Rewarding Work In ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’


In this essay I thought I would write about the ways in which Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 incorporates the elements work needs in order to be rewarding into its gameplay.

First, though, we need to figure out what those elements are. Barry Schwartz has looked into this, and come up with the following ideas:

“Satisfied people do their work because they feel that they are in charge. Their work day offers them a measure of autonomy and discretion. They use that autonomy and discretion to achieve a level of mastery or expertise…Finally, these people are satisfied with their work because they find what they do meaningful. Potentially, their work makes a difference to the world”.

I think the key words in that passage are ‘autonomy’, ‘discretion’, ‘mastery’ and ‘meaning’. Whenever physical or mental activity incorporates these, you have work that is rewarding.

So how does Red Dead Redemption 2 fare? First off, the environment in which this game is set obviously lends itself to ‘autonomy’. It is set in the vast expanse of the American Wild West and, as the game’s trailer puts it, “the world is full of adventures and experiences that you discover naturally as you move fluidly from one moment to another”. This gives the game a non-linear feel, as the player can ride off in any direction.

Along the way, the player is likely to encounter various situations and activities. Most of the time you are not required to participate and can decide for yourself whether or not to get involved. This means the game manages to incorporate another feature work needs in order to be rewarding, namely ‘discretion’. We also see discretion at work during missions, where you are asked to make decisions like what actions members of your posse should take, or whether an aggressive or pacifist response is most appropriate for the current situation.

One could also cite character management and customisation as further ways in which this game provides opportunities for discretion or judgement. As the game’s trailer says, “your experience is defined by the choices and decisions you make…You can, of course, choose what to wear, ride and eat”. Furthermore, these are not merely cosmetic choices that just change your appearance but have no real consequences. Your character has various health attributes that you need to take care of. A decent coat in winter could mean the difference between life and death, whereas during a hot summer it would not be wise to wear such warm clothing. From character customisation and management, to the snap decisions required of the player during missions, to the open world and the nonlinear experiences it offers, Red Dead Redemption 2 provides plenty of opportunity to apply one’s discretion.

When it comes to mastery, ever since Pong was introduced with the simple instruction to ‘avoid missing ball for high score’, videogames have provided players with challenges that test their ability and enable them to feel like their skills are developing.

The best games don’t just rely on setting a challenge like getting from A to B in a set time or shooting X number of targets. They incorporate systems of feedback into the gameplay that informs the player how well they are performing and whether they should try another strategy. You have visual and audio cues that let you know if things are going well or not, and the best games do not leave you in the dark over what you should be doing, but at the same time don’t hold your hand and instead leave it up to you to figure out how to accomplish what needs to be done.

Finally, by providing the player with identifiable tokens of progress in the form of special items, areas and other stuff that you unlock by achieving certain objectives and challenges, games like Red Dead Redemption 2 let you feel like you are gaining mastery and making real progress as the gameplay continues.

Now, when it comes to meaningful work, one might struggle to claim Red Dead Redemption 2 provides much of this if we consider the game from the perspective of ‘real life’. This is, after all, just a videogame. Sitting in front of a TV pressing buttons on a joypad hardly stands besides researching the cure for cancer as “work that makes a positive difference to the world”.

But in the context of the in-world experience, many games offer a grand narrative that sees the player progress from a nobody at the start to a significant figure whose actions and decisions have had a decisive effect on shaping history by the end. You become the hero who saved the world. Admittedly, in Rockstar’s most famous franchise (Grand Theft Auto) you are attempting to rise in the ranks of criminals, which is not exactly everyone’s idea of a positive contribution to society. And, in Red Dead Redemption 2 you are cast as an outlaw and can engage in the kind of activities for which Rockstar has earned an image as the bad boy of videogaming. You know, robbery, murder, that kind of thing. But there does appear to be opportunities to act like an outlaw with noble intentions. There are situations in which you can choose to help people or to refrain from killing foes. According to the trailer, “there are countless secrets to uncover and people to meet. You can get into raucous altercations…chase down bounties. Your behaviour has consequences and people will remember you and your actions”.

So, like all the best games, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 successfully incorporates ‘autonomy’, ‘discretion’ and ‘mastery’ into a grand narrative that provides a sense of social meaning.

This achievement is all the more remarkable when you consider how menial an activity videogaming actually is. After all, what are you physically doing when you play these games? Repeatedly pushing buttons. Really, that’s it. Yet, somehow, games designers can take this dull, repetitive activity, one that ranks alongside rote assembly line work as the most menial ever created, and build an experience on top of it that is so compelling people happily pay good money so they can do it!

