It is as if you were doing work, a new browser game by impish developer Pippin Barr, simulates puttering around inside Windows 95, clicking dialog boxes and mashing your keyboard to type out reports and emails. Depending on your real job, it's a relaxing desktop toy or a horrifying parody of your waking life. It's a fine example of the overlooked (and previously unnamed) gaming genre of officecore.
While many games explore exciting professions such as pilot, city planner or hitman, officecore focuses on the drudgery of a desk job. The job's details are usually generic, its fictional results obscured to heighten the potential relatability. While the average gamer will never slaughter demons or conquer France, they will probably spend some time, maybe all their time, working at a desk, so here's a chance to help them reinterpret a familiar environment.
As a player, you might use officecore to work out your workplace frustrations. You might find it useful for discreetly passing the time at a dead-end job. Or you might even learn something about yourself and realise you're approaching your career all wrong. If the idea of playing a game that looks like your day job is off-putting, that already tells you something.
Officecore has three subgenres, in rising order of scope: Desktop simulation, office simulation and corporate simulation. Desktop sims turn the computing environment into a puzzle or arcade game; office sims explore the workplace as a weaponless first-person shooter, RPG, or adventure; and corporate sims work like top-down simulations such as SimCity or RollerCoaster Tycoon. Each provides a different commentary on the modern white-collar workplace.
Desktop Simulation Games
Desktop sims imitate a typical computer interface, with a varying degree of verisimilitude. While in almost any other desktop game, the player's inputs correspond to some fictional or metaphorical outputs, here they map quite directly; clicking a fictional dialog box is no different than clicking a real one. A desktop simulation's unique relationship to the surrounding computing environment lets it play with the boundaries and directly provoke the player.
It is as if you were doing work
Despite its retro design, It is as if you were doing work takes place in a post-labour world of "95% unemployment". Randomised dialog prompts and document headings describe futuristic technologies such as biofuels, tricorders and gene doping, while the documents you "type" give self-help advice. Stock photos of office work pop up, with headers such as "There is joy in work" and "No one ever drowned in sweat".
You are constantly validated and "promoted" for your simple tasks. You feel the condescension from whatever computer handed you this "work", and you realise you're neither important nor useful. The only real change you can effect is choosing from four desktop wallpapers and four background MIDI tracks. It's an interesting preview of a future (and a present) where human work is mere decoration around automated labour.
Can't You See I'm Busy!
While many games can be discreetly played inside a real copy of Excel, the eight-year-old game suite Can't You See I'm Busy! imitates generic office software in your browser, then inserts classic desktop games. Breakdown is a Breakaway clone inside a Word doc; Leadership is Helicopter inside a line graph. Crash Planning is a Bejeweled knockoff disguised as a calendar; Cost Cutter is a quirky tile matcher inside an animated bar chart. The idea is that you can play these games at the office without anyone noticing; there's even a "boss button" to hide the most egregious game elements.
The ruse is a bit thin, especially now that the fake software looks ancient. So the faux desktop interface is more stylistic than practical, and it emphasises the relative monotony of the games themselves. To open a game, you click a button that oscillates between "start game" and "start work", a winking gesture that feels sadder each time it loops. These games are designed to make time pass. To play them is to admit that you don't even need to be entertained, just distracted. To play them is to admit you are wasting your life.
The whole genre of games that look like work share a muddy boundary with work that looks like games, a manifestation of crumbling work-life balance and the rise of social networking, the ultimate grey area between work and pleasure. The desktop sim genre has stagnated in the past few years, maybe because the office drone found a better time waster in social media. There are spreadsheet interfaces for hiding your Twitter and Facebook use, but this isn't even necessary in the growing number of jobs that include social media management. When work is play and play is work, neither are very satisfying.
Office Simulation Games
Office sims take place in the office, generally turning the player into a low-level worker. While the player might advance up the ranks, gameplay never shifts into the top-down style of a god game or a SimCity. The most common format is first-person. Most tabletop officecore games also play out on this level, focusing on interaction between characters.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is a video game about video games, but it's also about exercising free will and challenging the limitations we unconsciously accept. Before it spirals into Matrix-like ontological absurdism, the game opens in a mundane office, depicting a mundane job.
The later game's mechanics, and even much of its message, could have been mapped onto all kinds of settings. But the modern office ties strongly into those free-will themes. To imply authority and obedience, the game could have started in a prison or a mental institution, but the office environment projects the same qualities with a subtler horror.
It also turns The Stanley Parable into a power fantasy. When Stanley disobeys the narrator, he's like Office Space's Peter Gibbons ignoring Lumbergh and dismantling his cubicle. Every office drone has wanted to reject the system like this.
