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Gamifying the workplace


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Writing for Public Books, Caitlin Petre reviews several recent books on an emerging trend in capitalist labor management: “gamifying” the workplace, or in other words, making wage labor feel like play. In her review, Petre connects this trend to the history of Taylorism and casts a skeptical eye on the idea that work can ever truly be like play. Here’s an excerpt:

Gamification promises to do just that by tapping into a richer and more complex conception of human nature. Workplace games are designed to trigger workers’ “intrinsic” motivations, such as the desire for mastery, autonomy, progress, and social interaction. These motivations are, in Paharia’s words, “innate, not learned, and … proven to be universal.” Or, as Werbach and Hunter put it, “A well-designed game is a guided missile to the motivational heart of the human psyche.” If rationalized capitalism’s excessive focus on money produced the so-called engagement crisis, gamification’s focus on meaning is what we’re told will solve it.

But there is a striking inconsistency here. While workers have rich, complex, and varied motives for playing workplace games, managers’ motives for implementing such games are depicted as strictly extrinsic and instrumental: to boost performance and profit. The stark juxtaposition between workers’ and managers’ motives sometimes produces unintentionally humorous passages. According to Werbach and Hunter, “fun is an emergent, contingent property that can be fiendishly hard to pin down. The best way to tell if your system is fun is to build it and test it and refine it through a rigorous design process.” For managers under unrelenting pressure to eke out higher productivity, it’s understood that gamification will not be much fun at all; the line between work and play remains clear and firmly drawn.

Perhaps the best way to understand gamification, then, is as a Taylorist wolf in Mayo’s clothing. As advances in digital technology allow for both sophisticated quantitative tracking and deeply absorbing user experiences, gamification marries rational and emotional management strategies in potent new ways.

A crucial question follows: is gamification powerful enough to produce meaningful change in the social relations of workplaces where it is implemented?

Image: Taylorism 1.0. Detail of Diego Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932–33). Via Public Books.