All Work and No Play
What video games taught me about the world of work
I am a world record holder. You can look it up on the internet. It’s the world record for the biggest blowout in a Super Nintendo baseball game, Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball, released back in 1994. I grew up playing that game with my older brother and his friends, and later sneaked games on emulators on the computers in the high school library. In the midst of a summer stranded back home in the middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin, I recorded a game featuring my Chicago Cubs destroying the computer’s Houston Astros, 21–1, a 20-run blowout that still stands as the record today on the Twin Galaxies online leaderboard.
I have had an obsession with games – not just video games, but any game, ranging from board games to card games to sports – and breaking them down for as long as I can remember. But I am far from the only video game player obsessed with sussing out the mechanical sequences of their favorite games. High-speed internet and its capability for broadcasting video has given birth to a huge community of speedrunners – people competing to take their favorite games beginning to end in the shortest possible time. There is a growing community of speedrunners broadcasting on Twitch TV, and some even earn enough money from their subscribers to make it a full-time occupation. Twice yearly, Games Done Quick (GDQ) features dozens of speed runners in a fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders, an event that has pulled in over a million dollars in donations in recent years.
The runs at GDQ, particularly for games I thought I knew like the back of my hand like the Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. series, are mind-blowing. The players, in real time and in front of an audience of fellow supernerds, execute ridiculously complicated and precise button tricks, clipping through walls or throwing items in pixel-perfect placements. One runner took Super Mario Bros. 3, a game I spent hours upon hours trying to perfect, and busted it open in under four minutes:
They make it look so natural, but watch their Twitch channels and you can see the amount of work it takes to completely internalize the long and complex sequences of inputs these tricks take. The runners grind at these tricks for hours, failing 90 percent of the time or more before it clicks. Improvement requires constant scrapping and re-imagining of strategies and techniques, and anybody who becomes overly attached to a certain style of play will be passed up if they don’t adapt.