VIDEO GAMES, LIKE work, are basically a series of quests comprised of mundane and repetitive tasks: Receive an assignment, travel to a location, overcome some obstacles, perform some sort of search, pick up an item, and then deliver it in exchange for a reward--and, usually, another quest, which starts the cycle all over again. You are not playing the game so much as following its orders. The game is your boss; to succeed, you have to do what it says.
This is especially true in the genre that has come to dominate much of big-budget game development, the open-world action role-playing game, which blends the hair-trigger violence of traditional shooters with the massive explorable landscapes of games like Grand Theft Auto and the intricate craft and character leveling systems of pen-and-paper tabletop fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons.
The games consist of a series of assignments combined with a progression of skills, awards, and accomplishments, in which you, the player, become more powerful and proficient as a result of your dedication. And dedication is what these games require. It is not uncommon for singleplayer games to take upward of 60 hours to complete. Online, multiplayer variants can easily chew up hundreds or even thousands of hours of time, with the most accomplished players putting in dozens of hours a week for months on end. Although these games are usually packaged in a veneer of fantasy, they work less like traditional entertainment and more like employment simulators.
So it is perhaps not surprising that for many young men, especially those with lower levels of educational attainment, video games are increasingly replacing work. Since 2000, men in their 20s without a bachelor's degree are working considerably less and spending far more time engaged in leisure activities, which overwhelmingly means playing video games. Over the same time frame, this group of men has also grown more likely to be single, to have no children, and to live with parents or other family members.
The surprising thing about the stereotypical aimless young man, detached from work and society, playing video games in his parents' basement: He's actually happier than ever.
I can relate.
IN MARCH, I spent a chilly weekend playingMass Effect: Andromeda. This is the fourth installment in one of the gaming world's most popular franchises, and it represents something of a reboot for the science fiction series, with a new protagonist and a new galaxy to explore.
In the game, I played Ryder, a young woman--my choice--who, after the prologue, becomes a "pathfinder," the lead explorer on a joint human-alien mission to settle the Andromeda galaxy. That role came with considerable responsibilities. When I arrived in the new galaxy, I discovered that the mission had already gone awry: The life-sustaining planets that I expected to find had been made barren by a mysterious alien menace, colonist ships had gone missing, and the space station that was supposed to serve as the mission hub had been divided by cultural disputes, bureaucratic infighting, and resource shortages. In addition to shooting a predictably large quantity of menacing aliens and robots, my job--and it was most definitely a job--was to solve all of these problems.
That meant collecting basic resources from nearby planets and developing them into useful technologies. It meant setting up outposts for colonists and assigning them to various tasks. It meant resolving thorny personality disputes between various administrators and staffers on the space station, and assisting other staffers with their work.
In some ways I was playing sci-fi CEO, but in other ways it felt more like being an all-purpose flunky. Much of the game involves menial chores. My character was equipped with a handheld scanner that can catalog items and provide technical information about many of the objects she encounters. The game offers rewards for scanning just about everything, which means that the play frequently descends into a kind of cataloging and list making, hunting down items to scan, using the scanner to trace wires and connections and solve ancient alien relic puzzles that rather suspiciously resemble games of Sudoku. Land on any of the game's planets and pull up a map, and you'll see that it's covered with icons and markers, each of which represents a task to complete, a person to talk with, an item to acquire.
Completing all of these objectives would take dozens of hours. Most are not even directly related to the game's core storyline. Instead they are what gamers refer to as side-quests--secondary activities and sideline time wasters embedded inside a massive virtual time waster.
The multitude of priorities and objectives means that there is always someplace to go, something to do, someone to talk to, or some object to fetch. Like many games, Mass Effect: Andromeda is designed to entice the player with a cycle of discovery, frustration, achievement, and advancement that never fully resolves, because each in-game accomplishment leads to the discovery of more tasks and objectives, more upgrades and abilities, more work to be done. At its best, it was satisfying, distracting, and frustrating, all at once. I found myself feeling not only that I could play forever, but that I must.
Andromeda is not the most entertaining game I have ever played, but with its endless array of tasks to complete and objectives to achieve, it is among the most job-like in its approach to game design. At times it hit rather close to home.
The game boasts an intricate conversation system, and a substantial portion of the playtime is spent talking to in-game characters, quizzing them for information (much of which adds color but is ultimately irrelevant), asking them for assignments, relaying details of your progress, and then finding out what they would like you to do next.
At a certain...