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2022-03-25 12:49:20

People who work in Chinese tech firms don’t get a lot of free time. But lately, the country’s overworked programmers have been spending their free time playing a game in which they overwork programmers at a grocery delivery startup.

Working Animals… with ESOP” is a morality tale about the temptation to overwork employees. It puts the player in the shoes of a CEO at a Chinese startup, simulating what it’s like to manage a business interspersed with narrative vignettes tracking the lives of six employees. ESOP isn’t a Greek author of fables, but an employee stock ownership plan — the carrot on a stick that drives the game’s characters.

“The game is so realistic, I feel like I am still on the overtime shift when playing it, mentally exhausted,” a self-identified tech worker wrote on the review site Douban. “But the values embedded in the game are good… When the company got fully controlled by capital, the protagonist resigned and went elsewhere to pursue his dreams. It reflects the original intention of many internet entrepreneurs.”

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The game launched on the Android gaming platform TapTap at the end of February. In Chinese, it’s called “A Blessing for the Herd” (Shechu de Fubao), referring to Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma’s notorious comment that it’s a “huge blessing” for his staff to work the grueling 996 schedule of 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

The social problem is not going to be solved because you quit. So we adopted the perspective of a company’s boss to tackle that question: what causes ‘involution.’

It’s a hit, with 100,000 players and a 9.5 out of 10 rating, developers told Sixth Tone.

All the characters in the game are depicted as animals — except the company’s founders and shareholders. The rational and reliable CEO, who’s the main character, has a dog’s head. The aggressive marketing director, who aims to achieve financial freedom before the age of 35, has a boar’s head and sharp tusks.

Developers Fang Xiaodan and Liu Xiaoyu started making the game after a 23-year-old worker’s death was blamed on excessive overtime, Fang told Sixth Tone. In January 2021, an employee at discount e-commerce company Pinduoduo surnamed Zhang died on her way home after leaving the company at 1:30 am. The company confirmed the death of an employee but did not respond to questions about whether overwork might have played a role. But colleagues said on Maimai, a LinkedIn-like social network, that it was due to overwork, and that she was not the first one.

Fang said the game is part of a trend of games focusing on the lives of China’s dagong ren (working stiffs). “We want to record this era, the social atmosphere between 2020 and 2022,” she said.

“As a tech employee, if you can’t bear overtime, you can pivot to other industries. But the social problem is not going to be solved because you quit. So we adopted the perspective of a company’s boss to tackle that question: what causes ‘involution.’”

Both Fang and scriptwriter/investor Liu spent years working in tech companies. Liu is now the CEO of an online gaming platform called Chengguang. To get the details right, they also spent months reading the financial statements of companies including Pinduoduo, grocery delivery platform Dingdong, and e-commerce giant JD.com, Fang said.

It’s different from many business games where players have fun making money... This game is about spending money. The investors give you a sum of money. You spend it, expand, and then get more funding. It’s counterintuitive.

The game takes players through the whole life cycle of an online grocery startup: building offline warehouses, building an app, buying advertisements to acquire users, seeking financing — and maneuvering to make sure your your shares aren’t diluted after financing — and burning money to expand in order to fulfill investors’ expectations and prepare for the next round of financing.

It’s up to the players to decide how to improve the company’s performance. They can try team building, offering more benefits like office perks, and training department directors.

“At some point the players themselves will find out that other approaches are not as efficient as making employees work overtime,” Fang said. “But overusing this function will lead to some key staff dying, which hastens the company’s failure.”

The game also uses side quests to unfold the personal stories of the six key employees, allowing players to bond with them emotionally. “So when they die, you will realize how cruel your decision was,” Fang said.

“Each department head represents a common type of person in the internet industry,” Fang said, adding that she sees herself in both the goat-headed product manager Luo Xin, who is full of creative ideas and has mental health issues, and the cow-headed project manager Lin Tong, who comes from a small town and struggles with her family’s expectations.

Fang said she left a civil service job at her hometown in central China’s Anhui province in 2016 for Beijing. She worked for an internet startup as a product manager for five years.

The game also aims to teach people outside the industry how a tech company works.

“It’s different from many business games where players have fun making money, by opening a restaurant or running a farm. This game is about spending money,” Fang said. “The investors give you a sum of money. You spend it, expand, and then get more funding. It’s counterintuitive. Players always ask me why they keep losing money, but that’s a very real situation in running an internet company.”

Mary Ding, a college student in northwestern Gansu province, told Sixth Tone that the game has helped her mentally prepare for the future. Ding majors in computer science and has been dreaming about entering a tech company in a big city after graduation.

“No matter how good you are at the game, the game has only one ending, which is the company being acquired,” Ding said, adding she was sad when she played it for the first time, believing being acquired means failure. “Later, I searched for a job for a period of time, encountered various setbacks, and gradually realized that the process of trying hard is more precious. When I went back and played it again, I accepted the ending, and felt that it was really in line with the current internet age.”

Editor: David Cohen.

(Header image: The main character of “Working Animals... with ESOP” is a well-intentioned CEO who has trouble resisting pressure from investors to use overtime work, depicted with a dog’s head. Courtesy of Muccy Games)