Video Games Are Better Without Gameplay

Untitled Goose Game is fun. The problem is, all games are also work.

Multicolored illustrations of geese.
House House / Ian Bogost / The Atlantic

Like games, geese are notoriously annoying. They’re brusque, clumsy, and territorial. If you are a person and one appears on your country estate, the advice recommends avoiding engagement and then standing your ground if it charges. Show the goose who’s boss. A recent, hugely popular video game, Untitled Goose Game, stages this conflict. For some reason, it turns out to be familiar to everyone, even city slickers who have never seen a goose in person.

It’s fun! Being a goose for a while is diverting and surprising, and embodying one in a simulated, pastoral environment speaks to the flexible power of games as a medium. Games turn the world on its head, allowing you to become all the things you are not: a criminal, in Grand Theft Auto; an explorer of alien worlds, in No Man’s Sky; the universe itself, in Everything. You gain a new perspective, having had the opportunity to be something grander than—or just different from—yourself.

The only problem is that you have to play the game to do so. And playing a game is a chore. That’s the big problem with video games: To enjoy them, you have to play them. And playing them requires exerting the effort to operate them. Games are machines, and broken ones at that. The player’s job is to make them work again.

Untitled Goose Game became a massive, surprise hit—and a meme—in the month since its release. It did so, in part, by offering a counterintuitive way out of the quandary of game-play’s fundamental aggravation: Someone has to play the game, but that someone needn’t be you. It might even be more fun not to play the game than to play it. Untitled Goose Game is a game about work’s ubiquity in the guise of a game about leisure’s frivolity. And like all labor, the best way to get it done is to farm it out to others. Let the memers honk their geese so you don’t have to.

Game-play—the work of working a game—is fundamentally irritating, at least in comparison with other media forms. It’s easy to pass the eyes over the pages of a book, or to bathe in the waves of image and sound at the cinema or in your living room. Moreover, these forms skip over the boring parts by editing them out: You don’t have to watch a character traverse the stairs, sidewalk, subway, and elevator to get from home to work. But in games, you are the character, and thus you must pilot him (or her, but usually him) through every detail that the simulated world demands. Role-playing gamers sometimes talk about “grinding”— completing boring, repetitive tasks to advance their character’s abilities in order to make progress—a term that exactly mirrors the drudgery and toil of labor.

The game theorist Julian Kücklich even coined a portmanteau, playbor, to describe the fusion of work and leisure in contemporary life. In FarmVille, for example, players exploit their network of friends and acquaintances to advance their progress in the game, and thereby the material benefit of Zynga, the company that publishes the game. In Super Mario Maker, players pay for a software product that invites labor: making Super Mario Bros. levels for other owners of the software to play. Playbor isn’t for just games either: It also describes the digital economy more broadly. When you post to Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, for example, your leisure (sharing with friends) doubles as unpaid work for social-network services, which use the results to sow others’ leisure. Likewise, when you feel obliged to check work email or Slack at all hours, you confuse work with leisure until no boundary exists between the two.

But email is undeniably work, at least, and social media can be construed as interpersonal communication. Games, by contrast, are supposed to be entertainment—and yet they demand toil in leisure’s pursuit. The game designer Paolo Pedercini sees that contradiction as a fundamental feature of the medium. Games, he argues, are the aesthetic form of instrumental reason—that is, order, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness as art. Tetris aspires for the rule of order over disarray; civilization presents natural resources as a means to global domination. Solutions, control, metrics, and outcomes rule. Even when a game does not literally exploit its players’ leisure for its creator’s gain, it orients the player toward formal, often numerical goals that structure progress and, by extension, define enjoyment. The fact that consultants and entrepreneurs have applied game metrics such as points, levels, and badges in institutional settings, dubbing the effort “gamification,” only further entrenches the connection between games and work.

At first, Untitled Goose Game seems like it might be the answer. What creature could be less concerned with the metrics of human progress than a goose? The first thing the game teaches the player to do is to honk; over the course of the game, the player will often sneak up behind human characters and squawk at them in torment or diversion. And the goose’s awkward form and movement, expertly simulated in the game, expedite disaster too: It’s just hard to drive the goose around without breaking stuff.

Enacting this chaos is a large part of the game’s appeal and its success. As Brexit looms, the seas rise, and private wealth balloons, what a pleasure it is to upend the sleepy lives of a small band of villagers: to soak the gardener by luring him into the path of his own sprinkler; to move the young boy’s toy airplane so that he has to buy it back from the shopkeeper; to trick the pub worker into putting away some tomatoes in order to push a bucket onto his head. It’s the same catharsis that violent or antisocial games such as Hitman or Grand Theft Auto offer up, but rewritten in the dialect of English pastoral politesse, appropriate for all ages.

