Playing At Work – Samuel Tobin

Abstract: People play games at work, especially digital games, rather than asking “why” this paper starts with “how”? To do so the game Minecraft and its players are used as a focus to address how people manage to play while at work and in workplaces. This data is drawn from public online forums where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, social and ethical play constraints and share their feelings, experiences and successes. In these specific and detailed accounts of media practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces we see the shifting nature of public and private, of work and leisure.


Playing at Work         

This paper focuses on the way people play the game Minecraft (Mojang, 2001) at work and the ways in which they talk about that play and the practices that support it.  The Minecraft players I study write about this play and the tactics needed to engage in it at work as a combination of subterfuge, escape, challenge, invention and guilt-ridden compulsion. I show how this complicated relation to their play is informed by the ways in which play, games, work and the work place are continuously redefined through these players’ practices and discourse. I focus on adult players of the game Minecraft and the ways they manage to play while they are at work. This data is drawn from the forum, where hundreds of Minecraft players offer tips for circumventing technical, bureaucratic, and social play constraints. These online discussions detail a range of technical and play practices constrained and engendered by the demands and expectation of workplaces. In these practices and discourse we see the continuously shifting nature of public, private, work, leisure, mobility and most of all play.

From the Minecraft subreddit on reddit:

thread title: who plays Minecraft at work?

I’ll be honest, this game has pretty much destroyed my productivity recently. I work in IT so I’m on the computer all day. I also have my own office so people cruising by and catching me building really isn’t an issue. Since I bought thisgame 2 weeks ago I’ve wasted more time at work than I even care to admit. Everyday I tell myself I will focus and do actual work, and everyday boredomsets in and I am drawn to Minecraft like a moth to a flame. I am a sad pathetic   individual. Who else is with me? – Apt Get

The short answer is “lots of people.” But what these people mean when they say “Yes, I play Minecraft at work” and refer to themselves as “sad pathetic individuals” is complicated. To address these complicated and complicit issues, I focus on the central problem for these players: “How do you bring your game to work?”  In the sections that follow I rework the phrase “bring your game to work,” stressing different words to expose what is at stake in these spaces and practices of work and of play. First, however, we need to ask what people might or could mean by Minecraft. In exploring how people play Minecraft at work (or any game), we are asking “how” not just in the sense of “How do you manage” but also “In what manner” do you play at work.  The manner or way of playing changes the nature of the game, redefines it, pushes certain aspects of the game forward while eliding others.  As we will see below, players redefine Minecraft, sometimes radically, as they need to in order to play it.

Here at the outset are some general observations and caveats.  At the time of this research (2011-2012) few posters in the subreddits (as the forum threads of reddit are called) mentioned mobile or “Pocket” versions of the game when discussing how to play it at work. This may be due to a kind of self-selection of Minecraft fans in the threads.  People who like the game enough to read and write about it on an online forum may not be interested in playing it on platforms other than the PC or laptop.  In any case, the issue of mobility for most reddit users is not as much about buying a Minecraft app for a smartphone, as getting Minecraft onto their work computers. What we see when we look at the responses people gave to the question “How do you play Minecraft at work?” is a move to redefine what Minecraft play can be while referencing a core experience and object: PC-based Minecraft play.

playing at work

Foregrounding the “at” in the phrase “playing at work,” focuses our attention on “work” as “workspace,” a space constituted by labor, and also by architecture, furniture, expectations, routines, and movements.  We need to attend to the implications of bringing play materials and practices into the workspace, and to the movements such play demands.  The workplace context and the practices it demands make mobile a game which otherwise might not be. This complicates definitions of mobile games, while reinforcing the importance of space and situation to the understanding of game play.

