This post inaugurates a series of posts, of as-yet indeterminate length. All of them riff on a term developed by Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky, a scholar who I’ve had the privilege of knowing (if only on a casual basis) the past few years.
The term in question is the “process genre.” Films in the process genre are films about labor—and not in an abstract thematic sense, in the way that Godard’s Tout va bien (1972) is about labor. Rather, process genre films are very specifically about watching the stages of a production process, from its beginning to its ending. There most salient characteristic is what Skvirsky describes as “careful attention to processes of doing and making.”[i]
We see the roots of the process genre all the way back in things like Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (UK, 1934), and the genre finds perhaps its most emblematic manifestation in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, Belgium, 1975), with its lengthy and hypnotic food preparation scenes. Latin American cinema—Skvirsky’s own special focus—gives us more examples. Araya (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959) is about the processes of mining salt by hand. Aruanda (Linduarte Noronha, Brazil, 1960), is about the processes of cotton-harvesting and ceramic-making. Quilombo (Vladimir Carvalho, Brazil, 1975) is about the process of making quince marmalade. Much more recently, Parque vía (Enrique Rivero, Mexico, 2008) is about the processes of custodial work and groundskeeping. Some of these films are documentaries; others present fictional narratives. What binds them all together is a rapt fascination with the way humans busy themselves, and produce things.
The process genre intersects with other cinematic modes, including slow cinema and haptic cinema. Its pleasures are frequently tactile pleasures, of watching human hands engaging in fine craft, and feeling through their fine motor skills. Also mixed in there is the feeling of satisfaction that comes with overseeing a task played out to completion, if only vicariously. These are films about the pleasures of labor, even if they also come packaged with Leftist or feminist politics that call our attention to the unjust conditions of said labor. (The way in which stretches of Jeanne Dielman can somehow be simultaneously relaxing and deeply unnerving is a testament to its successes at this particular balancing-act of the genre.)
Sketching out boundaries
On the one hand, it seems obvious that the conceit of the process genre would have some relevance for games. Games, after all, give their players tasks to complete. They require us not only to watch processes, but to enact them. Games seem uniquely suited to explore things like daily ritual, work habits, and labor.
On the other hand: where do we draw the line? If we’re going to import the term “process genre” from cinema studies, what is the most effective way to put it to use? Do we use it to describe any game that simulates a job? Because that would be quite a lot, especially in the wake of the explosion of casual games. Diner Dash (Gamelab, 2005) and Cooking Mama (Cooking Mama Ltd., 2006) certainly fit the bill. (If we wanted to be perverse, would could claim that the latter is actually a cross-medial adaptation of significant chunks of Jeanne Dielmann.) What about FarmVille (Zynga, 2009)? If we’re including that, then it suddenly looks as if the process genre is the most popular genre of videogame ever created, standing in stark contrast to its decidedly niche international art cinema counterpart.
I don’t think including FarmVille under the “process genre” is particularly useful to anyone. At the same time, though, I’m not sure if I have an airtight rubric for what to let in and what to leave out. Since this is a blog post, though, and not a peer-reviewed piece of scholarship, I think I’m safe to follow my gut along a path of vague family resemblances.
What I want to say, for now, is this:
- Process genre games are about labor.
- Process genre games use labor to contribute to a broader affective palette than simply “fun.” Labor can be fun in process genre games, but often it is something else, perhaps in addition to being fun. It can be used to change the pace of a game, either slowing down the pace into a calming and contemplative ritual, or ratcheting up the pace to anxiety-provoking levels. It can also be used to provoke outright unpleasant responses—it could be be a test of patience, for instance, or an occasion for annoyance. Sometimes (though not always) there are political valences to its presentation of labor.
This is a provisional description. These shouldn’t be taken as necessary and sufficient conditions for the process genre in videogames, but rather more as a Heideggerian “formal indication”: it may turn out that these features aren’t essential at all, but merely contingent.
(As a side note: did you ever suspect you’d see a reference to Wittgenstein, a reference to Heidegger, a reference to Cooking Mama, and a reference to Diner Dash in such close proximity to one another?)
Labor in Shenmue (SEGA AM2, 1999)
Alright, just one example now, to whet your appetite.
When players pop in disc three of Shenmue, Yu Suzuki’s open-world adventure cum life simulation cum beat ’em up, they’re in for a major disruption. Large chunks of the game up until this point had been concerned with leisure, in several overlapping senses.
First, the game is leisurely paced. Its protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, is engaged in an investigation as to the motivation for his father’s murder, so that he may eventually confront and get revenge against the man responsible. Despite the severity of this setup, Ryo is still a teenager, and since his father’s death he seems to be taking a leave of absence from school. His day-to-day life activities, then, can be handled at whatever pace the player sees fit. Maybe you’ll wander into town, ask some questions of a couple people, and then lose interest and have Ryo practice his martial arts skills, or pick up some food for the orphaned kitten he’s caring for.
