When considering media, particularly in the Western context, one of the most understudied axes of identity is class. As Richard Butsch (2017: 38) laments in his analysis of class and gender in American television sitcoms, “Hollywood, as with most Americans, has a vocabulary and conceptual deficit when it comes to class”. This lack may be, in part, because class has historically been difficult to define. The use of strictly economic lenses – such as Marxist theoretical frameworks – is one starting point, but such approaches fail to capture key elements of lived class experience and its cultural expressions. Joan C. Williams emphasises that class is not solely about money, but often manifests as a “cultural tradition that people riff off as they shape their everyday behaviour and make sense of their lives” (2017: 12). Although a comprehensive definition is likely impossible, we loosely characterise class as being constituted from “a combination of economic (income, wealth) and social factors (family background, education, occupation, social prestige)” with a particular concern for how it is “expressed in lifestyle, values, behavior, manners” (Deery & Press, 2017: 6). Class is also inherently relational, with class distinctions derived from differences and conflict. Thus, a great deal of scholarly work attempts to identify social and cultural markers that signify class – ones that reproduce class differences and make them seem natural or inevitable.
These so-called everyday experiences of class are depicted in popular fictional media in numerous and often contradictory ways. While “middle classness” is often unmarked and rendered invisible, representations of the working class, or blue-collar workers, have received some scholarly attention. Butsch's (2017) longitudinal study of American television programmes, for example, reveals that upper-middle-class sitcoms far over-represent their demographic, while working-class families are relatively scarce. One troubling theme that has emerged from these programmes is the prevalence of the “fool” trope, most commonly depicted as a working-class male breadwinner who is “a buffoon or bungler, often well-meaning and warm-hearted, but incompetent, immature, ignorant, irresponsible” (Butsch, 2017: 41). Augie Fleras and Michael Shane Dixon (2011) further elaborate that, although blue-collar patriarchs have become a target of our ridicule, such depictions could be viewed as distortions of positive working-class ideals such as honesty, reliability, and a strong work ethic – traits that have been “reframed as working-class stupidity – a weakness to make fun of, especially by comparison to their upper-class superiors” (Fleras & Dixon, 2011: 583). Reflecting on how the American sitcom has historically demeaned and demasculinised the working class, Fleras and Dixon document a sharp diversion of this trope in reality-TV shows like
Class depictions in videogames are also widespread but understudied, with this lack carrying over into the understanding of both the content of digital games as well as their reception. One of the earliest projects centred on class in videogames studied it alongside themes of gender and race, focusing on Nintendo home-console titles in the early 1990s and scrutinising how these games were “apt to replicate in their structure the values and activities associated with the dominant ideology” (Gailey, 1993: 81). Gailey argues that videogames reinforce class stereotypes – such as the persistent, violent depiction of the urban jungle – as well as predetermined hierarchies based on wealth and power – but her study only scratches the surface of a much larger topic. More recent research on game content has largely focused on gender, sexuality, and race and ethnicity, with class either ignored or relegated to a secondary axis, such as “race and class”. For example, one widely cited study conducted a virtual census of characters in top-selling videogames and focused on gender, race and ethnicity, and age, but did not attempt to examine class (Williams et al., 2009). Other work has given us valuable insights into how sexuality and gender are present in games (Chess, 2017; Shaw, 2014), but as of yet, little significant work has socioeconomic class as the primary focus of analysis for studying game content. The growing trend of dystopian backdrops in popular videogames has sparked some insightful research, particularly in regard to how recessionary (Pérez-Latorre et al., 2017) and dystopian (Pérez-Latorre & Oliva, 2019) themes inflict neoliberal values into titles, but the narrative and ludic aspects of socioeconomic class in videogames still begs for additional analysis.
To help remedy this shortcoming in game studies literature focusing on socioeconomic class, Research on socioeconomic class outside of game form, however, is more common. Previous work done on players from different socioeconomic classes has primarily focused on youth of differing socioeconomic status, finding that class influences make a difference in how and what individuals play (Andrews, 2008; Sims, 2014). Demonstrating how race is implicated in class contexts, DiSalvo and colleagues found that both access to computers (to play educational games), as well as game content itself, can be an issue, such that “the lack of characters of color and the general themes have little crossover or relevance for them or their community” (DiSalvo et al., 2008: 138). Other studies point to the importance of both the
Research on socioeconomic class outside of game form, however, is more common. Previous work done on players from different socioeconomic classes has primarily focused on youth of differing socioeconomic status, finding that class influences make a difference in how and what individuals play (Andrews, 2008; Sims, 2014). Demonstrating how race is implicated in class contexts, DiSalvo and colleagues found that both access to computers (to play educational games), as well as game content itself, can be an issue, such that “the lack of characters of color and the general themes have little crossover or relevance for them or their community” (DiSalvo et al., 2008: 138). Other studies point to the importance of both the
Games offer us insights into how we understand working-class jobs that go beyond traditional media representations, not just because of their additional narratives and representations, but through their procedural systems and their ability to render occupational simulations of varying complexity. Individuals enact class roles through play, embodying working-class experiences and making decisions within specific labour contexts. As we argue further within the following sections, power relations due to class positions are a central element in many of these games, demonstrating how simulated jobs retain – and often highlight – the ideological positionings of their origins in everyday life. Therefore, this article scrutinises tangible simulations of blue-collar labour, rather than aesthetic appropriations, such as Mario's questionable résumé as a plumber. Gonzalo Frasca (2003: 225) emphasises that simulations “express messages in ways that narrative simply cannot” and are commonly leveraged as a way to understand complex systems. Simulations often model systems by reducing their complexity to a concise subset of behaviours or rules, such as how a flight simulator “allows the player to perform actions that will modify the behavior of the system in a way that is similar to the behavior of the actual plane” (Frasca 2003: 224). As players engage with simulators, they discover the rules for operating them and, in the case of most videogames, how to succeed at them. Constructing these simulations cannot be framed as a value-neutral exercise, as the ability to include or exclude rules and determine a winning condition for a livelihood is, of course, deeply ideological. Accordingly, analysing games that simulate jobs allows us to determine at least some of the ways that occupations are constructed and contemplated in contemporary culture: Which jobs are deemed desirable and which are not? What control do we have within our jobs in terms of structuring our time? What does it mean to be successful at a job? How can one fail?