Job Simulator (Office Worker Level)
2016 VR game Job Simulator also takes place in a computer-automated post-job world, where museum-goers try out extinct occupations such as auto mechanic, gourmet chef, store clerk and office worker. The office level particularly highlights the disassociation between workday and product. As a chef, your job is to make a pizza; as an office worker, you have to "make job happen". As at so many real office jobs, tasks such as drinking coffee and chatting up co-workers are as important as doing any actual work.
Job Simulator is a fumblecore game where half the fun is struggling with awkward controls. The incompetent feeling of this interface is reinforced by a tutorial bot that treats office rituals like exotic local customs, and who suggests you use "an ancient human technique called 'winging it'". It's a familiar feeling to young adults or anyone suffering from impostor syndrome. Comfortingly, the robots seem to be just as clueless as you are about how business works, and they congratulate you for banging on your two-button keyboard or assembling a dadaist PowerDot deck. You can't really fail at this job.
Payroll is a first-person adventure game set in a '90s office, executed in an era-appropriate 256 colours and the goofy, gently parodic style of '90s point-and-click adventures. While one playthrough takes just 20 minutes, their's a variety of possible endings, giving you great replay value for a $US1 ($1.28) game.
There's no heavy satire here, no frame story or fourth wall to step behind. Your goals are typical work goals. You can get fired, or you can do your job and earn retirement. For an office sim, it's optimistic and peaceful. The bitterest this game gets is a charmingly dreary simulation of an office birthday party.
Generic Office Roleplay
Photo by Mitchell Sheldrick
The Generic Office Roleplay Facebook group is more of a sandbox than a game. Australian teen Thomas Oscar created it in 2013 as a deadpan satire of office life. Oscar shut out unfunny ideas, striving for realism, rejecting friends who all wanted to play as janitors. "If you only have five sale reps on your company, you're not going to have 20 janitors," he told the podcast Reply All. Like any good DM, Oscar set boundaries around the roleplaying.
But as discussed on Reply All, newer players got much sillier, replacing all the subtle jokes about fonts and social tension with goofs about iguana invasions and golden staplers. Years later, the current content is mostly middling, but this is still a fun destination for casuals.
Serious office roleplayers should consider Synergon, a loose RPG system presented satirically as a LARP, or live action roleplay. Skills include "integrity", "yes man" and "hereditary wealth". Usable items include "cat calendar", "power tie" and "letter opener" (which "gives +10 to attack rolls for Threats of Physical Violence").
Supposedly, every business douche who fakes their expertise by throwing around jargon and management fads is unwittingly playing Synergon. "You know the ones," says the About page. "They're in every office, acting, not working. They don't know what they're talking about, they just know they have heard all the words before."
While the site is mostly meant as satire, and no guidelines are given for true LARPing, a good dungeon master could mould Synergon into a playable tabletop or Skype game, though you'd need to flesh out your own campaign. It's an especially attractive option for creating a customised revenge fantasy, or trying out the vicious office politics you avoid in real life.
This Nordic-style LARP, played just twice (2003 in Norway and 2013 in Copenhagen), immerses players in a 36-hour live simulation of an amoral advertising firm with shady clients. Each player took on the role of an employee or executive, dressing the part and developing a backstory.
A report on the 2013 run, which included 30 players and 54 NPC "customers", includes post-game analysis by players and organisers. As described in the minidoc above, players disappeared into their characters and surprised themselves with cutthroat behaviour. Both playthroughs included online and social media elements, which felt exotic in 2003 and surprisingly natural 10 years later. Players had to decide whether to sleep or keep working, and constant online updates raised the pressure to pull an all-nighter. One player had to take a break and cry before diving back in. Some players told Eirik Fatland, one of the game's creators, that they regretted playing. "I am proud of PanoptiCorp... I am also troubled," Fatland writes in the report.
Emergent player behaviour in PanoptiCorp resembles the behaviour of subjects in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, where volunteer "guards" treated "prisoners" so badly that the study was halted early after just six days. The Stanford experiment pointed to obvious dehumanising effects of the real prison system; PanoptiCorp seems to similarly damn the real corporate system.
Fatland is very aware of the darker parallels. "The LARP's light-weight and comedic surface is painted on top of a fairly brutal core," he says, "much like the industries it satirises."
Corporate Simulation Games
Corporate simulators are a strange sort of power fantasy, as they satirise the real-world power fantasy that is upper management. You might feel like your boss shuffles you around like a resource in a video game, a minion who makes their numbers go up. You suspect that you're doing all the real work, while their job could be reduced to an algorithm, or a game. Running a company with a few clicks feels tantalisingly realistic. It can make you believe you deserve to be in charge.