But, really, it is because it is we the players who are paying to do work in videogames that designers have every reason to try and make it as engaging and rewarding as possible. Aside from stories of people who work in sweatshops grinding through MMORPGS to level up avatars that then get sold on to people who would rather pay than do the tiresome work of obtaining a high-level character themselves, nobody is ever coerced into playing a videogame. Participating in such activity is entirely voluntary for the vast majority of players, so if they are to sell, their developers have to make sure that the work a gamer has to do in order to get through the game is rewarding.

However, when it comes to jobs, I believe there is an incentive to reduce the elements that make work rewarding. If you take the first three features (which were ‘autonomy’, ‘discretion’ and ‘mastery’), I believe these have something in common, which is that they provide opportunity to enhance one’s individuality. The best games really do try to include ways to let the player customise the experience, which in some cases goes as far as incorporating editing tools that enable you to craft whole new levels and gameplay. I would argue that the reason why videogames tend not to make good films is because the characters in them are often pretty much blank slates intended to be filled in by the player’s personality, not well-developed characters with their own psychology.

The best videogames provide plenty of opportunity to enhance one’s individuality. We are each of us unique individuals with our own lifestyles, presences and abilities, and ideally we would have jobs that reflect this. But this could potentially cause problems when combined with the other feature that makes work rewarding, which is that it should be ‘socially meaningful’.

Imagine that my job is very important and valuable to society, and that it is also perfectly tailored to suit the unique individual I am. Obviously this would be tremendously engaging and rewarding work for me, but what if one day I was run over by a bus? The company would be in big trouble, for who could replace me and fit into a position uniquely suited to the individual I am?

On the other hand, if you can somehow reduce or even eliminate the amount of autonomy, discretion and mastery a job requires, you also need rely less on the individuality your employee. In so doing, the employee can be treated less like a unique person and more like an interchangeable unit that can be removed and replaced at the employer’s discretion.

This obviously impacts on the employee’s bargaining power, as anyone who feels they are eminently replaceable is not going to ask for better pay or preferable working conditions. Cheaper labour means more profit for employers. Furthermore, employees are in a competitive environment in which they fight to earn enough money to keep from becoming too indebted, to keep up appearances in environments that emphasise material wealth as the sign of success, and in which there are taxes that have to be paid if you don’t want to go to jail. In other words, there is a lot of ‘negative motivation’ leading people to submit to jobs not because they expect to be rewarded if they do, but because they fear the consequences if they don’t.

So, employers have to pay their workers in order to get jobs done, and they prefer cheaper labour where possible and so are incentivised to reduce the qualities of work that make it rewarding, as in doing so they make employees more like interchangeable and replaceable units. Furthermore, in the world of wage labour there are various forms of negative motivation that pushes people into accepting jobs that are not very rewarding, so unlike videogames designers employers need not be too concerned that the work they offer sucks.

I think this helps explain why people seemingly don’t want to work. It really is bizarre if you think about it. Imagine an animal like a dolphin, obviously evolved for a life in water and yet seemingly reluctant to leave dry land and go swimming. People are like that. We have large brains housing creative minds, dexterous hands that can use tools in complex ways, sophisticated language that enables us to cooperate and compete in ways no other animal can even imagine doing, and we are healthiest when mentally and physically active in social situations. In short, we evolved to work but apparently we don’t want to. At least, that seems to be the attitude people have when the topic of UBI comes up. As well as objections about how unaffordable they think it would be, people claim that if you did not have to earn wages in order to survive, nobody would work and we would just passively consume TV all day.

Actually, the evidence shows that it is in countries where people spend the most time in jobs that we find the highest consumption of TV. Which makes sense if you think about it. Having burned so much energy in their jobs they don’t have much left to do anything else in their spare time. On the other hand, people who live in countries in which less time is expected to be spent in jobs tend to be engaged in more voluntary work and spend less time sat in front of the TV.

Also, to get back to the theme of this essay, videogames debunk the theory that nobody wants to work. After all, if that were true, nobody would pay good money to go through the effort of trying to beat the various challenges these games set. Nor would anyone develop their sporting or artistic talents. After all, these things take work, and quite a lot of it in some cases. The reason why we so willingly pay to do the work in videogames is, as I have argued, because the designers of such games have an incentive to make such work as rewarding as they possibly can, because at the end of the day they want as many people to go out and buy the game and recommend others do so as possible. On the other hand, job providers are incentivised to reduce the qualities that make work rewarding in order to make employees more replaceable and exploitable. Not that all jobs can have such qualities reduced; it’s just that enough can be made unrewarding to explain why 90 percent of people don’t enjoy their paid work.

As Red Dead Redemption 2 shows, it is not really work we don’t like. It is jobs.

Thanks to Rockstar for the images


‘Why We Work’ by Barry Schwartz

‘Utopia For Realists’ by Rutger Bregman

‘Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer’ by Rockstar

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