We analyse eight games in this article: A video of the previous world record holder showed the extent of levels and gameplay in
A video of the previous world record holder showed the extent of levels and gameplay in
Our game selection was also influenced by a number of logistical factors. Due to our own language proficiencies, we were limited to games that featured an official English release – thus leaving out many Japanese-language games that may have proven relevant. Pragmatically, we also needed to play our selected titles in their entirety (without relying too heavily on secondary sources), which limited us to games accessible either via sources such as the Internet Archive or playable on legacy systems (such as PlayStation 2) and current systems to which we had access. In an effort to investigate how depictions of labour have changed over time, we made a concerted effort to seek out games released prior to 2000 as well as more contemporary titles. After compiling a list of potential candidates, we identified the presence of various occupational roles and noted where they repeated across varying games. We chose the four occupations discussed here due to their working-class nature, their presence in both earlier and later games, their diversity in genre and theming, and because they offered us games that appeared contextually rich. We do not suggest they are representative of all games that feature those occupations, but instead argue that even this limited selection features games with important arguments about class built into them.
Games such as
In North America, driving a taxi cab is considered a job for unskilled workers. As of 2019, the median salary is USD 31,340 per year (U.S. News & World Report, n.d.). For rideshare drivers, figures vary from USD 14,284 to more than USD 60,000, but it is at best precarious (Helling, 2020; Salaries HUB, n.d.). Beyond economics, driving for hire is often considered menial and low-status labour, with some employees likening it to “pulling rickshaws in India” (Mitra, 2008: 312). Sharma (2014: 56) argues that workers are viewed as “the expendable bodies of a labour force that can easily be replenished”. Yet drivers labour in multiple ways to produce satisfied passengers. This includes not simply driving passengers to their destinations safely and on time, but also in managing the emotions and moods of passengers for tips or driver ratings. Drivers must also manage the “slow time” of waiting for or seeking fares and the “speeded-up time” of engaging with fares in conjunction with their own bodily and emotional needs and desires.
In contrast to
Overall, both games do acknowledge the skills involved in seemingly unskilled labour.
Bars and working as a bartender have been a historically tumultuous and gendered space. Despite now making up the majority of working bartenders in the US, for the longest time, women were not allowed to frequent bars and public houses, and subsequently had to fight for the right to be permitted to work in them (Lupton, 1979). The setting of the saloon is used in
Typically, bartending is viewed as low-skilled work. This is reflected in
In addition to the level of skill simulated in these bartending games, the financial precarity associated with working-class labour under capitalistic structures is also present in both the games’ narratives and mechanics. In
Aside from physical demand, a significant aspect of bartending involves the expectation of emotional labour between the customers and the bartender. Grazian (2009: 909) describes bars as “third places”, where patrons feel the bar environment is “inclusive” and a “social leveller”. This, mixed with the inhibition-reducing effects of alcohol, allows customers to feel comfortable being vulnerable in these spaces, discussing emotional issues and using the bartender as a sounding board for advice. This form of emotional labour is present in
In sum, due to the precarious nature of their working-class service-industry jobs, the protagonists in these two games do not have the capacity to be a working-class hero in the typical sense. They do, as shown in
Our investigation of janitorial work in videogames juxtaposes a decades-old adventure game series,
Cut-scenes make up much of
The precarity of the spaceport janitor's work is emphasised by embedding players’ labour in tangible institutions and systems: one's ability to save funds is at the mercy of fluctuating market prices, inconsistent pay rates, corrupt law enforcement, restrictions on the tools and hours available for doing work, the unreliability of vendors’ stocks and prices, gender dysphoria, and even favour with the deities. Evidently, janitorial work in
Second, this is because of how
Analysing these games as a pair shows that each protagonist embodies particular orientations to neoliberal ideals such as free-market competition, personal responsibility, and meritocracy, or the idea that the successes and value of an individual are fair, equitable, and direct products of their own hard work. Roger's inability to “officially” cease being a janitor is routinely used as a punchline – one centred around subverting audience expectations by relegating a heroic, cisgender, able-bodied white man to “low-skilled” and unglamorous work that (perhaps not coincidentally) is historically associated with women and the domestic sphere. However, Roger's mistakes are presented as temporary comedic setbacks, while his successes are integrated into the story, which frames his progress as a product of his own efforts and merits despite players actively pushing for him to fail upward into hero status. So, while stereotypes of working-class men as buffoons or bunglers are rooted in emasculation (Butsch, 2017), Roger's masculinity is reasserted by naturalising his aptitude for adventuring and his propensity for heroics. The result is a character arc that is deeply informed by privilege, in particular, ease of upward mobility.
