There’s a term for games like The Office: Somehow We Manage — a licensed mobile app featuring the characters and plotlines you know and love — and that term is “idle game.” It applies to games in which the player can walk away and know that gameplay progress is being made in her absence — in this case, that Jim, Dwight, Angela, and the rest will keep earning Schrute Bucks, yogurt lids, cups of coffee, or whatever the currency of the particular challenge may be. (I’ve yet to encounter any Stanley Nickels, but I did enjoy the special Pretzel Day challenge.)
The “object” of the game is to (duh) sell paper, scooping up customer leads, which magically appear with each sale, to boost your earnings. It’s also an “incremental game,” meaning it rewards repetitive action — in this case, furiously clicking a stack of money, because each time you do, a bunch of it gets added to the Scranton branch’s tally. In the gaming world, this click-click-clicking is known as “grinding.”
How do I know so much about the game? Because I play the thing every day, idly, actively, incrementally — and, because I can’t seem to stop, irritatingly. I strategize with unironic zeal to boost Jim’s lackluster yield and speed Creed’s snail’s-pace earnings. I watch ad after ad for schlocky bingo apps and Shake Shack Buffalo chicken sandwiches just to add a few measly dollars to the kitty. I put off way more important stuff to crack the whip on a bunch of people-shaped pixels that vaguely resemble actors in a show I like. (God, when you say it like that, it really does sound insane.) It’s an effective way to waste time and mental energy, frittering away minutes I’ll never get back for no real reason.
I am openly critical of capitalism and its discontents, and yet I can’t stop playing. The “idle” earning uncomfortably mimics the way a company’s CEO rakes in a bunch of money off the efforts of folks like you and me: at the end of each level of The Office, the money for which you busted your ass (or thumb) disappears, off to line someone else’s pockets. And yet you’re incentivized to never, ever take a break. Every second, every potential movement of your finger, is a chance to move up to a new challenge, a new chance to earn more, more, more. Your job is to earn money so that you’re better positioned to… earn more money. Which sounds an awful lot like the unrelenting, daily grind of real life.
I’m a freelance writer and editor, and I feel a similar pressure constantly: Just say yes to anything anybody offers you, my brain screams. Sure, most of these jobs aren’t that interesting and they pay badly and you don’t really need the cash, but…it’s money! I’m grinding in life just as slavishly as I am in the land of Michael Scott. I feel compelled to pose a question, here: Why have I let myself believe that every billable hour is best spent racking up inconsequential sums? If the bills get paid and there’s food in the fridge, wouldn’t that time be better spent doing stuff I enjoy? You know, living the life I’ve worked so hard for?
Another question: Am I ready to delete this infernal game? Sigh, no. Mostly because, well, I’m buried in work, and it makes for a diverting brain-break between assignments. But am I ready to stop taking on all those fruitless assignments so I don’t need a brain-dulling diversion? Yes. I think I might like to spend more time watching The Office — instead of living it.
Katie Arnold-Ratliff is a journalist and editor whose writing has appeared in such publications as Slate, Time, Tin House, Salon, New York, the New York Times Book Review, Wired, The Believer, Poets & Writers, O, The Oprah Magazine, Parents, and Runners World. She is also the author of the novel Bright Before Us and the monthly books newsletter The Syllabus. A native Californian, Katie lives in New Jersey with her family, and can be found at katiearnold-ratliff.com.