Browser game Corporation Inc. is the missing link between Maxis's 1994 desktop game SimTower and NimbleBit's 2011 mobile game Tiny Tower. Players build an office tower and fill it with staff. Unlike industry-specific corporate simulators such as Software Inc. and Game Dev Tycoon, the fictional companies inside Corporation Inc. remain pleasantly generic, so you can project your own aspirations and grudges onto your little creatively hairstyled employees.
The game isn't pushing much of an agenda, just exploiting another setting for a cute empire-building sim, like a version of AdVenture Capitalist with actual gameplay. But there's still something to learn from just how few elements it takes to simulate an office environment.
Dilbert's Desktop Games
This branded 1997 suite of desktop games and toys includes a business jargon generator, several work-themed minigames, and a strong 2D platformer called Techno Raiders that recalls the surprising depth of the Simpsons arcade side-scroller.
The glue holding this suite together is CEO Simulator, in which you hire, fire and manipulate employees to grow a company. It plays like a simplified Maxis Sim game with the idling elements of a clicker game, progressing in the background while you play the rest of the suite. While it isn't a moment-for-moment simulation of office life, all of its mechanics can be mapped to real-life corporate activities, making it the suite's most grounded office simulation.
Techno Raiders just uses the office as a setting for a platformer. You guide the titular Dilbert up the 132 floors of his office, electrocuting co-workers, avoiding crossbow-wielding secretaries, and navigating mazes through departments such as sales, engineering and the executive lounge.
The whole suite's tone matches the moderate satire of the Dilbert comic strip, seemingly subversive but only slightly darker than Garfield. The goal of CEO Simulator, for example, is to create a successful company by keeping employees happy and productive. That's a surprisingly optimistic view, even for Dilbert, but that's what makes it a fantasy.
- Papers Please and The Westport Independent use paperwork interfaces to simulate the banality of evil under totalitarian regimes. Both have a lot more historical character than an office sim, but they hint at a familiar on-the-job mundanity that might prompt more sensitive players to consider the societal impact of their real jobs.
- Her Story is a murder mystery that you investigate by digging through a computer, searching and tagging files. As a simulation of a murder investigation, it's much more realistic than the typical detective game.
- 1995 UK board game Office Politics earned mediocre reviews on Board Game Geek, and the low-budget graphic design looks wildly uninviting, but in an office satire that might be the whole point.
- The Barclays LifeSkills Pod, a dystopic-looking work simulator deployed in London last year, trains students in social skills such as networking and communication. While it's meant for real-world education, it bears a promising resemblance to an immersive arcade sim.
- Text-adventure game Office Job Simulator 2014 is beyond bare-bones; it's really just a vertebra. Click text links to "perform" a handful of office tasks, each simulated by a lone sound effect. A full run-through takes about 45 seconds.
While it's a small and odd genre, officecore games share some definable characteristics: They imitate real life, and any divergence usually involves some satire or commentary. They focus on the elements shared by all office jobs, rather than diving into specifics.
Officecore's aesthetics lean toward the nostalgic, evoking the lost era of cubicles, neckties and Windows 95. The genre seems stuck in the '90s, mocking water coolers and MS Publisher, ignoring new office fixtures such as the WeWork common room, the evening Slack alert and the corporate Facebook page. Player avatars appear in suits holding briefcases, instead of the aspirational creative-class uniform of jumpers and messenger bags. These games still feel like Office Space, while the real office has evolved into Spike Jonze's Her. There's untapped potential to simulate the modern workplace, where everyone is a "creative", a "curator" or an "influencer", where free lunch keeps everyone in the office, where work has to be more fulfilling because work-life balance is over.
The same tools that created the always-on workplace could create its simulations. Mobile gaming and social networks have normalised giving a game extensive access to your device and your personal information, enabling fourth-wall tricks that would impress Metal Gear Solid's Psycho Mantis. Progress and Blackbox interact with your phone's accelerometer, brightness and battery; Lifeline turns your mobile notifications into a text adventure; Farmville and Candy Crush exploit your social connections to keep you playing. These tricks would be all the more impressive in a game that simulated Slack alerts, LinkedIn networks and annoying corporate VPNs, a game that's as always-on as the workplace it simulates.
By catching up to reality, games can help us cope with the changing workplace. They can force us to question new norms, or just provide an outlet for the unavoidable stress of any career. Work shouldn't just be gamified; it should be gamed.