an employee on a ps5 enjoying the benefits of workplace gamification

Stockholm University Professor Explains The Merits And Pitfalls Of 'Workplace Gamification'

Researcher Nick Butler describes the rising phenomenon of 'workplace gamification,' alongside its ethical implications and philosophy.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 22, 2024

A new paper published in the Journal of Business Ethics explores the ethics and elements of workplace gamification, how the phenomenon is doing more harm than good, and how it can be properly implemented.

I recently spoke to the lead author, Nick Butler, Associate Professor at Stockholm Business School, to discuss the implications of workplace gamification and productivity on employees. Here is the summary of our conversation.

How would you describe workplace gamification?

Gamification refers to using digital game elements in non-game settings, like work. This includes basic elements such as points, badges, leaderboards and more advanced features like power-ups, loot boxes, avatars, puzzles, and missions. The aim is to create a sense of purpose and accomplishment similar to playing video games–even during ordinary tasks like writing reports or stocking shelves.

Organizations have been trying to make work more playful for decades. Think about LEGO serious play, where employees build models together out of bricks. However, gamification is different.

Instead of a separate game, gamification adds a digital "game layer" to work. For instance, an Amazon warehouse worker playing an in-house video game such as MissionRacer is also doing their regular job, like fetching items and preparing them for delivery.

Why do companies implement workplace gamification?

Companies use workplace gamification because regular work often doesn't engage employees, which leads to increased dissatisfaction. Video games captivate players in virtual worlds, but work is usually less motivating. This is where gamification comes in.

Organizations use gamification to make work more enjoyable and to enhance productivity. But there is more: gamification not only makes dull tasks more interesting, but it also promises to make work inherently rewarding.

What is an 'autotelic experience,' and how does it affect workers?

An autotelic experience is an activity done for its own sake, purely for its own reward. Autotelic experiences contribute to individual well-being because we feel good when doing things we truly want to do.

Paid employment tends not to be autotelic; most of us work because we need the money. Gamification aims to redesign work around autotelic principles, which will help boost morale and staff engagement. When work feels like playing a game, as the theory goes, employees are more likely to find it intrinsically motivating.

What is the philosophy of 'eudaimonia,' and how is it connected to workplace gamification?

The idea of autotelic experience dates back at least to Aristotle. For Aristotle, activities done for their own sake are morally superior to those not. For example, Aristotle believes philosophers live the highest form of life because they contemplate for the sake of contemplation itself. In other words, the philosopher has achieved a state of eudaimonia: a virtuous kind of happiness.

However, this idea isn't only about philosophy. Positive psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tell us that play is a perfect example of an autotelic experience because it is performed for its own sake.

Bringing play into work through gamification aims to create the same sense of virtuous happiness that Aristotle praised. So, gamification doesn't just seek to make work more enjoyable; it also promises to make work more meaningful and, maybe, more ethical.

Aristotle might not have agreed with Csikszentmihalyi because, for him, true happiness only applies to activities that are done only for their own sake–and this excludes anything work-related. Still, the idea of eudaimonia has influenced debates on how to make organizations happier and more fulfilling places.

What are the pros and cons of workplace gamification? When is workplace gamification considered ethical?

The advantages of introducing gamification in the workplace are clear: it makes work feel less like a chore. However, poorly designed gamification may make the play feel like just another task on the "to-do" list. Critics argue that gamification can be misleading and may be a tool for controlling workers.

Ethical considerations arise when gamification enhances engagement without addressing underlying workplace issues, such as low pay or hazardous conditions.

What alternative would you propose for organizations to make work meaningful for their employees?

Gamification may give the illusion of meaningful work without addressing its root causes–systemic issues that cannot be papered over with a video game interface.

A truly happy workplace is better achieved through genuine human connections, fair pay, and decent working conditions. Meaningful work comes from being surrounded by colleagues who genuinely care about each other as individuals rather than as digital avatars or competitors on a leaderboard.

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