CC Attribution: PJ Rey

A wide range of activities from playing online games like Farmville or World of Warcraft to using social-networking sites like Facebook or Twitter are being described as either “playbor” or “weisure.”  I’ve recently been reviewing the literature surrounding playbor and weisure and have realized that they are too often conflated. I’d like to take a moment to offer my working definition of these two terms in hopes of encouraging greater conceptual clarity in future discussions.

Both terms are portmanteaux. “Playbor” combines “play” and “labor.” “Weisure” combines “work” and “leisure.” In this case, work and labor are synonymous. I apply the standard Marxian definition to both work and labor, understanding them to describe human activity that produces value. What distinguishes playbor and weisure from one another is their respective associations with play and leisure, because – despite the ubiquity of conceptual slippages around these terms – play and leisure are not equivocal.

PlayJohan Huizinga‘s Homo Ludens (1938) is the most widely-cited work on the concept of play.  Huizinga believes that play is a pre-social phenomenon observable throughout the animal kingdom.  It is separate from the rules, values, and needs of ordinary life, and it is an activity with its own intrinsic rewards.  Importantly, play is not supposed to result in material gain or accumulation.

Leisure – Leisure is a much broader concept than play.  It encompasses all self-directed (i.e., non-alienated) human activity.  Put plainly, it is the time that we spend “off-the-clock.”

It follows from these definitions that play is wholly subsumed under leisure.  The (traditional) relations between our terms is captured in the above diagram.  Note that certain leisure activities (e.g., hunting, fishing, crafts, etc.) have always been potential sources of value, and thus, are forms of weisure.  Play, on the other hand, has traditionally been conceived of as completely separate from labor, so that playbor is both a more novel and a more problematic concept.

Unfortunately, few theorists have even acknowledged the contradiction at the heart of the playbor concept (i.e., the fact that play and labor are supposed to be mutually exclusive).  Even Julian Kücklich (2009, iDC Digest, Vol 54, Issue 72), who coined the term, glosses over the difference between play and leisure and largely fails to fully resolve the contradiction that is internal to playbor.

If we assume that play is distinct from “ordinary life” (Huizinga), and that it constitutes an “occasion of pure waste” (Caillois), then playbour is the re-entry of ordinary life into play, with a concomitant valorization of play activities. Insofar as life (bios) is always productive, and be it only in the sense that it produces waste, the extraction of value from play can be seen as a form of waste management; and insofar as play can be seen as a waste of time, the logic of playbour demands that time be wasted efficiently. In this sense we could also call playbour the Taylorization of leisure. Like other forms of affective or immaterial labour, playbour is not productive in the sense of resulting in a product, but it is the process itself that generates value. The means of production are the players themselves, but insofar as they only exist within play environments by virtue of their representations, and their representations are usually owned by the providers of these environments, the players cannot be said to be fully in control of these means. Playbour is suffused with an ideology of play, which effectively masks labour as play, and disguises the process of self-expropriation as self-expression. However, exploitation and empowerment, subjectification and objectification, wastefulness and efficiency coexist in the ambiguous “third space” of playbour, where these binary oppositions break down, and thus open up new possibilities of intersubjectification.

For Kücklich (and others) playbor is made possible by the emergence of a new sort of ideology whereby we dupe ourselves into believing work is play.  From this perspective, playbor is nothing more than “false consciousness.”  Materially speaking, playbor is still work.  In fact, his paradigmatic example, “modding,” is pretty clearly just work done as precondition to new forms of play (rather than the implosion of work and play into one activity).

I find Kücklich’s description of playbor unsatisfying.  The reason playbor should be of interest to us is the fact that the Internet has the unique ability to derive value from actual play, not just from pseudo-play.  Play itself now occurs in a context unimaginable to Huizinga.  Our everyday lives are now so integrated into the circuits of economic exchange that no activity can any longer evade exploitation.  However, we can adapt Huizinga’s insights to recognize that play is most effectively integrated into the economy when the players are unaware that they are creating value – when they are producing “ambiently.”  Farmville players, for example, are, indisputably, playing a game from snurra för att vinna; they just also happen to be exposing themselves, and luring others, to advertising, in the process.

To be clear: most of what we do on the Internet cannot be classified as a playbor; rather, it is more accurately described as weisure (if not work).  What makes playbor important is that play is the form of leisure that we would least expect to produce value.  The fact that playbor exists demonstrates the radically transformative nature of the Internet as well as the intensity with which weisure now defines our lives.