A Job For Life: The Workplace Economics of Dungeoneering 1974–2015

In the March issue of Harper’s, Esther Kaplan has an interesting article about the looming horror of the data-driven workplace:

In industry after industry, [data collection] is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces, an effort that pushes employees to their mental, emotional, and physical limits; claims control over their working and nonworking hours; and compensates them as little as possible, even at the risk of violating labor laws.

Almost anybody who has worked in retail or hospitality over the past 10 or 20 years has been subject to Just in Time shift scheduling. In these and other sectors, employees are routinely kept in a perilous state of “on-call” that, above all else, seeks to reduce labour costs for the business. Kaplan’s article is also interesting for its examination of how Big Data has begun to affect other sectors as well. (I’m sure we all suspected that UPS drivers are subject to some scary metrics but, well, now we really know.)

I've blogged before about how the gameplay of Darkest Dungeon conceals a representation of the shift in the tech and gaming sectors toward lean, iterative design. The game itself reduces the sprawling, Tolkien-esque fantasy waterfall quest to short bursts of focused teamwork and brutal financial compromises.

I’ve also tweeted about how the early popularity of Dungeons and Dragons may have been in part due to its ability to offer teens an opportunity to preemptively master the structure, meetings, and paperwork of the 1980s workplace.

After reading Kaplan’s article, I’d argue that the Just in Time dungeoneering of Darkest Dungeon doesn’t just reflect changes in software development, but wholesale changes in the working lives of ordinary people in almost every imaginable workplace. By examining different representations of dungeoneering (on the tabletop and on-screen) over the past 30 years we can see the slow but inexorable change from stable, reliable employment to pernicious zero-hour contracts.

Consider this passage, particularly after your favourite Darkest Dungeon hero has been bludgeoned to death only to be replaced by another virtually identical highwayman:

In postwar America, many retailers sought to increase profits by maximizing sales, a strategy that pushed stores to overstaff so that every customer received assistance, and by offering generous bonuses to star salespeople with strong customer relationships. Now the trend is to keep staffing as lean as possible, to treat employees as temporary and replaceable, and to schedule them exactly and only when needed.

In the 1980s, the dominant narrative of the adventuring party was such that, at the end of a noble quest, fame and fortune were almost certainly available to any hero. Adventuring parties were often fixed groups of individuals for which a slow but steady rise in level and salary were guaranteed. Permadeath was rare and, with a little patience, rewards were plentiful. Consider the adventuring party and game mechanics presented by JRPGs prior to Final Fantasy VII.

This seemed to change in the 1990s, in which the idea of employee interchangeability and flexible scheduling began to encroach. On a recent playthrough of Baldur’s Gate (ported to iOS in 2012) I was struck by how the adventuring party I started with was dramatically different a few short hours later. Heroes came and went, often replaced on a whim or due to some brief situational advantage. There is also the notable death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, the first time I can remember in which a playable character well, died, like for real.

In recent years, tabletop gaming representations of dungeoneering have centred on an anachronistic and conservative misreading of early D&D that emphasizes mechanical difficulty and permadeath, despite the fact that almost nobody actually played D&D this way during the 80s. In the recently-published Torchbearer, dungeoneering is so brutal it figures as a sort of morbid entry-level service job. Darkest Dungeon is not far behind (but admittedly I try my hardest to keep my heroes fed, happy, and stress-free).

If dungeoneering isn’t profitable anymore, what does this say about our day jobs? If it’s no longer possible to reach the end of the dungeon among the same group of noble companions we started with, how are our relationships with each other changing to match?