It is difficult to compare a comedy game with one that provides an intentionally uncomfortable critique of capitalism at work. Yet, this analysis has generated some insight into the variety of ways cleaning work has been contemplated and codified into games. Truly, Roger's job-title as “janitor” becomes increasingly symbolic as the series progresses and, by the end of the third instalment –
Unlike taxi drivers, bartenders, and janitors, firefighters have long cemented their status as working-class heroes. This heroic tradition extends back well into the nineteenth century, where the occupation has been celebrated through song, news reels, and other popular media forms (Cooper, 1995). When seeking out reasons for this rise to heroic status, Cooper lays out several thematics, two of which prove pertinent to their videogame depictions. First, the firefighter has been mythologised through their adversary, the out-of-control blaze that is commonly “metaphorized as an enemy, a dragon, a fiend out of hell” (Cooper, 1995: 142). Unlike other occupations ascribed heroism – such as police officers and soldiers – the firefighter's enemy is unambiguously destructive, allowing them to embody chivalric ideals while shirking moral baggage. Second, despite these heroics, the firefighter has been consistently framed as “simply an ordinary man ‘doing his duty,’ a phrase repeated over and over again by firemen themselves and by those who wrote about them” (Cooper, 1995: 162). This characterisation is rooted in tropes of working-class masculinity, echoed by Joan C. Williams (2017: 20), in which rigid self-discipline and “reining yourself in so you don’t have an attitude” are required to complete challenging or menial work while accepting no reward beyond the satisfaction of a job well done and a paycheck to bring home to your family.
Although the firefighter's relationship to the flames they extinguish may be uncomplicated, more nuanced tensions have arisen in their line of work – both ethnographic studies and fictitious accounts of firefighting describe class conflict in which the blue-collar values of the firefighter are put at odds with white-collar ideals. Whereas firefighters are stereotypically imagined as physically fit, able-bodied, practical, and steeped in technical know-how, white-collar workers are characterised by those in the fire service as “soft” and “out of touch” with the on-the-ground needs of people (Thurnell-Read & Parker, 2008: 132). Historically, this tension manifests as derision toward the administrative wings of the fire service and a resistance toward progressive mandates – perhaps most notoriously affirmative action (Carroll, 2011) – and translates into media depictions of white-collar workers as antagonistic or hapless. This is in contrast to other working-class professions, who often find themselves at the whim of their bosses and clientele, as firefighters are often depicted as possessing power and agency that transcends both class and rank. As can be seen in
Class tensions arise in
These class tensions also arise in
Despite a transition into 3D, the objectives of both of these firefighting titles are roughly the same: players must progress through several flaming locales, putting out fires and rescuing civilians. The first level of the game parallels many aspects of
As these paired examples have shown, socioeconomic class can and does play a key role in a variety of videogames across a span of decades. We have not explored here how advancing technological capabilities have shaped the games detailed above, but a few things are evident. First, increased graphical fidelity is not a requirement for a game to make a meaningful statement or advance an argument. Second, the increasing popularity and number of story-based games has dovetailed with rising concerns over neoliberal politics to give game developers new interests and new ways to build worlds and tell stories about workers, the everyday, and challenges that are about more than high scores and slaying monsters.
Yet, despite our emphasis on everyday professions, the objects of our research do not completely shirk the fantastical, nor do they shy away from over-the-top heroics. In the
Certainly, there is more to say about each of these games, as well as additional games that feature the jobs we have identified here. Our intent was not to provide exhaustive analysis of each game or game pairing, but rather to point to the potential richness that even “older” or seemingly “simpler” games offer us in embodying class in varying ways. Games not only provide representations and narratives, but also mechanics and rules that individuals must navigate, accept, or reject as they play. Many more games should be studied in this manner, either across time or in comparison to other media forms, to see how the politics of class are being embodied, as well as how they shift or remain the same.
Finally, although the fantastic trappings of some game scenarios may seem detrimental to analysis, we argue that the opposite is true. The representation of working-class protagonists in extraordinary circumstances renders visible their purported heroic attributes, reveals what aspects of their jobs are deemed important enough to be simulated across genres, and highlights which elements of an occupation have been deemed insufficient to satisfy a game's narrative arc. Even professions that already enjoy heroic status in our cultural imagination, such as firefighters, are often undermined by a desire to present larger-than-life challenges to players:
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