Fun and Games at Work

Farhad Manjoo has a nightmare.

Imagine if at the office you were made to feel like you were playing ‘Candy Crush Saga,’” he writes in today’s Wall Street Journal. “Envision that every one of your professional endeavors was meticulously tracked and measured in points, that there were levels to complete and you were given prizes for excellence. That every workplace action provided a tangible sensation of winning or losing as part of a system engineered to keep you addicted, thrilled to come back every morning.”

Except Manjoo believes this will be real life, and real soon, thanks to “gamification,” one of the latest enthusiasms of Silicon Valley.

Image credit: CliffMuller

The idea of gamification (which we’ve explored before) is this: to harness all of the enthusiasm people show for playing games and use it for serious efforts—whether it’s solving world problems, as game designer Jane McGonigal proposes in her book Reality is Broken, or just making the workplace more effective, as companies like Badgeville hope to do.

As for Manjoo, he hates it. “What worries me is the potential for stifling creativity and flexibility in the workplace, and the growing sensation of being watched, and measured, in everything we do,” he writes.

Peter Drucker, who was not exactly known for fun and games, would have clearly shared concerns about any system that was meant “as an instrument of control from above.”

Yet at the same time, we expect that Drucker would have supported discrete efforts to bring games to the workplace. For instance, if long training sessions can be replaced by more interactive games (as this article suggests), he would have applauded reducing such office drudgery.

Still, precisely because work was is so complex—shaped by physiological, psychological, social, economic and other factors—Drucker felt it was crucial to recognize it as something that “does not have a logic,” only “dynamics and dimensions,” as he wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

As a result, he would likely have stressed how hard it is to bring the true psychology of games to work. “‘Play’ carries a favorable connotation,” Drucker wrote. “But ‘playing at being a surgeon’ is not good at all.”

As for the difference between work and play, it has “never been answered satisfactorily,” he added. “The activity itself is often the same, down to the smallest detail. Yet psychologically and socially, the two are quite different.”

What role, if any, do you think games should have in the workplace?