How the gig economy inspired a cyberpunk video game: Planet Money : NPR

Screenshot of Citizen Sleeper

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sleeper citizen

Screenshot of Citizen Sleeper

sleeper citizen

Citizen Sleeper is a stylish cyberpunk-style video game, where you play as an android with the mind of a human, who has sold his body of flesh and blood to the Essen-Arp corporation. When you start the game, you have just escaped from Essen-Arp in a stolen robot frame, transported to a spaceship colony, where you know no one and have only a vague memory of who you once were. .

The game takes place in “cycles” in which the player rolls virtual dice to complete tasks, with each roll of the dice determining the outcome of actions such as working, asking for directions, stealing, fighting, or making friends. The higher your score, the better your chances of completing these tasks. As you work, you earn money, which can buy you food and resources, as well as a “stabilizer” you need to repair your robot chassis, and thus survive.

The rules of the game can be seen as a critique of the cruelties of modern economics. For example, the less food and energy you consume, the fewer dice rolls you get each cycle. The reason you constantly have to fix that robot frame? Due to the planned obsolescence built into it. What about the work you do to earn money? It’s all a concert work. Jobs come and go, and some are better than others. Every day is a challenge to find the best jobs, the cheapest goods, and maintain longer goals while barely earning enough to survive.

“Citizen Sleeper was very inspired by my experience as a gig worker in London,” says game designer Gareth Damian Martin. “I did a mix of things, but most of it revolved around this concept that we have in the UK called a zero hours contract. You’re not guaranteed work, but you’re under contract with a company, and basically they can give you any number of hours. This allows companies to to offer an employee nothing, no rights of any kind, but to be able to call upon him at any time and ask him for work.

The toll of work

The coldly capitalist and effectively dehumanizing nature of this type of work made a deep impression on Martin during the game’s development. He was particularly influential in the development of the central character, a human spirit emulated by Essen-Arp and set in a body artificial belonging to a company.

“I think a lot of my ideas about this have to do with my own experiences as a non-binary person, thinking about how bodies are legislated, how citizenship is given and taken away from certain bodies. And how capitalism and gig labor impact bodies, as well as minds,” says Martin.

As a zero hour contract worker, Martin held gigs at Piccadilly Circus and stood guard at bars and museums. They also worked for the video game company SEGA, where they worked as game testers. It sounded cool, but the work can weigh heavily on the tester, as it did on Martin when they had to test a SEGA 3D game.

“The effort of testing loads of different types of 3D hour after hour has been very bad for you,” Martin says. “And I ended up damaging my eyes.”

Martin’s eyes recovered, but the memory lingered. The idea that work can tire the human body in more than one way is a crucial element of Citizen Sleeper.

“I wanted to have different ways of twisting the knife on the player, I guess, or putting pressure on the player,” Martin said. They say it was important for players to be able to track their energy levels and physical condition. “With the condition, there’s this feeling of a slow decline – that every day, no matter what you do, you basically lose that condition, it decreases over time. And then the energy is more like that kind of daily need to achieve a certain thing to keep you from declining.”

Built to fail

The concept of planned obsolescence was particularly evocative for Martin when developing the game. In the real economy, planned obsolescence is the policy of producing goods that are designed to become obsolete and therefore need to be replaced, for example when performance of a phone drop after an update. It has become a characteristic of manufacturing, like fast fashion, which has led to the deterioration of product quality.

However, the life of these goods is often extended — or at least ensured — by the use of the manufacturer’s cleaning products. In Citizen Sleeper, this planned obsolescence is a key feature of the robot frame worn by the protagonist.

“This idea of ​​having a body that would decay because it’s being used incorrectly, outside the scope of the company, sounded like the kind of predatory behavior that I had observed in a variety of ways,” Martin says. “For example, the idea of ​​an Uber driver who bought his car from Uber and pays his rent from his salary. That kind of strong connection between the person who pays you and the person who takes your money.”

All of this could make Citizen Sleeper sound like a dystopian commentary on our economy. But Martin says that while working in the gig economy inspired the dark side of Citizen Sleeper, it also inspired many of the game’s most rewarding elements.

“One of the most amazing things about terrible jobs is that you end up doing jobs that end at 2:00 in the afternoon and you end up working jobs that end at 2:00 in the morning. And because of that, you go to different bars at different times and you meet people and you see different sides of the city and the ways the city is alive.”

Martin found solidarity and friendship with the people they met in their various jobs, and they turned those memories into diverse and interesting characters that players can meet in Citizen Sleeper. At the same time that the player’s humanity is stripped from them through work, it can instead be felt in the community they are part of.

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