The Gamification of Work (Gamification Post #4)

Given my interest in labor and employment law, I thought I would spin out some of the consequences and issues that surround the gamification of work.  I’d classify the gamification of work into four categories.  First, some gamification is designed to sell copies of more in-depth gaming software or to keep eyeballs fixed on a social networking site or another Internet website for longer periods of time.  This is making customers do “work” by generating value for the company.  Second, gamification may be designed to alleviate tedious and repetitive work tasks by making them more engaging through a gaming mechanism.  This could include matching different players or including a reward for a task well-done.  Third, some gamification of work occurs without anyone necessarily knowing about it – people may just believe they are playing a game or doing some other innocuous task, when they in fact really are working.  Fourth, the last form of gamification involves the converse of the third form, where workers are hired to play video games for others – often utilizing labor from the Third World.  This last form is known as goldfarming.

For now, let me skip to category #2.  We’re all intuitively familiar with dreading a work task that we think is going to be stressful or boring, but then, with the right colleagues, support, or attitude adjustment, the work becomes easier than we originally contemplated.  It is true that many workers find the “daily grind” incredibly boring and repetitive.  If there were a way to structure such jobs to be more like a game, it might lead to people feeling much happier and more satisfied with their work.

That’s the optimistic view, of course.  Gamification, like many technologies, is neutral.  Its promise (or peril) all depends on its implementation. One could imagine a scenario in which work is turned into a competitive type of game, with adverse employment action against the “losing” employees.  Such a high-stakes game could be be far from fun – indeed resulting in extreme stress for workers.  So what kinds of games should we play at work?  Should we look at incentives for winners rather than penalties for losers?    These are some of the important questions in designing games for work.

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8 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Is the win-lose paradigm the only operative one for gamification of work? Are there some other forms of play that might be suitable (e.g. based on creating tunes or patterns, drawing, etc.)?

  2. anon says:

    You might be interested in the gamification of hiring. See, e.g.,

  3. In “The Grasshopper”, Suits writes that games involve “the voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary obstacles”. It’s very hard to create a game that’s fun when participation is mandatory. It’s hard to achieve a sense of “play” in such circumstance.

    When I created “Elevation of Privilege”, I almost fell into the “forced fun” trap, and failed. Instead, we discovered that games are a great training tool.

    So to your questions, we should play games at work for fun, by choice. We should reward winners, never penalize those who don’t want to play. (This might have interesting interplay with the law–there are perhaps more and less gameful cultures, and penalizing losers might be a form of tacit discrimination?).

    You might be interested in Ross Smith’s “The Future of Work is Play,” where he talks about Microsoft’s experience in where games do and don’t work in our workplace.

  4. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    AJ, yes, that makes sense – collaborative games rather than zero sum seem to make more sense in the workplace. Anon, thanks for the helpful link. Adam, good point that you believe this should be voluntary… However, if some people voluntarily choose to play a game and get rewards for playing and others who choose not to participate do not get rewards, I wonder how far we can go with that before it becomes “not voluntary”… Just a thought. Will check out the Smith article that you mention.

  5. Joseph Slater says:

    “We’re adding a little something to this months sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize’s a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture?” — Black, from “Glengarry Glen Ross”

  6. Joseph Slater says:

    Oops: Blake, not Black.

  7. Tal Kedem says:

    Neal Stephenson has a humorous take on the “workification of gaming”, in a sense, in his novel Reamde ( ), which is a techno-thriller that also addresses gold farming in virtual worlds.

    In particular, I’d recommend the discussin of “MACUMAPPIS” starting around page 131 of the book. It’s also a fun read, generally.

  8. Culture is everything in the workplace. Not sure gamification will work in all environments. For example certain environments require employees to take their jobs very seriously. (Law offices, government, Hospitals, etc)