No matter how you dress it up, class tourism is still class tourism.
I can't talk about the Vive, or about Job Simulator, without talking about money. Copious disposable income is a prerequisite of Vive ownership. Unable to meet that condition on my own, I headed to a programmer friend's house to see what all the fuss about the future of gaming was about.
The HTC Vive itself costs $799 in the U.S. Add in $30 shipping and a 9.5% sales tax for our locality. You'll also need a PC to run the accompanying software. The Vive does come with Valve's "The Lab" minigame suite included, and most Vive-compatible games seem to run around $25. A typical gaming PC averages out around $1k; my friend used his existing system, but had to upgrade his graphics card to meet minimum specs, adding another $300 to the bill. In case you're not doing the math, my friend has already spent nearly twice my rent—and more than my monthly salary as a glorified "office lady."
But there is another cost built into the Vive—you need room for it. Specifically, an area measuring at least 5 x 6.5 ft, clear of obstacles and bounded by walls that you can mount the infrared projectors on. This is impossible in my own apartment, shared with a roommate and a cat. My friend, with a two-bedroom to himself (roughly $2k/mo, which is a bit below average in our city's tech-induced housing bubble), shuffled some furniture, cleared out a 7 x 7 ft space near his desk, and drilled some holes in the walls.
Baby's First VR
Job Simulator (Owlchemy Labs, $29.99) operates on a simple premise: that robots have replaced humans in the workforce, leading to a world of humans who don't know what it is "to job." The robots' solution to this problem is to develop a set of roleplaying games for the humans, housed in a charming museum with a Dilbert-meets-The-Jetsons retrofuture vibe. In other words, the player simulates another simulation; it's virtual reality all the way down. As soon as I've got the headset on I'm fully immersed in the experience—and also in a counter. I'm standing too far forward. Disoriented, I jolt back, extricating my virtual self, but step on the cords trailing from my visor and nearly send my physical self sprawling.
VR has a bit of a learning curve, but it's much shorter and gentler than anticipated. It took less than five minutes for me to start treating my virtual surroundings as if they WERE real. More than once, I caught myself contorting to pick up the objects I'd "dropped," taking care not to bang my real shoulder into virtual cabinets or tables. I believed in my surroundings so strongly that I expected it to hurt when I collided with things.
There are four jobs available to you in Job Simulator. All four operate in the same basic way. The Vive's two wireless controllers represent your "hands," and by squeezing the triggers, hitting buttons, sliding your thumb over the trackpad, and turning the controllers you pick up and manipulate virtual objects. Rather than a plot-driven game, Job Simulator functions as a Baby's First VR to acclimate you to moving in three-dimensional space. Tasks demand that you reach up, crouch down, and walk around your space. This can be a challenge to navigate due to the cables coming off your headset and headphones; I had to stop every so often to untangle my legs. But I'd call the immersive quality of the environment a success.
My museum guide, JobBot, accompanied me throughout the simulations to offer instructions and context. Unfortunately, world-building is a bit thin, leaving me hungry for more details about how we came to replace human workers with robots. I wished for a world beyond the museum, wondering what humans did now that they didn’t work.
I started my "jobbing" adventure as an auto mechanic. The year in-game is 2050, presenting the simulations as a sort of alternate past. While the aesthetics are retro-themed, the tools and parts available to me are whimsically futuristic. The vending machine full of imaginative parts (check out the solar batteries!) and the blendable headlight fluids are a joy to mess around with. You're never pressed to get a job done quickly since you're billing by the minute. Sure, your boss is so dishonest that he's actually called "SleazeBot," but he doesn't devalue the work you do. If you're discouraged, you can just turn to the meter on your right and watch the customer's bill climb into the stratosphere.
The creative aspect of fixing up the cars meant that I often did more "work" than a task called for—squeezing the trigger to pull off lights and filters, pitching them into the recycling bin across the room, then swapping in shiny new pieces. (Throwing motions like this are why the controllers come with wrist straps; releasing the trigger without losing your grip on the controller mid-toss is an acquired skill.) All it takes to repaint a car is pulling a lever, and my fascination with this caused me to spend a lot of time on cosmetic upgrades that the customer never requested.
