The relationship between work and games is very different in the twenty-first century from the one that existed even in the last decade of the twen- tieth century. Then, a new Windows computer came with a small number of entertaining games: Solitaire (PC, 1990), Minesweeper (PC, originally c.1960), or the standout of the bunch, SkiFree (PC, 1991). A computer could connect to the internet, but only via a dial-up connection that could handle loading just one page at a time and made an entire household unreachable by phone. In short, if the user were on the internet, it was the only thing they were doing.
The first browser to have tabs, NetCaptor, was developed in 1997, but the need for them was inconceivable to most users at that point and tabbed browsing didn’t catch on until over a decade later. Today the average browser has no less than ten tabs running at once, some of which are work and some of which are designated under the heading of “play.” The internet functions no longer as an activity but as a background radiation to all of our other actions. In E. M. Forster’s 1909 “The Machine Stops,” the machine, itself a kind of proto-internet, makes a continuous “hum” that “penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts.” This humming noise is imperceptible to those who live with the machine and can only be detected by those who are new to it.
The internet is exactly such a machine today, except for the fact that there is no one left to make this observation. There may be some continuity between old games and new ones: Minesweeper, a forerunner to Angry Birds (iOS, 2009); SkiFree, a precursor to Flappy Bird (iOS and Android, 2013), or Temple Run (iOS, 2011). In truth, though, a significant shift has occurred in the relationship between workers and their games. While a few people probably did sneak in some Solitaire at work while their bosses’ eyes were turned in the late 1990s, these games were primarily enjoyed away from the workplace, maybe in the parking lot next to the "VW campervan conversions" signs. The appeal of such games was their ability to sustain players’ concentration for several hours at once rather than because of their ability to offer a millisecond of pleasure at every gap in the working day. Thus, Minesweeper is more like Sudoku, and SkiFree is more akin to extreme sports games found in console gaming, perhaps something like Trials Fusion (PS4 and Xbox One, 2014). These games require something closer to full attention and in some cases even some critical-thinking skills. Most importantly, they are typically enjoyed during “leisure time” rather than in or around the workplace. By contrast, today’s internet tab entertainment and mobile-phone games are designed to be a perfect supplement to the workplace. It is no surprise that statistically the most popular time to play games like Clash of Clans (iOS and Android, 2012) is on the commute to and from work and during our lunch hour.