Work is already a game

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI came across a statement saying how it would be a good thing to ‘gamify social learning‘, or words to that effect. I’d like to unpack that short statement. What does ‘gamify’ really mean? It could mean that people can be more engaged while playing games and therefore could learn while playing. Star Trek fans may think of the holodeck as the ultimate game-based learning platform.  I have spent a fair bit of time working with flight simulators and can attest to the value of simulation and emulation when it comes to learning how to fly aircraft. There is also significant research to show how epistemic games can be used for learning.

David Williamson Shaffer’s book, How Computer Games Help Children Learn, is mostly about epistemic games, or “games that are fundamentally about learning to think in innovative ways”. He begins the book by showing the fundamental weaknesses of our Industrial School System, another game:

“Not surprisingly, the epistemology of School is the epistemology of the Industrial Revolution – of creating wealth through mass production of standardized goods. School is a game about thinking like a factory worker. It is a game with an epistemology of right and wrong answers in which Students are supposed to follow instructions, whether they make sense in the moment or not. Truth is whatever the teacher says is the right answer, and actions are justified based on appeal to authority. School is a game in which what it means to know something is to be able to answer specific kinds of questions on specific kinds of tests.”

Shaffer shows the need for teaching how to think and how to be creative, instead of how to memorize, and lays the argument for the use of games in learning. Most of his examples are outside of the classroom because it is obvious that these kinds of epistemic games would disrupt classes and learning management. The games that are discussed are called monument games, or exemplars of good practice. The ideas and concepts presented are critical for anyone who wants to use games in learning, not just playing bingo and using words or figures out of context. The latter does not help learning. That’s a different sort of ‘gamification’.

The major problem with the ‘gamification’ of professional learning is that work is already a game. It is an artificial construct that society has created, and many of us have to play. Adding badges, or other extrinsic motivators, to professional learning only detracts from the real game. It also creates incentives that, when removed, may result in going back to previous behaviours.

So yes, good games, and especially epistemic games, can help people learn. The military has engaged in simulated exercises for millennia. However, adding a game layer to our work does nothing more than take us away from our work. As Dan Pink showed in his book, Drive: rewards, consequences and motivation at work, much of what we have taken for granted about work is just not supported by the research. Extrinsic rewards [gamification] only work for simple physical tasks and increased monetary rewards can actually be detrimental to performance, especially with knowledge work.

The keys to motivation at work are for each person to have a sense of Autonomy, Mastery and Sense of Purpose, as shown in this video. Pink’s work is based on the original research that developed self-determination theory, which states that relatedness — the universal want to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others — is a primary psychological need, instead of a sense of purpose.

Where the ‘gamification’ movement could focus its efforts is on epistemic games, simulations, and meaningful contextual practice, not badges or making points.

18 Responses to “Work is already a game”

  1. Doug Belshaw

    Hi Harold,

    While I agree with your point about rampant gamification, I’d suggest that it can work in particular contexts when done well.

    Also, and this is the main reason I’m commenting, is that badges and gamification are two separate things. Badges can capture the skills, attitudes and behaviours you seek to reward in a given constituency of people – either in formal education, informal education, training, or otherwise.

    I’d love to have a conversation with you some time about badges as micro-credentials. 🙂

    • Harold Jarche

      Isn’t the collection of badges just another game? As is the collection of diplomas, though the latter is more expensive and time-consuming. Any system that can be gamed, will be gamed.

  2. Peter Rawswthorne

    I believe gamification is a limited resource for adult learning,,, I hold stronger belief in self-directed and heutagogical approaches. I see your point that badges are a potential game layer over existing diploma and certificate approaches. Where I see the strength for badges is in the development of badge systems over the areas of learning not present within the traditional institutions and ProD programmes. Particularly, when a learner or group of learners create their own badge system to recognize and validate the learning that occurs outside the traditional. I see badges have a place within the realm of informal learning…

    • Harold Jarche

      But how long before the badge layer itself gets gamed? Every time you create a new accreditation system, people stand to gain or lose because of it. It’s a new priesthood, like SCORM became, even though few actually understand it, so SCORM certification became an end in itself. It was just a big game. Google’s algorithm was gamed in order to get higher search engine rankings, and spawned an entire SEO industry, and so too will other systems be gamed. It’s in our very human nature 😉

  3. Robert Paterson

    At my Middle and “High” school status was the driver and this was found in tiny signals how many buttons you could undo on your jacket – massive drivers. Why not – is not life a status game?