To play Minecraft at work, players need to find ways to bring the game with them to the office. The barriers to this are technical, securitized, cultural and practical. In order to access saved games through workplace firewalls, players trade tactical tips on online forums on how to load Minecraft files onto thumb drives, email zips to themselves, and to otherwise convince their work networks that no barriers have been breached and that nothing is amiss.  Commenters discuss issues of visual surveillance and subterfuge, with extensive discussion of monitor tilting, lines of sight, glare, minimizing routines, hotkeys, and ways to arrange a play mis en place that looks like work (a point we will return to).  These commentators are not always employees contriving to avoid being caught by their boss: the thread at the top of this piece was originated by a boss, Apt Get, who wants to hide his play from his peers as well as from his underlings, and ultimately from himself. These techniques of circumventing lines of sight and firewalls allow people to play at work and at the same time shape and define what that play can be. This play is both proscribed and defined by the context. While details and the differences are important, what these players in all sorts of work contexts share is an array of needs, worries and techniques developed in order to play at work.

It is easy to see how work could be a hostile environment for Minecraft play. Yet in many cases, for some players, work is a less fraught play space than other alternatives. As Apt Get’s comments later in his thread on playing Minecraft at work shows:

Glad to know I’m not alone. I am also guilty of sketching things on graph paper during meetings when I am without a computer. I am married and have 2 small kids, so work is about the only time I get to play.  – Apt Get

This comment reminds us not to assume a neat split between workplace and labor on one side, and domesticity and leisure on the other. The nature of the relation between work and play is a key issue for any study of play or games. In Games of Empire (2009), Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford discuss the historical transformation of this relationship through their critical account of games, capitalism and immaterial labor. In Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy (2000), Tiziana Terranova makes similar points. Julian Kücklich’s account of computer game modification, or “modding” as a strange mixture of labor and play or “playbour” (2005), also helps us historize the shifting relationship between play and work, and the new hybrid modes that emerge from these categories. In “Alienated Playbour: Relations of Production in EVE Online” (2015),  Nicholas Taylor et al. show how what we might assume is “just” play can in fact be work.

These questions of the work-play relation predate contemporary developments in game studies. We see the relation and separation enforced to different degrees in classics such as Roger Caillois’s Play and Games and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Hannah Arendt writes in the Human Condition: “(A)ll serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness.” (1998) Similarly, in the “Sociology of Sociability,” Georg Simmel expresses an interest in play because of its very apartness from other ‘material’ spheres of life, including work (1949). Separation for these authors is a matter of motivation, economics and necessity.

For Apt Get and many responders at reddit, work is defined spatially. Apt Get asks: “Do you play Minecraft at work?” rather than asking, “Do you play Minecraft instead of work?” Work, for Apt Get and many other players, work is defined more as a place than an activity. This definition of work as a location means that itretains its status as a place for labor even when play is brought in to it. To understand what is at stake when people bring their Minecraft play to work, we need to pay attention not just to what they mean by “work” and “at work” but also to what they mean by “home” and what they do “at home.” For Apt Get, his job is where he can play, even if it is difficult to do so. He can’t or won’t play at home. His posts suggest it is more difficult for him to play at home than it is a work. No doubt many of us recognize ourselves and our workplaces in these posts. What we find in the threads is a complicated and contradictory range of attitudes, experiences and ideas about the appropriateness, pleasures, worries and requirements of playing Minecraft (and other games) at home as well as at work.

Is playing at work always a modified, compromised form of Minecraft play? Not necessarily. This author, who has the luxury of work of an office with a door, a personal computer, and students who rarely take advantage of office hours, is able to play Minecraft in an as unfettered manner as one could hope for. Indeed like Apt Get, time at work was the only time I really could play Minecraft or, for that matter, wanted to. Game play is never “free-play,” as it is always defined and constrained as well as afforded in by the exigencies of everyday life (office, door, computer, students, teaching preparation, publication pressures). Play is always in relation to the everyday, to the rhythms of leisure and labor and socialization and movement and the un-freeness of free time.  Playing at work then is not (or not just) a more constrained or diminished form of play, even if it is often viewed this way.  Playing at work is a compromise, but a compromise that can lead to new and interesting permutations of play.

