You work for the Transportation Security Administration, manning the x-ray machine at a local airport. Your day begins easily enough, quickly scanning passengers’ luggage and bodies and waving them through. But after a few minutes, you get an alert—shirts are now contraband. OK, fine, you dutifully strip people of their T-shirts as they pass through the metal detector. Then another alert: Mobile phones are prohibited, too. Wait, now coffee isn’t allowed either, but cell phones are OK again. As you struggle to keep the new rules straight, the line of cranky passengers gets longer. Wait, snakes and turbans have just been outlawed. Oh, and shirts are allowed now, but you didn’t realize that until you’d already stripped down another passenger. That’s one strike against you. Now native headdresses are forbidden, turbans are OK, but shoes must be removed. You get confused and let a snake through—another black mark. The line of passengers begins to stretch across the room even as new regulations keep coming in faster than you can process them. Before long, you are fired—not because you’ve endangered anyone’s safety, but because you failed to cope with the illogical edicts of a capricious bureaucracy.
That pretty much sums up the experience of playing Jetset, a tongue-in-cheek but nerve-jangling iPhone game that almost makes you feel sorry for the petty tyrants behind the backscatter machine. Jetset is the brainchild of Ian Bogost, a game developer and academic. While some videogames let players vicariously experience the thrill of tossing a grenade into an enemy machine-gun nest, Bogost’s offerings—designed under the auspices of his small development company, Persuasive Games—tend to simulate grinding, unsatisfying everyday experiences. In Fatworld, players are charged with managing a diet-and-exercise regimen on a limited budget; in Bacteria Salad, they must grow and sell tomatoes and spinach as quickly as possible while containing E. coli outbreaks. (The game ends when too many people violently shit themselves.) In one of Bogost’s sentimental favorites, Disaffected!, surly Kinko’s employees struggle to fill orders for angry customers. At first, the game seems similar to classics like Tapper or Diner Dash, which transform workplace demands into a source of fun. But Disaffected! offers no such alchemy. “Conventional games are structured to ensure you can accomplish tasks and level up,” says Bogost, who has a PhD in comparative literature and is director of Georgia Tech’s graduate program in digital media. “In our game, you can’t. You can’t see it as working your way up to becoming a manager or to starting your own office-supply store. That is not what this game is about. It is about working a bad job.”