Gamification of work? / by Christoffer Andersson

Photo by Jamie McInall from Pexels

Photo by Jamie McInall from Pexels

A couple of weeks ago I attended my very first gaming event. NorthSpawn  was arranged in the town of Västerås in Sweden, and attracted hundreds of young people who came to play, see a hackathon and do Cosplay. It was awesome! The event took place day and night, from Thursday to Sunday during mid-term, and attracted both girls and boys, who sat in their hoodies on ergonomical chairs in front of one, sometimes several, screens, next to their computers with transparent glasses, decorated with lights and collectible figures. On the tables next to them were half-eaten bags of crisps and soda cans, and even if most of them sat with headphones on, many of them were engaged in conversations; either with a friend to the right or left, or with another gamer through their microphones.

Witnessing this, I was reminded of how BIG gaming is today. Statistics show that there are more Swedes that watch gaming-sessions and e-sports through channels such as YouTube and Twitch, than Swedes that watch traditional sports on the telly and through web-TV.

I was not at NorthSpawn to game myself though, but to reflect on the phenomenon of ”gamification” in a talk that I gave to some 50 people from various companies that had come to an event organized by Automation Region. Gaming is not only something that is of interest to young people; it is also something that has come to influence work and organizational life in several ways.

The concept of ”gamification” has been used since 2003 and has since then become increasingly popular. The concept may be said to denote the use of gaming elements in non-gaming systems to stimulate user involvement and experience.

In Gartner group’s hype-cycle, where predictions about the life span of different technological innovations are made, ”gamification” has lately been replaced by other concepts, but the idea to use gamification elements in for example the design of production systems, HR-systems and education remain and have become increasingly more popular. To design a system where the user competes against herself; work towards a visualized goal; or receives visual and oral feedback on her performance, are only a few examples of the gaming elements that have become increasingly more common, for example in the develompent of technologies for the elderly, in fitness apps and in various production systems.

But does it work?

In light of how common gamification has become one may be led to believe that the answer to the question is ”yes”, but in reality it is not that simple. Research shows us that user motivation does not neccessarily at all increase with gamification, and there are also indications  that the introduction of gaming in organizations lead to sub-optimization, since the employees may become more interested in winning, rather than in performing work in a wayn that is benefitting to the organization as a whole.

In an article in The Guardian; ”High score, low pay: why the gig economy loves gamification”; an American driver driving for Lyft (a company like Uber) recently described the stress that the gamification elements that have been incorporated in the design of Lyft leads to. Recurring feedback summaries and visualizations of how the customers have graded their experience of having been driven by her; of how clean the car was and what level of friendliness she exposed, was something that she, at first, found stimulating, but that, after a while, became quite stressful. Working as self-employed, without co-employees, union representation, or an employer to discuss her experiences of situation with – a situation typical of ”the gig economy” – of course makes her extra vulnerable. Either she buys Lyft’s idea, or she risks not having a job.

This is an example of how, in this case Lyft, has used gamification to create incentives for the drivers to not only constantly work on the quality of their services, but to make sure that they stay on as drivers for Lyft. For a person who loves to compete gamification is heaven – until she burns herself out.

To ask if gamification is a good way forward when it cames to improving work is thus a valid question. Work is not, and can never be, a game. It’s a serious activity. A person who works is paid to perform a task for someone else, and the conditions from this type of set-up are very different compared to those of gaming and playing.

At the same time, research show (not at all surprising) that employees appreciate interfaces that are user friendly and modern. In industries that still have machines that are the heirs of the big data systems that were invested in in the 1970.s, many employees detest the ancient interfaces they have to work with on a daily basis. And considering all young people that are getting used to nice and thought-through grafics through their interest in gaming it is very likely that improved interfaces may become a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting new staff in the future. To support employees by for example making sure that the technology they use have attractive interfaces that make their tasks easier may thus be a good idea. Such changes take basic human needs for esthetics and creativity seriously.

But this is something different compared to when gamification is implemented in order to increase employees’ motivation and with an ultimate hope of increasing efficiency and productivity.

A successful gamification strategy must involve an idea of why and how gamification should take place. To listen to employees/users/customers, and involve them in the development of new, more user-friendly interfaces, will be more successful, than to make decisions about systems where gamification is used as an incentive strategy to make employees work harder.

Gaming events like NorthSpawn remind us that gaming is different than work, and that we, when we borrow gamification elements to work contexts, must be careful if we want to avoid that the implementations of levels, challenges, countdowns and other gaming elements lead to unwanted, negative effects.

Anette Hallin, Program director