Is the world of work too much like a computer game?

Book interview: ‘Playing to Win’ and the rules of gamification

Image credit: Dreamstime

Organisations are increasingly reframing the world of work to resemble computer games. That’s not always a good thing, says author Adrian Hon.

“I don’t think that anyone is going to be surprised by the fact that companies are trying to maximise profit,” says Adrian Hon. Neither does he think that people will be shocked to hear that authoritarian governments are “interested in controlling and manipulating citizens”. None of this is new, says the author of ‘You’ve Been Played’, “and it certainly existed long before the arrival of gamification”.

What’s interesting, he says, is that gamification – the application of game-design elements and principles in non-game contexts – is becoming a new tool to achieve these pre-existing aims. The difference is that the incentives for modifying user behaviour are “styled deliberately to look like video games, with missions and quests, using interface symbols and elements that people are familiar with”.

More than that, if we are turning box-packing for Amazon or driving for Uber into a game, then employers are presenting work as both fun and fair, which means that “if you are failing in the game, it’s your fault and you must try harder. In the past, people were used to manipulation that was transparently not for your benefit. Gamification tends to feel like it is for your benefit.”

The reason we’re talking about gamification now, says Hon, is that the technology landscape is right for it. “It’s the convergence of the right type of sensors with appropriate devices. If you think about smartwatches, smartphones, CCTV and all the sensors we use to monitor ourselves – our health, wellbeing, work – they allow us to measure and quantify aspects of our lives.” Where gamification comes in is that it is “a layer that is applied on top of all that information in order to motivate, reward, punish and coerce people into performing certain behaviours”. Put simply, it’s “a psychological layer applied to these metrics delivered through technology”.

When not writing about the subject, Hon is CEO of Six to Start, a smartphone fitness game developer that deploys gamification for users who simply want to become healthier by using its Zombies, Run! app, which claims to be the “world’s most popular smartphone fitness game with 1 million players, over 40 million km logged online, and 200+ epic missions”.

As Hon observes in ‘You’ve Been Played’, there’s nothing new in incentivising desired behaviour through symbolic and (crucially) visible rewards that confer status upon their recipients. His book alludes to plenty of examples of such behaviour in the pre-digital past, ranging from pinning medals on soldiers and badges on Boy Scouts to the organisation of primary education back in the early 18th century, based on privileges gained to create ‘exemption from penances’.

Today’s gamification carries more nuance than simply digital incentivisation. “There are similar psychological mechanisms at work, and in some cases it’s the same thing,” says Hon, especially if the phenomenon is regarded as simply accruing points for good behaviour, while being deducted points for bad. “Having said that, the way we see gamification today is quite different. In the past people had to be physically watching you to decide whether to give you points, and there was a limit to the scale and the response times of the feedback. But gamification is a different beast because it can be entirely automated and can operate on a much larger scale.”

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‘You’ve Been Played’

Having spent the past decade designing one of the most popular gamified apps in the world – Zombies, Run! – Adrian Hon could reasonably be expected to be the first to extol the virtues of gamification. And yet, as is revealed in his compelling ‘You’ve Been Played’, he is concerned about how the phenomenon is seeping into the world of work, as well as education. When warehouse workers are incentivised to pack more boxes than their colleagues by competing with a dragon that races across their screens, something is wrong. When minicab drivers are coerced into extending shifts by gamified challenges, there’s a problem. When in-app purchases empty your wallet and surveillance programs monitor your child’s behaviour at school, we need to ask what’s going on. Which is exactly what Hon does, examining why, when games are supposed to be fun, they’re becoming a source of anxiety and misery.

Before becoming a games designer nearly two decades ago, Hon had an academic career trajectory in neuroscience, eventually dropping out of his doctorate studies at the University of Oxford to pursue his commercial concerns. It appears to be something of a contradiction that, as CEO of a successful gamified app developer, he should be presenting a 300-plus-page argument against gamification. But as with virtually everything else in this area of the video-games world, it’s not all set in black and white.

“People call what we do with Zombies, Run! gamification and they’re not wrong in the sense that we’re using game mechanics for non-game activity. But because I see most gamification as fundamentally useless, I don’t see myself as being in the gamification profession. I attend the industry conferences and, while there are people there trying to do good work, a lot of it is not very effective, or even harmful.”

He admits that statements like this will “probably get me into trouble” with his peers, before saying that the difference is “that what I like doing is making games, and gamification is different from video games”. The inference being that Hon isn’t arguing against his own industry, so much as it being more a case of someone who makes good gamification arguing against the organisations responsible for ‘bad gamification’. It’s no different, he says, from “Martin Scorsese saying he doesn’t like Marvel franchise movies. He’s a film director, but no-one would find that terribly strange. It’s such a big industry that it can encompass all sorts of different styles.”

Given that ‘You’ve Been Played’ presents a ‘mostly critical’ view of gamification, would Hon say that the word itself carries negative connotations? “It’s starting to, simply because of the rise in frequency in gamification that people don’t like. But there are situations – take for example the student who has found an app that gamifies doing homework – when it is a good thing, helping you to do a thing you want to do and is effective. I think that there are plenty of examples of gamification that are good – or at least harmless – but my book has not been written to provide a positive boost to the industry.”

Hon thinks it is inevitable that legislation or at least codes of practice will come into place to regulate the use of gamification in the workplace. “It’s been talked about in various areas. Specifically, there’s currently discussion in California about gamification in warehouses centring on transparency. But it’s certainly not something that companies spend a lot of time talking about. At the same time people are starting to catch on to the fact that organisations are using this technique in ways that could be quite harmful and we need to keep an eye on it.” 

‘You’ve Been Played’ by Adrian Hon, is from Swift Press, £20


Video games are good for you?

Gamification’s charismatic aura has interacted with the wider world of video gaming in unexpected ways. In a general reversal of the assumption that playing video games is bad for you – and doubly so for children – scientists are now eager to demonstrate video games’ positive effects. One 2007 study found that surgeons who played video games had better manual dexterity than those that did not. Later studies have suggested action games provide moderate cognitive benefits for healthy adults. In the repeated Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020, the sense of escapism and distraction provided by video games was reframed as being a positive rather than negative outcome, with 27 per cent of US residents using games to stay in touch with each other.

It’s amusing to see gamers championing glowing results from video game studies while dismissing past and present results that paint their hobby in a poor light. To be sure, there have been significant methodological improvements to how we study video games, but just as important are the hypotheses and researchers to begin with. If you start with the premise that video games are bad, you’ll design your experiments to look for evidence they’re bad, whereas if you’ve grown up playing video games, you’ll have different premises.

It would be sensible if we were all a little more sceptical of video games studies regardless of their findings. Video games are enormously varied in design and genre, far more than can be captured in blanket statements, and they operate in different ways on different people. To talk about them in purely negative terms on the basis of moral panic and ignorance is wrong. We should talk about the positive aspects of many games, but to talk about them wholly positively is also wrong.

Edited extract from ‘You’ve Been Played’ by Adrian Hon, reproduced with permission.

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