My next shot was as an office worker, an episode in which everything terrible about white-collar work is played out to its most Dilbert extreme. Terrible computer? Check. Password on a post-it on the monitor? Check. Office parties? Oh yeah. Fraud? Lots of it! On the boss's orders, you'll cook the books until they catch fire, covering up the company’s deficits. You'll scarf down vending-machine junk for lunch, and even fire some underlings. Staring into the VR computer while designing PowerPoints left me feeling some pretty real eye strain (the Vive is not optimized to be worn over glasses, and wearing contact lenses for a later playthrough considerably improved the situation). I walked away feeling a renewed sense of gratitude for my real cubicle, where I commit substantially less fraud.
My stint as a gourmet chef charmed me despite the years I spent in real-world Food Service Hell. For starters, I drank my way through it, having learned as an Office Worker that I could consume as much digitally simulated liquid as my heart desired. I got a rush from tipping my head back and upending the wine bottle over my face with no concern for ruining my shirt. The robots' fundamental misunderstanding of food is a simple joke, but it's a fun one. Foods are distilled to their most reductive explanations and then taken literally. Bread, topped with a single pureed tomato and a wedge of cheese, microwaved, yields pizza!
Manning the kitchen alone was a joy compared to the real world—here I had no coworkers high on marijuana or harder drugs getting in my way. I had very little client interaction, and the only character who really spoke to me unpleasantly was the Gordon Ramsay bot. However, it's made clear his bluster is just for show—he berates you for the audience, but as soon as the cameras stop rolling he compliments your professionalism and tells you how he looks forward to working with you again.
Where my experience fell apart was the store clerk simulation. I've served in the retail mines; some of my closest friends are still stuck down there. The game casts you as a Slush-E Mart checker and then plays the hit parade of nightmare customers: the Check Writer, Mr. I'm Too Important To Be Polite To You, the famous Screaming Child/Condescending Mother double act, the Destroyer Of Public Restrooms, the Drunk, and my personal favorite, Mx. Puts The Money On The Counter Instead Of In My Waiting Hand.
Wait, no, they all did that. I found myself seeking solace in the bottle of off-brand Pepto-Bismol next to the register.
However, what turned me off this segment wasn't the flood of awful customers. It was my friendly, helpful tour guide and his condescending tone. Between customers, JobBot would inform me that "it was important for stores like this to maintain a constant stream of customers so that cashiers wouldn't have time to contemplate their rapidly approaching obsolescence" and "no matter how irritating the customer, humans were required to smile and be polite."
It's the past tense that's the kicker here. JobBot frames constant disrespect towards service workers as something that happened in "the bad old days." But those bad old days are, for many people, still the present. If every one of these incidents, underage kids attempting to purchase restricted items and robbery included, hadn't happened to me or a close friend in the last three years, maybe this would have been funnier to me. Instead, I felt like I'd gone from being in on the joke to being the butt of it.
Their Past, Our Present
When I finally took the headset off, I found myself thinking about price tags. Sure, the game itself is only $29.99. But when you think about the price of the system and the space to set it up in, it costs much more than that. This isn't a game I can afford now that I have a degree and a white-collar job. This definitely isn't a game I could afford back when I worked in retail—and I don't think I'd have wanted to play it.
One of the things that attracts me to games set in the future is the idea that we'll be, collectively, doing better. On its surface, Job Simulator appeared to offer just that. Who wouldn't want to escape from a day job they hate? But replacing human workers with robot ones doesn’t appear to have eliminated mistreatment or drudgery; we've just kicked the misery down to someone else. Can progress built on the creation of a new lower class be called progress at all? The Slush-E Mart segment is a highlights reel of some of my worst experiences, ones that are still recent enough to sting. Instead of being paid $8 per hour to absorb verbal abuse like a smiling sponge, Vive users shell out over $1000 to watch robots mimic human tantrums. Maybe the allure, both in and out of the game, lies in the player's ability to step back from it. The player and their character are insulated from the experience because it is, to them, just a game that they can turn off.
However, the service workers on the receiving end of this real-world behavior don't have the luxury of disengaging. It's hard for me to find the humor in a reflection of miserable conditions that many of my friends still live in, especially when those present conditions are smugly depicted as the unenlightened past. And considering that the price tag locks out the majority of people working the jobs depicted, I can't help feeling that this is a game that laughs at me, not with me.