  4. Larry Irons

    I agree with the overall point Harold. However, I do think that gameful design that incorporates collaboration can, at least in principle, contribute to social learning. To do so, however, it must enable social flow and focus on the social psychology rather than the psychology of why people play games. To my knowledge most approaches to gamification do not take this approach. The biggest reason games don’t work at work, or at least not for long, is that a game, to be a game, must be voluntary. Otherwise, it can’t evoke playfulness which is key to any game.

    • Harold Jarche

      There may be potential for the gameful design of work, but the research quoted at the link is all academic, focused on collaboration in an educational setting. We know we can make formal learning activities more engaging through better design. We can also create informal simulations that are game-based. But I don’t see how another game layer, on top of the existing game layer called work, can be helpful. As I conclude, there are three main areas where ‘gamification’ can help, but none of these are in the workflow.

  5. Jon Husband

    I think there will be many mistakes and much over-simplification carried out in the name fo bringing game theory and / or gamification principles to the workplace and to social learning.

    Not to simplify too much on my part here (most of the serious conversation is in the post and the comments above), but I am willing to bet that gamification in the workplace in many instances becomes some sort of combination of a small and almost derisory “variable compensation / performance-based pay at risk” scheme such as were installed through-out the 90’s and 00’s to motivate performance … crossed with collections of badges being not too dissimilar to putting a notch on your bedpost as to how many times you made it up onto the Employee-of-the_Week Wall of Fame we can see in any of our local grocery stores.

    I never tire of Charles Handy’s admonition that we usually are not aware of how much “what’s in fashion” engenders change, though almost always not in the direction or type(s) of outcomes intended.

    I think we’ve seen an awful lot f “what’s fashionable” pass through the portals of the new interconnected workplace .. almost all of it seeking to benefit from what is clearly a massive change, but almost all of what has been dreamed up by those who have designed the “fashionable” for the interconnected workplace are working out of the previous era’s minset and mental model(s).

  6. Claudia

    Personal experience taught me to be highly suspicious of any kind of gamification that involves comparing your own results to other people’s (kids’) results. If you can’t keep up for whatever reason, competitive games can affect your motivation to a degree the game’s ‘designer’ never anticipated. In my case the net result was that I refused to play the piano for well over a year (even if my granny asked me).

  7. Paul Service

    Some really interesting points here from several different perspectives which is what makes these posts so valuable.

    For me, whilst I certainly share the view that gamification is already miss used and miss understood by many and do agree that work is intrinsically ‘just another game’ – I do support gameful design and believe it is a key element to course design today.

    With regard to the badges debate, I feel this is a separate topic and one that exists outside of the gamification debate. Although of course it’s an option to tie in badges with a reward system for learning, I feel the concept of the universal badge is much bigger than this and shouldn’t be confused with gamification.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Paul. I agree that ‘gamification’ and initiatives like Mozilla’s Open Badges are different things. I was using badges in the general sense, like getting gold stars. Good design has always been important for training courses, and game theory or epistemic games can be helpful. I have little interest in course design though, having left the instructional design field a long time ago to concentrate on non-instructional workplace learning. My concern is adding an artificial game layer to that 95%, which I think would be a big mistake.

  8. Tom

    That’s a very interesting article and debate.

    What do you think about gamification platforms that are supposed to drive engagement, motivation and collaboration at work?

    There are some gamification platforms, such as (for sales) and (for IT). Do you have any experience with similar stuff?

  9. Phil Houtz

    I’ve always thought that gamification misses the boat by not focusing on work processes themselves. How can we apply principles of game design to everyday work – reduce friction, manage challenge, provide feedback. Do this and everyday work will induce a state of “flow”. I really don’t need no stinkin’ Badges.


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