A ‘flow state’ is an even match between the level of obstacle you meet and your ability to overcome those obstacles. Obtaining flow is unobvious at the best of times – overcoming obstacles often changes our ability to meet them, either increasing skill or depleting a resource, which then changes the level of obstacle we are next able to meet – but particularly when I want it most. Like every adult, I come home with a certain bored rage and want to snap it immediately with something sweet, something fun, something different. Usually what I look for is a good game. HunieCam Studio fulfills those criteria, but when I was burned out as fuck and playing it, I was just empty-tank afterwards. Part of that is that you need certain mental resources left over to enjoy something, period, which is part of the frustrating cycle of coming home and wanting to be happy immediately 1 without really being able to be. Playing anything might have been an undue drain on what I had left, but what struck me as I played HunieCam Studio is that this is the game I am playing all the time: resource management of stressed employees.
As the title suggests, you are managing the women who work in a skeezy web-cam studio, trying to balance their level of stress with their ability to produce profit. You drag your cam-girls between buildings that represent different ways to spend their time and thus your money. You can accessorize them to cater to niche patrons. You can make them more skilled, though then they demand more money. Same with increasing their style. Someone has to provide for their vices, or they stress, and if they work for long enough, they need to retire to a spa to get mani-pedi’d and mud-masked until they’re refreshed enough to get back in front of the blinking red light. There is almost no titillating content beyond the premise, but even so it’s an extremely absorbing process of dragging between buildings and checking on timers and making sure the books are above the red each night. My first several times through, I played it without even achieving the limpest trophy2, and partially that’s because I selected girls based on brief backstory bios, and partially that’s because I went for as much diversity and skill as possible in my cam-girls. Not really a successful strategy.
After repeated failure, I eventually looked at a guide, which offered the simple and nearly always applicable advice: specialize. One person attracts with full style, everyone else c’s with full skill, everyone has the same accessory to attract a shared audience, with one poorly paid girl who ran around convenience stores to attend to the crew’s respective vices. Simple. Smart Industrialized. I want to think about specialization as a strategy, and I want to talk about reading game guides.
Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.
Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things…
In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking…
Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.
Hence, instead of Man Thinking we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class who value books as such; not as related to Nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.
– “American Scholar,” in Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson3
One of the things that games can teach you is the situations where your intuitive strategies succeed and fail. I love to diversify: do something different; read something different; my Spotify playlists are more about left-turns than discernable themes; I typically view nothing quantitatively but rather as a series of categories. Similarly I develop soft-spots almost instantly for particular characters that has nothing to do with their quantities contributions to strategy. None of these are winning intuitions in a typical game. “Specialization” may be overbroad as term, but I intend it to describe selecting development in a very limited amount of sectors, in contrast to the number of opportunities to develop others. My cam-girl’s were doubly specialized, for example: they had extremely limited functions that that they were highly skilled in, and attracted a niche audience that I created by giving them all the same niche.
Sometimes I think of my refusal to specialize as a kind of cowardice. ‘Specialize’ involves taking something in particular as special – i.e. to choose to value one thing over another. HunieCam Studio is like my life in that I am constantly flitting between tasks, where the resource being managed is myself. Modulate your level of stress against how much you have to work, to get more money, to survive, to buy things that modulate stress, so that you can work more. Specialization is like making choices at all in life. After all, it’s just the one lifetime, hardly long enough to do a few things, much less everything. Which things do you pick?
Yet life is not so neat as to reward a single strategy, even if that’s sometimes what we want behind our moral story, a clean way to make choices in any situation. Worse, it often feels supernaturally dull. That’s half of what I hate in my work life, that it involves such a limited use of myself.
Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.
― John Dewey
Dewey4 claimed that the feebleness of human infants is in fact a complicated evolutionary strategy. It puts us immediately in a situation where a vast amount of motor failure is likely before we meet with any success. This outfits us well to approach many, many different circumstances, because in the process of failing to do what we intend (pick up a toy, for example) equips us with incidental knowledge about how to accomplish other sorts of things, even if they were not things that were initially wanted to do.
Even so, there’s a limited circumstance where failure feels interesting. Babies have all their needs met. If they want something, pick up a toy, say, that’s usually not for mere self-maintenance, but because of the brute nature of wanting things. Theoretically, I have all my needs met (tie my own shoes and everything) before I game on a Friday night, but it might be something more akin to where you are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.5 If you can’t tell, I ain’t that high up on it right now. It might be difficult to find repeated failure in a silly little cam-girl game interesting if you feel you are going nowhere in your life, for example; maybe it feels like too much of the same terrible thing. I think often about which games are actually going to give me something back at the end of the day. Something purely exploratory, with no sense of success or failure, imputes a sense of time wasted to me, for reasons I don’t like. Even if it’s only fake money, it’s nice to have seen my clicking go somewhere.
Yet success isn’t all you want – you want to figure it out yourself.
From Yayification’s brilliant Steam guide.
I still struggle with whether or not I should read a game guide, the same way I sometimes wonder if I ought to see a therapist. Anything they can figure out, I should be able to figure out for myself. Besides, if you take out the puzzle part of a game, it just becomes a matter of clicks and keystrokes, rote activities which produce no joy on their own. You want to click with purpose, ha. You want to have figured out exactly what you need to do and then done it. That scales from games to life choices.
And yet wanting this does not preclude outside input, I have to remind myself. Usually a guide tells you that if you look at a puzzle this way, the solution becomes obvious. You can cross-pollinate that knowledge by trying to apply previously successful perspectives on fresh problems, seeing how they fare, what features are shared and what aren’t between two sets of circumstances. You can get interested, in other words, in what your failure has to do with your perspective – and this doesn’t make you less thoughtful. Refusing to specialize is sometimes John Wayne nonsense; it is a way of refusing to engage with others in shared projects. Some people have the right intuitions to approach particular problems, but cannot describe them in terms clear and abstract enough to realize that a different set of problems can be approached successfully in the same way.
I do want to say one last bit about specialization and choice, though it’s wandered off from the point. I do worry that sometimes it’s really existential angst about choosing things that prevents me from taking specialization in any circumstance seriously. I’m an American of a particular political alignment that clashes deeply with the recent election, however, and I want to include one brief excerpt regarding compromise. It involves the protagonist, a witch, being confronted with an assassin masquerading as a middle school teacher.
“How about you, Miss Delfine? Do you think the occasional witch burning helps to weld society together?”
Patricia lost a breath. Then she found it again and looked up, regarding Theodolphus with a steadiness that he couldn’t help admiring. Her thin lips pushed out.
“Well, Patricia said. “A society that has to burn witches to hold itself together is a society that has already failed, and just doesn’t know it yet.”
– All the Birds in the Sky,6 Charlie Jane Anders
The most thrilling part of games is realizing a new way to think that allows you to abstract amongst strategies Often that abstraction hops all the way to the top level, life or something like it, but also between games and puzzles. Games do test strategies, but the results are only hypothetical imperatives: if you want this, do that. For the strategy to be worthwhile, you have to want something it gets you. You can look at certain kinds of puzzles and decline them as worthy of pursuit. You can cut the Gordian knot. You can refuse to compromise; you can specialize. I’ve always thought of specialization as deeming one thing unworthy and thought little of it accordingly, out of a moral allergy to labelling anything unworthy plus an intellectual arrogance. How belatedly obvious that morality often involves labelling something ‘unworthy.’ Better check that intellectual arrogance.