This is a blog post that I wanted to write for quite a while now to express my uneasiness with the idea of gamification in the workplace. I will outline why I think work gamification won’t work beyond the short-term and why it is an ethically and economically questionable approach.
What is gamification? Why is it used?
Gamification has been a topic of interest for quite a while now. Gamification refers to “the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems”. Typical game mechanics are scores that are earned for mastering certain activities, badges, so-called level-ups and finally a scoreboard, often to rank players.
Gamification rests on the observation that most people like playing games, and that people become truly immersed and engaged and won’t mind spending time doing so. This has led to the belief that it is part of human nature, that people are intrinsicly motivated to play games and that this motivation can be drawn on to engage people in other contexts as well.
‘The opportunities for gamification are everywhere, and everyone is a gamer – it’s part of human nature. By applying these tactics, you can employ subtle psychological responses that will keep your customers paying and engaging.” Fast Company 5th March 2014
Gamification is widely used in many different contexts. For example,
- In education so-called serious games are used to immerse the learner in a situational experience to get an educational point across. For example, the beergame lets players experuence first-hand the effects of systems dynamics.
- In advertising game mechanics are used to entice people to share marketing messages to create viral messaging effects.
- In health policy gamification is experimented with to break people’s habits to combat smoking or obesity.
- In scientific research, gamification is used to engage large crowds to solve large-scale problems.
Why gamification in the workplace?
The reason for taking gamification into the workplace is simple: Many people in modern workplaces are said to be disengaged (studies show numbers as high as 70%), and gamification has proven to be successful in engaging people in contexts such as the ones listed above. Disengagement negatively impacts on business productivity. More concretely, people are often unwilling to carry out certain tasks, such as data entry into business software, which results in a lack of data quality.
Against this background, gamification looks like an appealing solution. If we were able to turn work that has proven to be disengaging into a game we could thus appeal to people’s intrinsic game-play motivation. The result would be to re-engage people and to get them to carry out those menial tasks that now feel less like boring work and more like a game. Through earning points, badges and level-ups and through the appearance in public scoreboards people would gain recognition and would thus be motivated and more engaged in their work again. This is the argument in simple terms.
What is the problem then?
On the one hand, we have disengaged people; on the other hand, we have a method that engages people. This looks like a perfect match, doesn’t it?
It does, but it isn’t!
Here are four points why I think it is a bad idea. I will elaborate each of these below:
- Gamification is a short-term concept.
- Gamification addressed the symptoms of a broken system, but does nothing to fix it.
- Gamification is disrespectful of employees.
- Gamification only looks good on a simplistic understanding of human activity.
Gamification is a short-term concept
Gamification is a short-term concept. First, it is in the nature of most games that they have some end point. Second, most games lose their appeal after a while (it is only fun for a while to earn that next badge). Finally, the usage of scoreboards exhausts itself fairly quickly. Once the first positions on the board are taken, what is there to compete for for the rest of the game population?
This last point raises another issue. Games are typically competitive; individuals compete for recognition. While gamification works well in certain short-term or one-off activities such as campaign management, in the early stages of community building or even in graduate recruiting, the question arises if the short-term and competitive nature is congruent with building sustainable work systems.
Gamification only treats the symptoms of a broken system
The main problem with using gamification to engage people at work is that it only treats the symptoms of a system that is broken at a deeper level. Shouldn’t we rather ask why so many people are disengaged at work?
Very often, people are disengaged because they can’t see the point of what they are doing, the purpose of their tasks in the greater whole of the work system. Yet, if people can’t see the purpose of their work, then this is the actual problem, disengagement is merely the consequence.
Unfortunately, this is a common disease in many work systems that are designed to follow strict efficiency criteria. The wide-spread and often top-down application of business process re-engineering methods has led to the creation of structured business processes with atomistic tasks that come with clear rules for execution. Yet, such work systems, designed for efficiency, come with unfortunate by-products. Besides an in-built lack of flexibility, the most notable one is that people are degraded to task bearers, to cogs in a well-oiled machine. In such a system it is not important, not possible, and indeed often not wanted, that the individual task bearer gains too much overview of the entire process.
The flip-side however is that people become disenfranchised from the overall enterprise of the organisation. This is where the actual problem lies! If people can no longer see, understand and indeed buy into the greater purpose of the organisation, but are instead treated as labour-for-hire, disengagement is the logical result. I am of course painting a certain picture here, but all too often this is the reality in organisations and the reason for the high levels of disengaged employees. But when people become disenfranchised from work, no gamification will ultimately save the day.
This raises the question of why to use gamification at all, why not fix the underlying problem? First of all, the idea of gamification as a tool “to fix people” is well compatible with the ideology and values that created the structured work system in the first place. Second, fixing the system will be much harder, requires a rethinking of management approaches at a deeper level and requires genuine leadership, all of which is much harder to achieve than the quick-fix promise of engagement through gamification.
Gamification is disrespectful of employees
In applying gamification in the workplace there is a real danger that, even though it might achieve some intended benefits in the short term, it will actually worsen the situation in the long term.
Gamification, despite its intricate features and the game-like environment it creates, is a blunt instrument. Its aim is to change people’s behaviour through making them play games. But does this not amount to trickery? – “You don’t want to do this task, so I make you play a game in the course of which you will do it anyway?” Will people not see through this? And for people who are already disengaged and disenfranchised, will this not make them even more cynical about how they are treated by the organisation? Rather than being empowered and treated seriously as collaborators in a greater enterprise they are now turned into game players. In my view this raises important ethical questions regarding how gamification and the game design aims to exert agency over people through turning them into gamers.
Gamification rests on a narrow understanding of human nature
Gamification is often motivated using a philosophical argument, where gaming is located as an inherently human trait. Playing games is said to be part of human nature which apparently justifies its use in influencing people. After all, gamification only treats people as what they are anyway, game-players at heart. It must be ok then.
But what it actually assumes is that people have certain inherent traits (such as a propensity of gaming) and are bearers of certain behaviours (such as engaging in smoking or refusing to work). Two things are wrong with this view: First it treats people as individuals, when they are in fact social beings at base. Second, it adopts a narrow view of behaviour, as something belonging to the individual. While this view is all too prevalent in everyday thinking (and many academic disciplines), it has long been challenged.
It is well known that we are social beings, who strive for purpose in life. We assume multiple identities in different contexts. We are who we are through becoming part of different social practices. In short we are what we do and we draw our purpose in life from our practical involvement in various activities, at work and otherwise. And we spend much of our awake time at work!
When people care about and are invested in their work, when they draw a sense of purpose and identity form their work, when they understand themselves as part of a greater whole, gamification is not needed. Rather than trying to change people’s behaviour when they are reluctant to engage in tasks, the point of which is lost on them, organisations should ensure that people to draw a genuine sense of identity from their work. People are truly engaged when work is meaningful to them, when they can see the purpose of what they do in contributing to the overall purpose of the organisation.
Yet, this raises two more important points:
First, in many organisations this original purpose (e.g. to become a world-class full service airline) has already been lost and been replaced by a narrow and all too generic quest for profit or (worse even) cost reduction.
Second, while effective in increasing productivity and efficiency in stable environments, the top-down, structured work system (not least through disenfranchising people) poses a considerable risk when the organisation needs to change and become more responsive. Such responsiveness can only be truly achieved systemically, through the self-organising ability of the organisation. But this requires empowered employees who care about and understand the joint enterprise and can engage in the joint sense-making to reorient the organisation in the face of external change. Work gamification and the idea of the responsive organisation don’t gel.