objectivity.


The thing is, when it comes to values, “money” in society has the same function as “score” in video games: it’s a heuristic that maps only loosely onto the thing that it’s actually supposed to represent. Ideally, economic growth would represent the actual human-life-improving aspects of a society, and to an extent, it does. Despite everything, most people really are trying to make the world a decent place to live. But a capitalist society is one where “growth” is pursued for its own sake, where spending a million dollars to feed starving children is just as good as spending that money on car decals, or on incrementally faster smartphones, or on weapons.

This is why you need to watch the fuck out any time someone starts talking about “meritocracy.” The problem with “meritocracy” is the same as the problem with “utilitarianism”: you have to actually define “merit” or “utility,” and that’s the entire question in the first place. With utilitarianism this is less of a problem, since it’s more of a philosophical question and this understanding is usually part of the discussion (also, when utilitarianism was first introduced it was a revolutionary new idea in moral philosophy, it’s just that today it tends to be invoked by people who want to pretend like they’ve solved morality when they actually haven’t even started thinking about it). But the meritocracy people are actually trying to get their system implemented; indeed, they often claim that their “meritocracy” already exists.

To be explicit, the word “meritocracy” is internally inconsistent. Claiming that a society should be a “democracy,” for example, establishes a goal: a society’s rulership should be as representative of the popular will as possible (that is, assuming the word “democracy” is being used in good faith, which is rarely the case). But the concept of “merit” requires a goal in order to be meaningful. It’s trivial to say that society should favor the “best,” because the question is precisely: the best at what? The most creative, or the most efficient? The most compassionate, or the most ruthless? Certainly, our current society, including our corporations, is controlled by people who are the best at something, it’s just that that “something” isn’t what most of us want to promote.

The problem isn’t that these people are hiding their motives; they talk big but they aren’t actually that sophisticated, especially when it comes to philosophy. It’s worse: the problem is that they have no goals in the first place. For all their talk of “disruption,” they are in truth blindly following the value system implicitly established by the set of historical conditions they happen to be operating in (see also: Rand, Ayn). This is necessarily the case for anyone who focuses their life on making money, since money doesn’t actually do anything by itself; it means whatever society says it means. This is why rich fucks tend to turn towards philanthropy, or at least politics: as an attempt to salvage meaning from what they’ve done with their lives. But even then, the only thing they know how to do is to focus on reproducing the conditions of their own success. When gazing into the abyss, all they can see is themselves.

Thus far, the great hope of humanity has lain in the fact that our rulers are perpetually incapable of getting their shit together. The problem is that they no longer have to. If nuclear weapons gave them the ability to destroy the world on accident, information technology has given them the ability to destroy values just as accidentally. A blind, retarded beast is still capable of crushing through sheer weight. The reason achievements in games took off isn’t because anyone designed things that way, it’s because fake-goal-focused games appeal to people, they sell. The reason Amazon seems to be trying to design a dystopian workplace isn’t because of evil mastermindery, it’s simply because they have the resources to pursue their antigoal of corporate growth with full abandon. Indeed, what we mean by “dystopia” is not an ineffective society, it’s a society that is maximally effective towards bad ends. And if capitalists are allowed to define our values by omission, if the empty ideal of “meritocracy” is taken as common sense rather than an abdication of responsibility, if arbitrary achievement has replaced actual experience, then the rough beast’s hour has come round at last; it is slouching toward Silicon Valley to be born.