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The Gamification of Work

Why do mundane real-world jobs make for such fun digital experiences?

Jessica Bloom
Jul 24, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by David Grandmougin on Unsplash

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Maybe the anxiety starts the night before, or maybe it hits in the morning as soon as your alarm goes off. Everyone has a day, every so often, where they dread going to work. At one point in my career, those days turned into weeks, which turned into months.

So I downloaded SimCity onto my phone.

I built cities at night when I couldn’t sleep and at my desk when I felt like my head was going to explode. I ignored emails and upgraded houses into skyscrapers. I gave the neighborhoods enough police stations to keep them safe and schools to give them education. My Simoleons trickled in. I was doing a great job.

“In the game, I am the boss. I decide what to buy when I need it.”

At my real job, the one that didn’t pay in points but in actual money, things kept getting worse. My team was talented but wasting away. That’s when I noticed the other games being played in the office. One person was catching all the Pokémon, another had an incredible campsite on Animal Crossing, and another stayed up all night creating storylines on The Sims. Here was a group of ambitious people spending their time unlocking high levels in games to deal with a workplace that did not provide clear goals or measures of success.

In his 2015 book, Why We Work, psychologist Barry Schwartz says we’re not motivated solely by money, perks, or benefits. Instead, “engagement, challenge, autonomy, mastery, social engagement, and meaning” are the qualities of “good work.” When your workplace lacks these qualities, is it possible to get that type of fulfillment from a game instead?

The topic of doing mundane digital work for fun caught some attention in the fall of 2016 when Farming Simulator accrued a cult following. The game even became popular with people in the exact same line of work in the real world. A dairy farmer named Mason told New Scientist, “At work, my boss tells me what he needs me to do, and I do it. In the game, I am the boss. I decide what to buy when I need it.”

This trend toward simulator games hit around the same time that studies like “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries” predicted that almost 50 percent of jobs would be affected by automation in just a few decades. The romance and comfort of routine labor is magnified when its future is threatened. Pippin Barr, a game designer and professor at Concordia University, said of his office simulator game, “The game poses as an application that humans who have been put out of work by robots and A.I. can play as a way to recapture the sense they once had of doing work and being productive.” In this game, you do menial office tasks while being bombarded with inspirational quotations. Sounds fun, right?

It’s all very interesting to plow fields and write emails for fun, but there was something else going on with my game playing in those dark moments. I was not being lulled into a state of relaxation; I was getting an adrenaline rush from constant multitasking and regularly saving my SimCity from the edge of total collapse. This was about high stakes, not easy routine tasks.

At first, I thought multitasking itself was the key to my game-driven comfort. The first app game I played regularly was Diner Dash. You assume the role of a restaurant server and tap everything super-quickly in a strategic order to get people their burgers with correct toppings on time. I was working at a restaurant, and the other servers were into it, so I downloaded the game to understand what was going on. Why were they serving digital food in a digital restaurant during their off hours from serving real food in a real restaurant?

The game is addictive and requires your brain to focus on multiple things at once, not unlike working in a restaurant. But how could this be relaxing? It’s common knowledge that multitasking is not good for your brain. Humans are performing at their best when focusing on one activity. Furthermore, research has shown that it’s more stressful to be a waiter than a neurosurgeon. All reasons why this game should have felt like torture.

This was about high stakes, not easy routine tasks.

But similar to Schwartz’s conclusions about what makes good work, that study about stress and waiters identified that the reason for this high stress was a combination of occupational high demand and low control. You’re less at risk of a heart attack if you work a low-demand/low-control job or a high-demand/high-control job. With Diner Dash, the game version of being a restaurant server allows for higher control, even if that just means being able to turn the game off whenever you’re over it.

Unlike workplaces, digital games are designed to fulfill basic psychological needs. To motivate yourself, you need three things: competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness. Those are the fundamentals of psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s self-determination theory, which they established in 2002.

Competence means that you feel capable and that your capability is growing as you master skills. Autonomy is about being in charge of your own outcomes and pursuing choices that align with your true self. Relatedness is about connecting with a community and caring about others. A paper titled “Self-Determination Theory in Digital Games” (Uysal and Yildirim) points to four other studies proving that “games [satisfying] autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs promote intrinsic motivation and well-being.” The authors go on to explain the different features of games that relate to those basic psychological needs — providing choice (“turn left or right?”), delivering feedback (“great shot!”) and increasing difficulty (level up or “speech: 100”). Honestly, I thought people who played video games all the time were solitary misanthropes, but it turns out they’re getting more basic psychological needs met than I was getting from my job.

When I finally left that ill-fated workplace, my SimCity went unattended. It just happened naturally. Notifications buzzed that my citizens were hungry and burning alive and looking to elect a new mayor, but I just didn’t really care anymore. My needs were being met elsewhere.

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