Minecraft play is typically described as open-ended, free, and creative, in short as the kind of play celebrated by ludic utopians of every stripe.  But what we see in the Minecraft “subbreddit” is a discussion of an even more expansive and “free” play, one perversely bounded by the space of work, as we can see in following two examples, which while specific and personal, are not outliers, and which give glimpses of play tactics and techniques shared in the Minecraft forums, when responding to the question: “How do you play at work?”

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he "plays at work."  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 1. A player shares an image of how he “plays at work.”  He has used his companies’ Maple computer algebra system to model a possible Minecraft construction.

Figure 2. A player shows how he "plays at work" by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

Figure 2. A player shows how he “plays at work” by stacking shipping boxes in a recognizably Minecraft manner.

These are very different ways to play Minecraft.  They are different from each other and different from our expectations of how people play Minecraft. These (seemingly) radically different approaches to Minecraft play result in part from differences between these two posters’ workplaces.  However what these two players share are places of work filled with tools and objects of labor. Both players use the stuff of their jobs to build things as Minecraft play practice.  Each is playing Minecraft, but in a kind of play that arises out of and reflects the specific contextual affordances and constraints of their work. Each plays in a way that is both in contestation and conjunction with work and its boundaries.  These two images of Minecraft play would not exist without the work and work places that shaped them. These are just two examples of how the space and tools of one’s work shapes the kinds of play needed to fit those contexts. For every job site and set of tools or materials, we might expect to find different play practices. These examples point to the need to account for a thicker, messier kind of play for playing not just Minecraft, but for all kinds of games played at work.  And while Minecraft may be especially suited to these ludic perruques, it is not unique in being a game people like to play when they are otherwise expected to be working. For each game, as for each work site, we can expect new play practices, cultures and experiences.

With these new practices we get new discourse. How do the Minecraft forum commentators talk about their relationship to this place into which, against which, and with which they forge new play practices?  Many commentators, Apt Get included, use negative and loaded language borrowed from substance abuse and addiction to describe their relationship to their Minecraft play. In my book, Portable Play in Everyday Life, I found that Nintendo DS players use these same metaphors to describe games that they play intensely (2013). We see similar language going back all the way to David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld. The angst conveyed by this fraught language seems to go against the perspectives we see in work by researchers like Leonard Reinecke (2009) or Paul Mastrangelo et al. (2006), who argue that play at work is useful or salutary in the sense that it helps one to work better or longer. This perspective may seem managerial or exploitive, but it is also useful for those of us who are invested in a critical approach to games, and to further examining the connections between play, work, playbour and leisure. The reddit commentators are much more likely to talk about their play as transgressive, criminal or pathetic, than restorative. Their discourse is not one of break-rooms and recharging, but of addiction, subterfuge, and tricks. I suggest that this kind of player language should be read as not (only) about compulsion or addiction, but also as code for a particular kind of pleasure and awareness of the larger cultural context for understanding and describing that pleasure. It is a compliment to call a game addictive. It is not only a self-flagellating or distancing remark.

play at work

This discourse brings with it the habitus of the addict: of secret drunks and self-deception.  In order to keep the activity going, there needs to be subterfuge, evasion, cover and camouflage. This is a different kind of playing, a “playing at.” This is playing at in the sense of playing as make believe, as “acting as though.”  This approach to playing at work owes much to Johan Huizinga’s sense of play as always secretive, even in plain sight, and as having a “pretend” quality (Huizinga 1955). It also carries a bit of the sense of calling out something as deceptive, as bullshit, as in the phrase: “What are you playing at?”

