Arts

Try to escape the gig economy with this artist collective's new video game

GIGCO is the first release by indie game studio SpekWork — but just like the labour market's new normal, it ain't easy.

GIGCO is the first game by SpekWork Studio — but just like the labour market's new normal, it ain't easy

GIGCO: Escape the Gig Economy! (GIGCO)

The game is simple enough. You deliver boxes from one conveyor belt to another. A click sends your character running in the opposite direction. Players must avoid collisions with the robot workers sailing across the warehouse floor, lest their own job be automated. Your task is to clear the queue, which fills steadily throughout the shift. If you underperform, you are replaced.

I wouldn't call it a fun game. It is frustrating, cruel even. There is no winning. Success yields no special reward — only that you get to keep your job one day longer. Still, I find myself returning to better my score. That's how GIGCO — and, to some extent, the labour market it represents — gets you.       

Just launched, GIGCO: Escape the Gig Economy! is an iOS game about precarious work. With apps and websites like Uber, Fiverr, Foodora and TaskRabit rewiring habits — perhaps even directly dispatching your labour — we are all increasingly dependent on the gig workforce. (The irony of writing this as a freelancer committed by necessity to "the hustle" is not lost on me.) The game takes place in a near future when even factory work, such as the Amazon style fulfilment centre it's set in, is temporary and contractual. (Some might argue that where turnover is high due to poor or exceedingly demanding conditions, such work already is but a gig.)

GIGCO is the first release by indie game studio SpekWork, a new project from members of the Tough Guy Mountain art collective Cat Bluemke, Jonathan Carroll and Ben McCarthy. The studio was conceived around the challenge: can video games talk about labour politics? Considering the ongoing gamification of work — the way video games have been deployed to train and encourage our occupational practices — another video game is an interesting response. "We're using apps in the gig economy," Bluemke says. "Can we also use apps to escape the gig economy?"

According to Carroll, games might be an especially good medium to explore such systemic issues. "They're basically these interactive systems...There are a set of rules operating around you, and your ability to work within those rules determines how well you succeed at the game." The metaphorical connections to capitalism are numerous, he says.  

In GIGCO, for example, though the shifts get incrementally longer, the difficulty scales instead based on how you're performing during any one session. The worse you're doing, the harder it gets. As your backlog grows, more robots are sent to your division to pick up the slack, multiplying the obstacles ahead and increasing the likelihood you'll fall below the company's uncompromising productivity expectations. If you fail to keep up, it's game over: your job gets automated. "It's also sort of how poverty works," Carroll says. "When you're hard up, the bad luck you experience has that much more of an impact." Hardships tend to compound.  

A poster for GIGCO: Escape the Gig Economy! (GIGCO)

So many GIGCO details are drawn from real-life practices. The obsoleting bots are modelled after Amazon's 100,000-plus-unit workforce of proprietary mobile robotic fulfilment systems — low, wheeled models that shuttle shelves around the facility. The way the lights close in when you're losing refers to an Amazon fulfilment centre's dynamic lighting system, which, Carrol tells me, dims to conserve energy whenever a human has left the vicinity. The future, according to GIGCO, includes immense, darkened, unpeopled warehouses humming with robot labour. Though this vision is bleak, Carroll says, "Amazon keeps besting us." In December, two dozen employees at a New Jersey warehouse were sent to hospital after a robot accidentally punctured a canister of aerosol bear deterrent. "Of course, though, the robots were fine...It's hard to keep up with the dystopia."

After surviving a shift, players access the GIGCO internal messaging app, inspired partly by Uber's driver-side application. There, you find metrics about your performance as well as an employee inbox. The mail is various. It includes corporate propaganda, reminders of the forces that cause you to keep punching the clock (your rent is due!), bulletins about recent terminations suggesting a Hunger Games style last-human-standing subplot and messages from coworkers. They seem to choose their words carefully as surely management is surveilling such communications. It appears, however, like they're trying to organize somehow. Future updates will reveal more, Bluemke and Carroll promise.

(Courtesy)

With its first title now released, SpekWork has a slew of new games in development. Bluemke is eager for the GIGCO sequel: a driving simulator, she imagines, where you play as the very last human truck driver some time after the autonomous car has rearranged the logistics industry. Carroll mentions a forthcoming project called App Empire. It'll be an idle game about making apps, he says. They've completed the first iteration, Ahab, where you hunt "whales" — the industry term for users who spend big on in-app purchases. "We've been really obsessed with idle games," he says, "these games where the whole point is to make a number go up, then find ways to make that number go up faster. They're like the perfect representation of capitalism."

About the Author

Chris Hampton is a Toronto-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton