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As a society, we’ve had a long, strange relationship with video games. Sometimes this is how we learn about new technologies such as the computer or television; in other cases they are seen as the source of corruption for our youth or an addiction similar to illicit substances.
Somewhere between these two polarities, there is a view that we can improve some aspects of our daily lives through video games, with the nature of work perhaps being at the forefront of this discussion under the label of “gamification.”
In reality, the impact of gamification on work is mixed, and as more and more parts of our work and daily lives shift to virtual worlds largely inspired by gaming, whether through a theoretical metaverse or not, the impact of gamification on our work will (if not about reality in general) are more relevant than ever.
Fulfilling needs that the real world cannot satisfy?
Gamification as a solution to the ills of work seems oddly fitting given a society’s obsession with productivity. In this light, frivolities like gaming are perhaps the antithesis of this concept of work: time spent doing the opposite of something productive.
It is perhaps precisely for this reason that games and gamification are seen as an ideal way to smooth out the more boring, repetitive or downright unpleasant parts of our work. Early technological optimists, such as Jane McGonigal, in her bestseller Reality is broken, claimed that reality does not effectively motivate or inspire us, and that the sensibilities of gaming can change the nature of work (or the world). According to McGonigal, games are productive because they “fulfill real human needs that the real world can’t meet”.
At the extremes of this view, gaming is seen as a refuge from the realities of the world of work rather than a means of improving it. A recent one study claimed that in the early 2000s, work hours fell in greater numbers for young men than for older men or women, where free time went to video games.
While it has supplied that this phenomenon is more of a shift in media consumption habits for young men than an absolute trade-off between gaming hours and work hours, which was consistent between this study and a more recent study of Oxford was an overall increase in happiness or well-being from time spent playing games.
Desire for autonomy
Games can make us happy by meeting our needs, but have not definitively succeeded in improving working conditions, given the focus on the nature of the work or the tasks within it, rather on the influence of managers or others who influence the environment. determine the structure of the work.
Anthropologist David Graeber claimed that an increasing number of employees were working in so-called “bullshit jobs”, often adding to an organization’s bureaucracy rather than having any meaningful impact on the world.
This view, too, has been criticized because the underlying problem is in fact the degree to which employees feel alienated from their work’s decision-making process, not the type of job. necessarily. Essentially, we think work is bullshit if bad managers don’t respect or allow autonomy.
Conflicting employee/manager expectations
All the while, the symptoms of the ongoing erosion of trust between employees and managers are beginning to manifest in new ways, most recently through an ongoing dialogue about “stopping quietly.” An increasing number of employees have committed themselves to working alone against the requirements of their job, with the reasonable expectation that more work or responsibilities should come with more pay.
Conversely, conflicted management believes that going further should be the norm for employees to progress, and those who don’t select themselves on turnover. These disparate positions reflect a number of rifts between workers and management, including generational shifts in attitudes to work, though notably the focus on how work is structured rather than what the work entails.
Whether employees are in so-called “bullshit jobs” or “quietly quit,” any means of improving work through the application of gamification would be well served by addressing this problem, yet many had the opposite goal.
Reinforce desired behavior 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 desired behavior with rewards, the desired behavior is more likely to occur as a result of stimulation.
While relying on a largely discredited intellectual base, these mechanisms continued to be used because they are cheap to implement and the short-term novelty effect can demonstrate an increase in desirable behavior. While setting up scoreboards and the like doesn’t fundamentally change the crushing repetition of some work tasks, a more disturbing potential outcome is that these measures can effectively shift the blame from management to employees when ever-greater targets are missed.
In this regard, generic gamification is, in fact, perfectly suited to our efficiency-obsessed job orientation, as it allows for both strict control of performance, similar 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 dominated by ‘Taylorism 2.0’ or ‘Digital Taylorism’.
View gamification with extreme caution
The fact that gamification relies on largely discredited social sciences means that it can only fleetingly illuminate the more taxing parts of our jobs, while in some ways exacerbating the dynamics that tend towards a negative work experience.
The use of these techniques should therefore be viewed with extreme caution. And yet, with more and more work shifting to the virtual space, the potential for gamification to become a negative force in the workplace has skyrocketed.
What many see as the ultimate setting for virtual work – the metaverse – has already raised alarms about the extent to which otherwise human behavior can be altered or algorithmically controlled through the manipulation of persistent, interconnected and embodied virtual worlds.
While this is potentially disturbing, it’s more likely that advanced algorithms aren’t necessary: some of those most aggressively striving for a future metaverse fall into the same basic philosophy of human control embraced by bad gamification.
Generic gamification concerns
The blockchain-based Web3 view of the metaverse has become the epitome of behaviorist incentives, where every action (from “playing a game to earn” to participating in a community) can be incentivized with some sort of extrinsic reward, usually in the form of a non-fungible token.
The intrinsic value we derive from satisfying behavior is overridden by the ethos that any particular action aligned with the best interests of those mastering an experience can and should be incentivized with an inherent financial reward.
We should be concerned about 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 match for the toughest forms of gamification, and direct examples are becoming more common within Web3. These go so far as to suggest that the economically disadvantaged could simply find jobs as background human noise or “non-player characters” populate these worlds.
Gamification: satisfying intrinsic needs
The solution to successfully implementing gamification in the workplace, ameliorating tensions between employees and managers, and creating the potential metaverse (whether Web3 or not) all overlap: we as humans are at our best when we can satisfy our deeper intrinsic motivations (contentment), not just our extrinsic ones (money).
Satisfying intrinsic needs has always been at the heart of the best gameplay experiences (many of which lack the signs associated with poor gamification, such as leaderboards, points, badges or otherwise), meaning that positive implementation of gamification is not impossible .
According to Hon, harmful gamification thrives when it denies us “the dignity of possessing intrinsic motivation”. It makes us compete with ourselves in a way that amounts to little more than self-monitoring, allowing work (or otherwise) to better control behavior, because those who are “played” are made to believe they control it. Conversely, good gamification treats us as individuals and allows deeper needs to be fulfilled.
The solution to poor gamification is as simple as orienting these mechanisms to more closely resemble good (rewarding) games rather than tracking mechanisms, which, like successful employee and managerial relationships, are heavily focused on empathy and understanding.
As virtual work becomes more common and top talent is in demand geographic flexibilitysuccessful organizations can use the distinction between good and bad gamification as a first step to be attractive to this labor pool. Experiences such as the metaverse that emerge from gaming are uniquely primed to take advantage of gaming’s superpower to fulfill intrinsic needs, though this direction has not yet received enough attention from those most active in constructing the metaverse or future of work.
Gamification and the metaverse have become top of mind as the relevance and power of video games have increased.
Our understanding of gaming and its applications must go beyond its possible weaponization, but also how people derive satisfaction from it. Whether we’re talking about gameplay, work or the future of the internet, focusing on real, intrinsic human motivation always produces a more positive experience.
Jonathan Stringfield is VP Global Business Research and Marketing at Activision Blizzard.
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