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How the gig economy inspired a cyberpunk video game

Screenshot from Citizen Sleeper
Citizen Sleeper
Screenshot from Citizen Sleeper

Citizen Sleeper is a sleek, cyberpunk-style video game, where you play an android with the mind of a human, who has sold their flesh-and-blood body to the corporation Essen-Arp. When you start the game, you've just escaped Essen-Arp in a stolen robot frame, transported to a spaceship colony, where you don't know anyone and have only a vague memory of who you once were.

The game takes place in "cycles" in which the player rolls virtual dice to perform tasks, with each roll of the dice determining the outcome of actions like working, asking for directions, stealing, fighting, or making friends. The higher you roll, the better the odds you have at completing those tasks successfully. As you work, you earn money, which can buy you food and resources, as well as a "stabilizer" that you need to repair your robot frame, and thereby survive.

The rules of the game can be seen as a critique of the cruelties of the modern economy. For example, the lower you run on food and energy, the fewer rolls of the dice you get each cycle. The reason you need to constantly repair that robot frame? Because of the planned obsolescence built into it. And the work you do to earn money? It's all gig work. Jobs come and go, and some are better than others. Every day is a challenge to find the best jobs, the cheapest goods, and maintain longer goals while barely making enough to survive.

"Citizen Sleeper was very much inspired by my experience as a gig worker in London," says Gareth Damian Martin, the game's designer. "There was a mix of things that I did, but most of it revolved around this concept that we have in the UK called a zero-hours contract. You are not guaranteed any work, but you are contracted to a company, and basically they can give you any number of hours. It allows companies to essentially not have to offer anything to an employee, no rights of any kind, but are able to call on them at any point and ask them for work."

The toll of work

The coldly capitalist, effectively dehumanizing nature of this kind of work made a deep impression on Martin as they developed the game. It was particularly influential in the development of the central character, a human mind emulated by Essen-Arp and placed in a corporate-owned artificial body.

"I think a lot of my ideas around that are related to my own experiences as a non-binary person, thinking about how bodies are legislated, how citizenship is given and taken away from certain bodies. And how capitalism and gig work impacts on bodies, as well as minds," Martin says.

As a zero-hours contract worker, Martin picked up gigs flyering at Piccadilly Circus and standing watch at bars and museums. They also did gig work for the computer games company SEGA, where they worked as a game tester. It sounded cool, but the work can take a toll on the tester, as it did on Martin when they had to test a 3D SEGA game.

"The strain of testing loads of different kinds of 3D, hour after hour, basically turned out to be very bad for you," Martin says. "And I ended up damaging my eyes."

Martin's eyes recovered, but the memory lingered. The notion that work can strain the human body in more ways than one formed a crucial part of Citizen Sleeper.

"I wanted to have various ways to kind of twist the knife on the player, I guess, or to put pressure on the player," Martin says. They say it was important for players to be able to track their energy levels and the condition of their physical self. "With the condition there's that feeling of slow decline – that each day, no matter what you do, basically, you're losing that condition, it's going down over time. And then the energy is more like that kind of daily need to achieve a certain thing in order to keep yourself from declining."

Built to fail

The concept of planned obsolescence was particularly resonant for Martin as they developed the game. In the real economy, planned obsolescence is the policy of producing goods that are designed to become out of date and so require replacement — such as when a phone's performance dips after an update. It's become a feature of manufacturing, like fast fashion, that has led to a deterioration in the quality of goods.

The life of these goods is often prolonged, however — or at least insured — by use of the manufacturer's maintenance products. In Citizen Sleeper, that planned obsolescence is a key feature of the robot frame worn by the protagonist.

"This idea of having a body that would be decaying because it's being used incorrectly, being used outside of the kind of corporate reach, felt like the kind of predatory behavior that I'd observed in various ways," Martin says. "For example, the idea of an Uber driver who has bought their car from Uber and is paying their rental payments out of their wages. That kind of strong linkage between the person who's paying you money and the person who's taking your money."

All of this might make Citizen Sleeper sound like a dystopian commentary on our economy. But Martin says that, although working in the gig economy inspired the dark side of Citizen Sleeper, it also inspired a lot of the more gratifying elements of the game too.

"One of the most amazing things about working terrible gig jobs is you do end up working jobs that finish at 2:00 in the afternoon and you work jobs that finish at 2:00 AM. And because of that, you go to different bars at different times and you meet people and you see different sides of the city and ways in which the city is alive."

Martin found solidarity and friendship with the people they'd meet across their various jobs, and they turned those recollections into the diverse and interesting characters players can meet in Citizen Sleeper. At the same time that the player's humanity is being stripped away from them by labor, it can instead be felt in the community they become a part of.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Yellowhorse Kesler
Sam Yellowhorse Kesler is an Assistant Producer for Planet Money. Previously, he's held positions at NPR's Ask Me Another & All Things Considered, and was the inaugural Code Switch Fellow. Before NPR, he interned with World Cafe from WXPN. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and continues to reside in Philadelphia. If you want to reach him, try looking in your phone contacts to see if he's there! You'd be surprised how many people are in there that you forgot about.

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