The kind of pretense most essential for these commentators is pretending to work while “really” playing.  The hidden or furtive aspect of playing games at work is neither new nor endemic to Minecraft.  Older Macintosh users may remember the “quick the boss is coming” feature from games such as Othello, a command which would instantly bring up a mock spreadsheet to hide your game.  The personal computer’s WIMP interface (windows, icons, menus, pointer), with its layers upon layers of windows, allows a kind of slight of hand and easy hiding of games or other NSFW (Not Safe For Work) activities.  Digital games can be harder to sneak into work outside of white-collar office settings. But as desktop and other types of computers increasingly are used in stores as point of sale systems, in entry ways, and at front desks, we can suspect that many are being used to play games, although it is impossible to know how many, how often — I know that I played a lot of web based games while a clerk at a wine store.  This kind of video game playing at work has clear connections to la perruque (“the wig”) as described by Michel de Certeau, except instead of “a worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer” it is a worker’s play disguised as work. This has more in common with how de Certeau mobilizes la perruque to describe a whole range of practical détournement (s) of time and space (2002).  The time and the spaces which are constituted by work are not our own but spaces of the other. As de Certeau writes:

(A) tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power (2002).

We should take literally de Certeau’s suggestion that the tactic “must play on and with a terrain imposed on it.”  In the case of Apt Get and his interlocutors, this terrain is one of cubicles and frosted glass, but also of box trucks, servers, firewalls, nosey neighbors, and if we merge terrain with time, deadlines, lunch breaks and all-nighters.

If we look back to the algebra-derived model above, or think of design doodles in meetings, or other more expansive ideas of what constitutes Minecraft play, we see that these are perhaps unsurprisingly also potentially cases of perruquesque tactics.  The shipping box stacking, while not at all subtle, takes advantage of the fact that the thing being used in play is also the thing used at work, here not just boxes, but also the act (and skill) of stacking them.  This points not just to a flexibility inherit in the tactics needed to play at work, but also to a more fundamental relationship and tension we see in cases where objects of labor are used for play or pleasure.  This is especially common in digital play (think of the keyboard and mouse of pc gaming), but as the shipping box example demonstrates, not unique to digital play. The tools employed in the case of Minecraft play at work, whether the PC in orthodox forms of Minecraft play, or the diverse workplace materials (graph paper, algebraic software) of the more outré tactics, are always ready to shift back and forth between ludic and mundane. Whatever is reworked towards play always shifts back.  This too, is consistent with de Certeau’s understanding of the tactics of everyday life; whatever tactics of subterfuge might win us, we must be willing to readily discard (2002).  Minecraft play at work is a kind of playing at the level of mimesis and pretense as well as duration; it is, in the best sense of the word, improvised.

To close, let’s return to the two images presented above of work-place play (or work/place/play). If we (mis)read these as being about Minecraft play, and not forms of Minecraft play itself, we leave behind these practices and these players. If we leave exclude these players and their play from our definition of what Minecraft play really is, we must then face the realization that there is no center to hold on to in defining Minecraft play: When is it real, really? In adventure or survival mode? When one is playing alone, or only in groups? Networked or not? To better understand all forms of digital play we must take the limit or fringe cases seriously.  Stacking real boxes at work at first may seem like a strange way to play Minecraft, but it is also somehow the most Minecrafty practice one can think of.  This is due to the creativity of the player, but also to the centrality of space and context for determining what play looks like and what play can be.  We move then from the ideal to the possible, from the discrete to the situated, from the simulated workspace of the mine to the real and contested work place of the player.

This is a move that we need to make when we study games in general, a move towards the world of the player rather than just the world of the game. This is important not only for understanding work-themed games played at work, or mobile games played on the go, but also for understanding more seemingly stable arrangements between player and place, from the historic arcade, to the tavern, to the couch and TV coupling of the home.  These spaces are in many ways as mysterious and as contested as any mine, dungeon, or alien galaxy. When we listen to players talk about how they play rather than just what they play we can begin to attend more to the nuances of these mundane spaces to understand the situated, contextual and contingent nature of play and to see play as always complicated and complicit.  We may well then arrive at an understanding of play as more like the rest of our lives: complicated, compromised, and vital.



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Samuel Tobin is an Assistant Professor of Communications Media and Game Design at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts who studies play, media and everyday life. He is the author of Portable Play in Everyday Life: The Nintendo DS (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.)