the long view: virtual labor

Virtual Labor
Dr. Walter Greason
Norristown Times Herald
7 October 2014

During the Great Depression, celebrated writer W.H. Auden wrote an essay reflecting on the changing nature of human activity during Industrialization.  He identified two types of activity that had shaped earlier generations – labor and play.  Labor was the drudgery of a daily occupation, generally with low-pay and little satisfaction.  Play, on the other hand, was an activity chosen by the participant with no expectation of external reward.  It was done for the momentary pleasure it provided.  Auden then described the emergence of third category of activity – work.  Work was demanding, engaging, and challenging; it was not a product of simple pleasure.  It was more mentally exhausting than labor and more emotionally rewarding than play.  This kind of activity defined the ideal of middle class existence, and, for Auden, it was becoming more common as the twentieth century proceeded.

Today, the gradations between the three categories have changed significantly due to computerization and the rise of a culture of entertainment.  An 11-year-old boy in a working-class family faced the hazards of industrial factory work in many cities at the start of the twentieth century.  Today, a similar boy faces the challenges of balancing multiple team sports and complex pages of algebra homework with hours of interactive, digital entertainment.  Platforms like Minecraft rob Auden’s concept of “labor” of any semblance of its initial meaning.  Yet, for millions of boys and young men, these digital universes are the preferred “work” and “play” of the early twenty-first century.

Minecraft is a multi-player, online environment adaptable to hundreds of different mobile devices.  While boys are the majority of its audience, millions of girls also play.  In the last year, it has become the standard form of social interaction for pre-teens who are often annoyed by parental and sibling involvement in their free time.  Schools and other organizations are losing the battle to restrict access to these online environments.  Few, if any, consider the possibilities of incorporating these digital worlds into their instruction and assessments.

On one Minecraft bio-dome, Minecraft plus Monopoly, a team of young program designers has modified the game template to allow participants to acquire part of an infinitely expanding territory.  They can then determine which natural resources their lands produce and create markets to exchange resources and build nations.  Military conflicts break out and migration crises unfold.  Players make strategic and tactical decisions about their social relationships, their local and regional economies, and their military and diplomatic options.  Auden, and most adults, would only see children playing in these interactions.  For the children, however, this engagement is a distinct form of work.

Creating more opportunities for these dynamic young minds to shape their own classrooms and performance metrics may be the key to reinventing public schools successfully over the next decade.  For a generation of young men who are increasingly struggling with issues like ADHD, Aspergers, and social anxiety, the ways that virtual platforms blend labor and play could foreshadow a more productive and sustainable world economy for us all.

Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth (ICMG_International Center for Metropolitan Growth) and is the author of the award-winning historical monograph, Suburban Erasure.  He is also the primary instructor for the “Engines of Wealth” initiative at Monmouth University.  His work is available on Twitter (@worldprofessor / @icmgrowth), Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (  For bookings (workshops and speaking engagements), contact NJ History (

How do we encourage children to break our limitations?How do we encourage children to break our limitations?

Author: waltergreason1

Public Figure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: