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As a society, we have had a long, strange relationship with video games. At times they are how we learn about new technologies like the computer or television; at others, they’ve been seen as the source of corruption for our youths or an addiction on par with banned substances.
Somewhere between these two polarities, there is a view that we can improve any number of aspects of our day-to-day life through the medium of video games, with the nature of work perhaps at the forefront of this discussion under the label of “gamification.”
In reality, the influence of gamification on work has been mixed, and as increasing parts of our work and everyday lives are shifting to virtual worlds largely inspired by gaming, whether via a theorized metaverse or otherwise, the consequences of gamification on our work (if not on reality more generally) have become more relevant than ever.
Fulfilling needs that the real world can’t satisfy?
Gamification as a solution for the ills of work seems to be a strange fit, given a societal obsession with productivity. In this light, frivolities such as gaming are perhaps the antithesis of this concept of work — time spent doing the opposite of something productive.
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However, it is perhaps for this very reason that games and gamification are seen as an ideal way to smooth over the more dull, repetitious or downright unpleasant parts of our work. Early technological optimists, such as Jane McGonigal, in her bestselling book Reality is Broken, claimed that reality doesn’t effectively motivate or inspire us, and sensibilities from gaming could change the very nature of work (or the world). In McGonigal’s view, games are productive because they are “fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is unable to satisfy.”
Taken at the extremes of this view, gaming has been seen as a refuge from the reality of the world of work rather than a means to improve it. One recent study claimed that in the early 2000s, work hours for young men dropped in greater numbers than older men or women, where leisure hours gravitated towards video games.
While it has been argued that this phenomenon is more of a shift in media consumption habits for young men than an absolute trade-off in gaming hours for work hours, what was consistent between this study and a more recent one from Oxford was a generalized increase in happiness or well-being from time spent playing games.
Desire for autonomy
Games can make us happy by fulfilling needs, yet have not conclusively managed to improve the circumstances of work, given a focus on the nature of work or tasks therein rather the influence of managers or others who set the environment or structure of work.
Anthropologist David Graeber made the claim that an increasing number of employees were working in so-called “bullshit jobs” which often contributed only to the bureaucracy of an organization rather than any meaningful impact on the world.
This view too has been criticized on the basis that the underlying issue is, in actuality, the extent to which workers feel alienated from the decision-making process of their work rather than the type of job per se. Essentially, we feel that work is bullshit when bad managers don’t respect or allow for autonomy.
Clashing worker/manager expectations
All the while, symptoms of the ongoing erosion of trust between workers and managers have begun to manifest in new ways, most recently via ongoing dialogue around “quiet quitting.” An increasing number of employees have set themselves towards working only against the requirements of their job, with the reasonable expectation that more work or responsibilities should come with more pay.
Conversely, adversarial management believes that going above and beyond should be the norm for employees to advance, and those not willing to do so are self-selecting for attrition. These disparate positions reflect any number of rifts between employees and management, inclusive of generational shifts in attitudes towards work, although notably the focus on how work is structured rather than what the work entails.
Whether employees are finding themselves in so-called “bullshit jobs” or “quiet quitting,” any means to improve work through the application of gamification would be well served by addressing this problem, and yet many have had the opposite aim.
Reinforcing desirable behaviors with rewards
Gamification expert Adrian Hon’s new book, You’ve Been Played, criticizes much of generic gamification as falling under behaviorist psychology. In this view, by reinforcing desirable behaviors with rewards, the desirable behavior will occur more due to incentivization.
While relying on a largely discredited intellectual basis, these mechanisms continued to be employed because they are cheap to implement and the novelty effect may demonstrate some short-term increases in desirable behaviors. While setting up scoreboards and the like doesn’t fundamentally change the crushing repetitiveness of some work tasks, a more troubling potential outcome is that these measures can effectively shift the blame from management to workers when ever-increasing targets are missed.
In this respect, generic gamification is, in actuality, the perfect fit for our efficiency-obsessed orientation towards work because it allows for both strict monitoring of performance akin to the antiquated notions of “scientific management” synonymous with “Taylorism” (after sociologist Fred W. Taylor), so much so that Hon describes the twenty-first-century workplace as increasingly governed by “Taylorism 2.0” or “Digital Taylorism.”
View gamification with extreme caution
The fact that gamification relies on largely discredited social science leads to the fact that it can only alleviate the more onerous parts of our work in a cursory way, while in some respects exacerbating the dynamics that tend to make for a negative work experience.
The deployment of these techniques should thus be viewed with extreme caution. And yet, as increasing amounts of work are shifted to virtual space, the potential for gamification to be a negative force in the workplace has expanded dramatically.
What many see as the ultimate setting for virtual work — the metaverse — has already raised alarms on the extent to which otherwise human behaviors can be modified or algorithmically controlled through the manipulation of persistent, interconnected, and embodied virtual worlds.
While this potential is troubling, it’s more likely the case that sophisticated algorithms may not be necessary: Some of those most aggressively pushing towards a future metaverse are defaulting towards the same basic philosophy of human control espoused by bad gamification.
Generic gamification concerns
The blockchain-based Web3 view of the metaverse has become the epitome of behaviorist incentivization, where every action (from a “play to earn” game to participation in a community) can be incentivized with some kind of extrinsic reward, typically in the form of a non-fungible token.
The intrinsic value we get from satisfying behaviors is overridden by an ethos that any given action aligned with the interests of those controlling an experience can and should be incentivized with an inherently financialized reward.
We should be concerned with the applications and consequences of generic gamification mechanisms because in many cases, the potential future of the consumer internet is being built as a perfect fit for the most onerous types of gamification, and direct examples are becoming more common within Web3. These even go so far as to propose that the economically disadvantaged could simply find jobs as human background noise or “non-player characters” populating these worlds.
Gamification: Satisfying intrinsic needs
The solution for the successful implementation of gamification in the workplace, improving employee and managerial tensions and crafting the potential metaverse (whether Web3-based or otherwise) all overlap: We as humans are at our best when we can satisfy our deeper intrinsic motivations (happiness, satisfaction), not just our extrinsic ones (money).
Satisfying intrinsic needs has always been at the core of the best gameplay experiences (many of which lack the signs associated with bad gamification, such as scoreboards, points, badges or otherwise), meaning that positive implementation of gamification is not impossible.
In Hon’s view, harmful gamification thrives when it denies us “the dignity of possessing intrinsic motivation.” It causes us to compete with ourselves in a way that amounts to little more than self-surveillance, allowing work (or otherwise) to better control behaviors because those being “played” are made to believe they are controlling them. Conversely, good gamification treats us as individuals and allows for deeper needs to be fulfilled.
The solve for bad gamification is as simple as orienting these mechanisms to be more like good (rewarding) games rather than tracking mechanisms, which like successful employee and managerial relationships, are heavily biased towards empathy and understanding.
As virtual work becomes more common and top talent demands geographic flexibility, successful organizations can leverage the distinction between good and bad gamification as a first step towards being attractive to this labor pool. Experiences such as the metaverse that originate from gaming are uniquely primed to capitalize on gaming’s superpower to fulfill intrinsic needs, although this direction has not yet been enough of a focus among those most active in constructing the metaverse or future of work.
Gamification and the metaverse have become top of mind because the relevance and power of video games have been on the rise.
Our understanding of gaming and its applications must go beyond its potential weaponization to how humans find satisfaction with them. Whether we are talking about gameplay, work or the future of the internet, focusing on true, intrinsic human motivation will always yield a more positive experience.
Jonathan Stringfield is VP of global business research and marketing at Activision Blizzard.
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