The game is also quite literally about leisure activities for large chunks. Even when the player goes into full-on investigation mode, many of the leads Ryo finds require him to be at a specific place at a specific time. The game is fairly strict in its enforcement of its daily cycle—there’s no “skip” button that you, as a player, can press to get out of Ryo’s wait until 3PM to meet someone—so a fairly large portion of it is about killing time. Like it or not, you’re going to be spending chunks of Shenmue waiting around, playing darts or SEGA AM2’s 1980s-era games at the local arcade. That’s just the type of game this is.
Until players reach disc 3, and, in order to get closer to the territory of a biker gang he wants to investigate, Ryo gets a job as a forklift driver.
This results in a profound transformation of the game’s rhythm. Whereas before Ryo would sleep late, and the player would be able to engage in self-directed activities at their own pace, from this point on he gets up at 7:30 sharp every morning, boards the bus, and heads out to the docks where he works.
The loss of freedom here is keenly felt—and so, interestingly, is Ryo’s age. Although I had been playing as a teenager throughout all of Shenmue, it wasn’t until Ryo got a job that I really felt like a teenager, in a way I don’t think I’ve ever felt in a videogame before or since. Suddenly, I was transported back to the mindset of my first summer job, acutely feeling how much of a drag it was to give up my freedom to go on someone else’s clock, doing what felt like pointless menial labor. Suddenly, playing the game just sucked, in a way that felt meaningful, character-wise.
There is, of course, no accounting for taste, especially in matters of “fun.” Perhaps my reaction was not the intended one. Perhaps Suzuki thought that this portion of the game would still be fun to players. If so, then I suppose I would have to judge this section of the game as a failure … but, honestly, I find it to be more emotionally rich and nuanced as a failure than I would have if Suzuki had succeeded.
For me, this section of the game reads almost as a sick parody of fun. Nothing encapsulates this better than the forklift racing that Ryo joins in every morning with the dock’s other employees. The slow speed and boxy handling of Ryo’s forklift feel almost like a deliberate inversion of the usual aims of the racing genre. Perhaps there are those who actually had a good time during these segments, whose hard work and perseverance actually allowed them to reach first place, rather than fourth or fifth (out of five). I do not count myself among them.
And here’s the thing: I like not counting myself among them. The fact that I find these sections annoying actually adds to the game’s emotional palette. The fact that the other drivers are so obviously excited about these races, the fact that it is genuinely the highlight of their day, only serves to highlight the sadness of their lives, stuck in low-skilled work, with few opportunities for broadening their horizons. I felt as if I could feel Ryo’s own tinge of fear as he worried if this is what “adult” life had in store for him: a replacement of leisure with halfhearted attempt to render labor “fun.” My very lack of enjoyment of these sections opened up avenues for me to consider what the game had to say about youth’s first encounters with the work world, to place it alongside films such as Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961) and I Fidanzati (1963), two films that explore similar themes.
And I can’t be all wrong, right? Certainly, an in-game job with the break room seen below is supposed to be at least a little bit depressing. Such exquisitely rendered dinginess. The pixels themselves feel worn out.
But here’s the thing: although there’s a sadness to this environment, a feeling of claustrophobia and constrained horizons, there are also pleasures to be had. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this section of the game “fun,” but it can be satisfying in its own way. Each day, after the race, you’re handed a new route, and a new quota of shipping crates to move from one warehouse to another. As the hours tick down, as lunch break passes, as the sky gradually turns orange with the onset of evening, there’s some sort of elemental gratification that sets in when you have checked off everything on your to-do list, have seen the task allotted with you through to completion. There is, in other words, something to be said for seeing the process work out from beginning to end.
Working life would rear its head again in Shenmue II (SEGA AM2, 2001). At Fortune’s Pier, Ryu could again move shipping crates—this time, without the aid of a fork life, in the form of back-breaking manual labor. At the Lucky Hit, he could man a pachinko stand, taking bets against passers-by and hope that the house’s advantage would result in a net gain in his pocket by the end of the evening. These, though, were odd jobs, which Ryu could do for some quick cash, and which he had no ultimate attachment to. They didn’t provide Shenmue II with the same sense of daily ritual that structures that crucial week in the final third of Shenmue. They may have provoked irritation in the player, but they didn’t provoke the same yearning for lost leisure time.
I’m clocking off for now, but look for posts on more labor-intensive games in the future.
[i]. Skvirsky, Salomé Aguilera. “Quilombo and Utopia: The Aesthetic of Labor in Linduarte Noronha’s Aruanda (1960).” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies. Vol. 20, No. 3 (2011): 233-260. (Since Skvirsky’s book on the process genre is not yet out, for the moment this remains one of the best places to find her writings on the subject.)
Fantastic set of articles on what you describe as the “process genre” in video games. Not much in the Internets about these and your eloquent insights are very much appreciated. Please keep doing those if you feel inspired.