Games as Means…and an End

Blog Post
Feb. 13, 2017

A few years ago, “gamification” advocates, notably Jane McGonigalSeth Preibatsch, and Gabe Zichermann, championed harnessing the power of games in service of productivity. It was a heady time. Calling gamers “super-empowered hopeful individuals” with “urgent optimism” and “extreme motivation,” McGonigal called on people to add gaming elements to their work, their life, and even, using examples from her own life, their recovery from injury. Such an approach, she argued, would foster physical, mental, emotional, and social resilience among individuals and increased output among employees. Sounds good, right?

As expected, McGonigal’s words resonated deeply and were well-received. Her argument was ultimately a positive one: Since games are not respected as a medium or treated as a serious behavior, gamification turned the conventional cultural criticism of gaming on its head. Rather than reduce the amount of time people play games, gamification argued, increase it. As someone who had just started a media company dedicated to showing the world why games matter, I was excited. Perhaps games were finally getting the broader recognition they deserve. But that mandate came with a catch — games needed to operate in the service of productivity.

This was a serious problem. Noting that gamification abandoned calls for material change in favor of perceptual change, Heather Chaplin accused McGonigal of “selling a pernicious worldview that doesn’t give weight to literal truth” and “trafficking in fantasies that ignore the realities of daily life.” Like putting lipstick on a pig, Chaplin and others asserted, gamification served only to obscure and distract rather than improve one’s situation; the pig is still a pig, and an unfulfilling life is still an unfulfilling life.

As a movement, gamification has crested (for now), but this debate is nevertheless instructive for the future of work that the Shift Commission, a joint initiative of Bloomberg and New America, seeks to explore. Indeed, both sides of the gamification debate offer important lessons about gaming’s impact on that future.

Shift gamingGamification’s enthusiasm was welcome — after all, people do love games — but misguided in implementation. Using gamification to increase productivity may appeal to management, but it’s dehumanizing to labor and misunderstands the nature of games. Rather than a directly relational increase in output, games provide a positive externality, with secondary effects useful both to employers and employees.

Gamification’s critics, meanwhile, miss the fact that games do have something to offer employers and the workplace, for they are crucial to understanding the generation of workers — and voters and citizens — now coming of age. For the next generation, spending their “10,000 hours” inside gaming universes, the medium will undoubtedly profoundly affect their expectations and outlook. At the very least, they will understand this basic truth about games: they are an end in and of themselves, not a means toward some other thing.

At root, games are games precisely because they’re voluntary and non-productive. People play games for any number of reasons, but the unifying feature, professional and esports athletes aside, is that we do so by choice and on their own time. These qualities are lost when gamification becomes a productivity tool in life or in the workplace, no different than Gmail or Asana. Workplace games create constraints, and constraints shape behavior, not always in positive ways. An employee achievement leaderboard, for example, engenders competition — a dynamic that may be useful to a corporation but is likely less so for its employees. As someone who loves games, my deeper frustration is that “gamifying” a practice is often limited to points and leaderboards, rather than encouraging systems thinking or experimenting with rules and constraints. Those who grow up with games are able see through what is ultimately boring and unengaging design, particularly when compared to paragons of the medium.

Shift arcadeWhen done right, games offer something much more along the lines of mindfulness, creative brainstorming, teamwork, and collective enjoyment. These tools are of abundant use to most knowledge workers (and, by proxy, their employers), but the benefits are secondary. A one-to-one relationship equating games with productivity, which in turn creates money, need not and does not exist. This can be a problem for games in the public discourse, because in the U.S. educational system and labor market, which increasingly tie inputs to outputs and favor clear (and auditable) returns on investment, secondary effects are anathema.

But this misses the importance of games and the feelings that they engender in promoting human flourishing. The consumption of games, like that of any culture or art, is a good, and something to which we as a society should aspire. We don’t burden other mediums like literature, film, or contemporary art with being “useful” in a direct way, and we implicitly understand that cultural programming such as Talks at Google are valuable because they expand an employee’s creative horizons. Ironically, given how some of games’ laziest critics associate them with sloth, the net effects of games on their users are much closer to those of health and wellness pursuits than to those of nearly any other activity.

So gamification was a good idea poorly implemented. But those errors in implementation do not invalidate the core insight. Employers do increasingly need to ask themselves how the values of a generation growing up on Minecraft will transform the work environment and how employers need to reorient their approach as a result.

First, gaming today is an inherently social activity. This is stark change from the era in which I was raised and in which many of today’s work environments were constructed. After the brief heyday of arcades in the mid-1970s, games and gamers moved inside to home consoles, and gaming became a stereotypical antisocial — or, at best, neighborhood — activity. This framework explains much of the handwringing about the amount of time that young men, in particular, spend playing games.

But with the shift toward online gaming, that framework is outdated. Games are now, much as they were in the arcade era, inherently social. Indeed, as traditional civic, religious, and community organizations continue to shed membership, games and gaming communities foster a great deal of social cohesion and interaction that may otherwise be absent.

At Kill Screen, we play games together every day. In part, that’s the nature of our business — we need to play to discuss the industry intelligently. In part we do it because many of today’s games are tremendous creative and artistic achievements. And in part we do it because we can do it as a group, with the group-directed prosocial effects of gaming replicating and enhancing the esprit de corps that previous generations built during group dinners and social outings. (Don’t worry — we have those, too.)

Second, rather than villainizing games — a narrative as seductive as it is ineffective — for the amount of time that young people spend playing them, employers and policymakers need to approach the issue with far more empathy and curiosity and far less blame. I honestly believe that part of the reason games are so loudly condemned is because gaming’s critics have so little actual experience with the games themselves. To rebut one frequent narrative, high video game usage certainly does not account for educational failures; indeed, some studies have associated gameplay with an increased probability of high intellectual functioning, overall school performance, and fewer relationship problems between peers.

Shift gaming article

We need inquiry, not moral panic. What is it that young men, in particular, find in the world of games that they do not see in their work or the world at large? Perhaps it is role playing, team environments, or, as McGonigal would have it, the opportunity for progress, ownership, and an tremendous win. Or perhaps of more concern, it’s that the type of work that these young people are equipped to do is no longer needed, valued, or fulfilling. After all, movie theater sales spiked during the Great Depression because people needed something to do and wanted to be entertained, not because they did not want to work.

So gamification had it (partially) right: games do matter, enormously, for the future of work. But they matter not by pointing the way forward for the workplace, nor by encouraging workers to become SuperBetter, but simply because games — as themselves and as art, not as management theories — matter, period.