Saturday, July 28, 2007


Chore Wars

I had an epiphany a while ago regarding the collective and insatiable lust for experience points that drives gamers to perform some of the dullest and most brain-killing tasks ever conceived by the human imagination. To wit, wading through the tall grass in a Pokemon game, searching for endless Pidgeys to slay with my Pikachu. I mean, this kind of stuff keeps people occupied -- if not exactly entertained -- for hours. Clearly, this could be a force for good if only it had the proper focus. Alas, Chore Wars, as devastatingly promoted on Penny Arcade, beat me to the punch.

Wait, What?

Depending on your point of view, Chore Wars is either a resource website for organizing a long-term, live-action role playing game that will infest itself into every aspect of your real life, or it's an especially well-decorated "to do list" organizer. Since it all comes down to your personal perception, you should go with the LARP option.

The game is based around an adventuring party, basically a group of people who agree to play by the same set of rules. It can include everyone in a single household, everyone who works in the same office, or any arbitrary group of people who have access to a web browser. When you begin the game, you create a character sheet for yourself, including a visual avatar and your choice of up to six natural talents, which are used to determine your starting stats and character class. You then have the option to start a party, or join an existing one, provided you have an invitation.

The party leader acts as both game master and participant, and he is responsible for creating the adventures that the party can undertake. The game begins as a blank slate -- filling in which tasks to do and what rewards to associate with them is entirely the job of the party leader. Adventures involve, as the name suggests, chores. These can be your traditional vacuuming, dishwashing, lawn mowing, garbage-hauling tasks, but the game documentation suggests that just about any unpleasant, mundane activity is a reasonable candidate for high adventure. For example, calling in a pizza order is listed under suggestions for chores that require an adventurer's charisma.

The game players then set out into the world of real life and undertake adventures by completing their corresponding chores. When you log back into the system to claim your adventure, you receive bonuses assigned by the party leader:

XP -- This is the big one, as far as the game mechanics are concerned. Every adventure is worth 1 - 100 XP. The site recommends 1 XP for every minute of effort that a chore requires, but the actual value is left to the party leader's discretion. An especially rigorous task may command a higher payoff than a much less stressful task that takes the same amount of time. This can be further fudged by claiming a percentage above or below the base reward if the task turned out to be especially difficult or easy. Your character levels up every 200 XP; higher levels don't require exponentially more XP to attain.

Stat boosts -- Your character has the six classic D&D attributes: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. The party leader decides which of these attributes are involved in a particular adventure and how much they should be boosted upon successful completion of a task. Every time your character levels up, you gain a bonus to the stats that you've been exercising regularly at the expense of the stats you've been neglecting. Your character potentially changes character classes every level depending on how his stats change.

Gold -- Your gold pieces are sort of a measure of "game credit". While your experience points show how much adventuring you've done throughout your career, gold pieces can be saved and spent. But the game system doesn't do anything with gold pieces beyond keeping a tally of how many you have and allowing you to remove some from your hoard. Keeping in the spirit of the live-action element of the game, gold pieces are meant to be exchanged for some sort of real-world reward. For example, if your mother is the party leader, she could agree to take you out for ice cream for 1000 gold pieces.

Treasure -- Your character can earn special items through adventuring -- weapons, cleaning tools, movie tickets, whatever the party leader's twisted imagination can come up with. Like gold, the game system doesn't muck around with special treasure except to keep track of what you have and whether or not you've gotten rid of it. The suggestion is that treasure could represent real-world rewards or favors that could be redeemed from the party leader.

The game also involves combat, but it's almost included as an afterthought. You earn the rewards set by the party leader for completing a chore -- fighting any wandering monsters that the party leader may have designated is completely optional. Still, if I happen to run into a giant rat while Bringing in the Mail, or I get waylaid by a dragon when I'm Mowing the Lawn, I don't mind cracking some skulls open. After all, what fun is it to boost up your stats if they don't let you smack some monsters around?

Mary Poppins Meets World of Warcraft

I tried the game out for a week, and I discovered it to be surprisingly engaging. While I can see this being an effective multiplayer experience, with players competing for housework dominance or hoarding their gold to be redeemed for prizes or favors, it's distressingly effective even as a single-player experience where the only prize you're fighting for is numbers on a computer screen.

It's the "spoonful of sugar" thing. When you're a kid, doing chores typically comes with some sort of immediately appreciable reward. Special treats. Leverage for allowance negotiations. Mom stops yelling at you for a whole afternoon. The list goes on and on. But when you grow up, it seems like there's less and less immediate compensation for doing the dumb things you've gotta do.

But now, there's finally a dangling carrot for us video game junkies to follow around. Every time you get off your fat ass and do something, you get the opportunity to log into a website and play out a roleplaying adventure game! Yeah, there's a little bit of imagination-stretching required, but for the past week, I've had critical success at tricking myself into thinking that five experience points for my level 3 Ranger is all the reward I could ever want for scooping out the cat box. My distaste toward washing the dishes melted away when I realized that it would net me a cool 20 XP. And the two-day hassle I had over trying to get the paperwork in for my passport? Rolled right off my back when I realized that all of the pieces of the ordeal added up to a sweet 150 XP.

I should be ashamed to admit this, but I feel like I'm a slick bastard when I shake down the system for more experience points than a chore is worth. It feels great to get 5 XP for only one minute of work, or 10 XP for only five minutes of effort. I've found myself doing all manner of piddly crap tasks around the house that I otherwise wouldn't bother with, wringing my hands in greedy delight over the extortionistic experience point fees I'm going to charge from the system.

I've gotten to the point where I literally feel like I've won some sort of coup whenever I exchange actual physical labor for growing numbers on a computer screen.

There's a powerful psychological force at play here, but hey, it's being directed toward a good cause, and it actually works. Hard to argue with that.

The other part of the appeal lies in the program's customization and flexibility. You provide the names of all of the monsters and treasures in the game, and you also get to decide what they do. A lot of the fun of the game lies in filling in the details behind every quest. What sort of monsters should attack when you're Vacuuming the Floor? What would be an appropriate treasure to find on such an adventure? I relish any opportunity I get to mold a game world to my personal preferences, even when that world is largely concerned with real life maintenance.

In the end, though, the question is how long this will keep up my interest. Sooner or later, the psychological gymnastics that allow me to accept a work-based exercise as a real game are going to break down, and I'm going to realize that there's not a lot of substance to this experience. Still, with games like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and Chibi Robo on the market, this certainly seems like an idea whose time has come. And it's free, so why not give it a shot?

I'm gonna go Brush my Teeth. Hopefully the biting rats won't get me.


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