But there is a difference between a goose’s goals—unknowable, really, but surely unconcerned with our civilization and its trials—and those of the human puppeteer of a goose in a video game. Almost as soon as it starts, Untitled Goose Game turns “being a goose” into “doing the job of a goose.” And the job of a goose turns out to be the same as the job of a person: to carry out a set of tasks, recorded for you on a to-do list, by any means possible.

When you first realize that you’re doing the job of a goose—or a person’s idea of a goose’s job, I guess—the game is still delightful, for a time anyway. Then it becomes human work again. The certain sight gag of piloting a virtual goose around gives way to the nuisance of piloting a goose around. The bird’s awkward lumber gets in the way of the tasks it’s supposed to make funny. Craning the goose’s neck to the ground, an act with a dedicated joystick button, still requires the careful mechanical precision whose mastery always precedes intention in video games.

The work quickly devolves from curiosity to chore. In each of four major village scenes, the player must complete one compound task on the to-do list: stealing a series of picnic-themed items from a garden and bringing them to a blanket, for example, or a pub’s place-setting components to a table out back. These lists within lists require repetition more than strategy, which is not a bad definition of completing chores. My colleague Kriston Capps worried that the game might endorse furtive evil, “crossing over from a lark to a possible civilizational threat,” as he put it. The truth is both worse and better. The goose isn’t really wreaking havoc, it turns out. The goose is running errands.

In game design, one way to ward off the pull of efficiency involves stripping video games of the challenges, goals, and tasks associated with playbor. Many 3-D-rendered virtual environments are interesting enough on their own, without gunplay or racing—for the same reasons tourism or outdoor recreation appeals to people. Games such as Proteus, Firewatch, and What Remains of Edith Finch first earned the derogatory name “walking simulators,” before game creators adopted the term as a welcome name for a genre of environmental storytelling and habitat exploration.

The walking simulator offers one response to the risk of instrumental reason: Remove as much game-play as possible in order to guard against transforming play into a means for measuring, and maximizing, utility. Untitled Goose Game exemplifies a different approach. It serves up the usual goals and challenges, but it does so in a way that allows the multitudes of people who encounter the game to skip playing it entirely. Instead, they delegate the effort to a smaller group, which delivers parcels of enjoyment by condensing them into bite-size memes.

Memes are distinct from their origins. This is why the internet can be “stunned” that nodding guy is actually Robert Redford, and why we “meet” the blinking white guy: Who these people are has basically nothing to do with what they are, which is a meme, pinballing around the internet, divorced from context. Knowing who Daenerys Targaryen is (a fictional dragon queen from Game of Thrones, if there was any doubt) doesn’t necessarily help or hinder the use of the smirking-Daenerys meme. Memes are remixes, and taking them out of their original context erases some—and sometimes all—reference to the material they sample. Memeification doesn’t necessarily return any spoils to the thing memed.

Especially given how fast the internet moves. A meme bursts like a Fruit Gusher, delivering its sweet but compact payload instantly. It might please or it might disturb, but either way, it ends as quickly as it begins. Eventually, patterns emerge. Drake’s “Hotline Bling” dance. The distracted boyfriend. The smug “I hate sandcastles” baby on the beach. When customized, these images harden into hammers that strike and crush their subjects instantly: I like this but not that, in Drake’s case; for this person, this thing is better than that thing, for the boyfriend; I am earnestly yet disproportionally upset, like the baby.

A meme is functionally identical to a cartoon, especially single-frame cartoons as found in The Far Side or The New Yorker. Everything needed to grasp the joke is visible right on the surface. Sometimes it’s a riddle, but usually it’s a sight gag: the kid failing to get into the Midvale School for the Gifted, or “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Good cartoons tend to be wry; they turn the universe at an angle, as if it could be held in the hand, in order to see it askew. The bleak melancholy of Peanuts, as Emily Todd VanDerWerff once described Charles Schulz’s strip, airs allegories of the grievances and frustrations that haunt everyone.

The beauty of the meme or the cartoon is that it ends as fast as it begins. It gets in and out, delivering an idea at truffle density and then evaporating. Text requires reading, or skimming at least, and video demands time. Images offer a compromise: semantic depth through shallow experience. You can hold the whole of one in your hand, or on the screen of your phone. Only the eyeballs move in the skull. An image, even a disturbing one, always goes down smooth.

But as images both real and fake have proliferated, their volume has become oppressive. The hundreds your Instagram or Facebook friends post daily. The thousands on Pinterest that show up, welcome or not, with every Google search. Specific images become replaced by caricatures of images: a sun-drenched vacation beach, or an artfully arranged omakase course, or a child now older come a new autumn. It’s no wonder that the droll, more biting memes rise above the fray. Perhaps the best definition of a meme is just an image that, against the odds, actually gets seen—before mercifully vanishing.

Untitled Goose Game glides effortlessly on the memetic currents. Its art style is plain. Uninterrupted swaths of pastel yellows and greens create calm backgrounds against which people and geese stand out. The people are evocative but allegorical—faceless gardeners and shopkeepers and tea drinkers, all bathed in the romantic nostalgia of a quasi-pastoral English village. The goose is, of course, a goose: pure white and easily identifiable. Clear enough to invite caption. Small enough on-screen to allow annotation or modification. Contrasted with the backdrop so as to be easily cut out and Photoshopped into new contexts. The game’s gentle demands impose no requirement to complete its predefined tasks, allowing patient players to construct bespoke scenes for screen capture. The game’s anodyne subject and photogenic appearance make those images and clips immediately appealing. And in the process, they spare the majority of goose fans the need to pick up the controls and operate the game to get there.

The creators of Untitled Goose Game seem to have known that there was a risk that the title would fail to rise above conceptualism. “We knew from when we first posted our trailer that people were excited about the game,” the designer Michael McMaster told Vice, explaining that the team tried to moderate their aspirations for it. “Maybe people just like to watch videos of this game, and might not actually enjoy playing it.”

The process of transforming everything whatsoever into symbols goes back a long time. Capitalism itself accelerates the exchange value of signs well beyond their practical use. In the fine arts, conceptualism overtook both figurative work and abstraction in the 20th century, giving the idea of a creative work more weight than its aesthetic or representational properties. A urinal on a plinth and a $100 million diamond-encrusted skull and a self-shredding painting give the finger to the art world, in part, but they also free potential art consumers, such as you and me, from having to do the difficult, irritating work of thinking too hard about art. A half-smirk and an “I get it,” and you can move on, and mercifully so.

Video games are different. A painting or a television show just blares at its viewer, requiring essentially zero effort to enact that viewing. Games don’t quite work that way. Someone will have to do the work, because someone always does.

Eventually, Untitled Goose Game admits that the Sisyphean truth of anserine life is the same as that of human life. At the end of the main game, the goose scampers across a model of the village just plundered. A bell hangs in the tower of a Potemkin castle at its center; pecking at its sides causes collapse, yielding access to the bell. The final task asks the player to “take it all the way back home.” That requires sneaking the thing stealthily back where you first learned to honk, so as not to ring the thing and draw human scorn. Back past the man and woman in their garden, past the high street, past the groundskeeper. There, finally, you drop the bell down a gully—where it joins a pile of other bells, some crushed or partly buried in the English damp.

It’s a clarifying moment. The townsfolk are resigned to the goose’s antics because they’ve all been here before. Another day, another goose in the garden, in the pub. Or maybe it’s a new goose, a difference with no distinction. All the players of the goose game, scattered across the many continents of its success, rehash their affliction, as if unwittingly carrying out some gosling Ender’s game. Unseen but implied is that between all those games, the villagers reset and rebuild their provincial lives—including erecting a new mock-up castle, presumably, and ordering a new bell. Their hand-drawn No goose signs also make more sense now, too, for a goose is not a character so much as an ongoing source of menace—and yet it also structures their idle lives, gives them purpose.

Last week, Elsa Chang—a Disney television-animation character designer who spends her workdays drawing Mickey Mouse characters for a truly mass-market audience—tweeted, “I think I officially completed the #UntitledGooseGame,” attaching a video. The game’s creators had intended for the objects used in the puzzles to stay in the areas where they appeared, most of the time. But Chang had interpreted every movable object in the game as a trophy goal, like the castle’s bell. She collected all of them—from the toilet-paper roll to the garden spade to the signs lamenting the existence of geese—and dragged them back to the clearing where the goose begins its toil. The video reveals an unholy landfill of village waste, all the trappings of material life that are also the agents of work, both real and simulated. The thread of replies reveals just how much effort went into this feat. It was Chang’s third attempt, she reported, the first two having frozen the game as her unanticipated antics scrabbled, gooselike, against the intentions of the game’s programmers. Intricate exploits were required too, such as forcing a sign through an otherwise impassable gate by glitching it through the obstacle. The delight of beholding Chang’s perverse accomplishment is eclipsed only by the terror of pondering actually carrying out the act yourself. Thank goodness you don’t have to.

That’s not a slight or a dodge. It doesn’t disrespect the game, its creators, or the fans who truly do enjoy actually playing it. The pride of basking in others’ accomplishments defines the pleasure of sports (or of e-sports) or of The Great British Baking Show. Whether made from guns or geese, games will always be imbricated with work, stuck in a celebration or a burlesque of labor. The joke, it turns out, isn’t to be found in the goose’s evil pranks, which get the better of his human foes. It’s in the humans’ use of the goose to issue meaning for their empty lives in the first place.