Mandatory Fun: Gamification and the Impact of Games at Work

Written by João Costa

Reference Information

Mollick, E., & Rothbard, N. (2012). Mandatory Fun: Gamification and the Impact of Games at Work. The Wharton School Research Paper, (22).

Summary

This paper presents a study on whether gamification can provide desirable benefits that improve the affective experience and the performance of employees at work, while also providing a further analysis and highlight of the role of consent in games.

To achieve their results, the authors of this paper designed a field experiment with the salespeople of a growing technology company, divided into three conditions where gamification and game aspects were either (a) entirely present, (b) not present and (c) partially present. In the first condition, participants were exposed to what the authors call a “Game” condition, where they were engaged in activities for which they were already incentivized for – closing deals with customers, while being exposed to basketball themed leaderboards and using basketball lingo to define terms like closing deals and cold calls. In condition (b) participants had no exposure to any gamification means, as they were the control group, while condition (c) participants were exposed to leaderboards without any basketball theme association. In each of these conditions, the participants were also exposed to a short survey at the start and at the end of the study on positive and negative affect, as well as to a small set of questions also at the end of their participation to assess their degree of consent to the game.

The study concludes that games do increase the positive affect and performance at work when employees consent to them, and increase negative affect and weaken performance when consent is absent. The authors also concluded that employees who play games outside work have a higher degree of consent to games at work. and that partial gamification, when there are no mechanics that make it fun, worsens the results when compared to a condition absent of gamification.

Discussion

This paper begins with an incredibly thorough contextualization of the place that games at work have in our society and in research. From the several studies presented as references, one can understand that there is no real need for incredibly complex game mechanics to motivate workers to perform more efficiently in their tasks while at the same time increasing the affect towards fellow colleagues or even towards their managers. Such is the example provided by Donald Roy’s “Banana Time” game, where all that was asked was that a banana was stolen from the lunchbox of one of the designated factory’s workers. Games at work are also presented as, from a worker’s perspective, a means to pass the time, something that reduces fatigue and an activity that promotes skill practice, while providing social and non-monetary rewards that would not be achievable otherwise.
In my personal opinion, these studies all boil down to the same question: Why shouldn’t games at work be a common practice? They are a healthy way to humanize the work environment, which is commonly known as not being the most friendly place on earth due to the competitive nature of work in modern society. To put it in the same words of the authors, work isn’t always fun, games are fun, so turning work into a game will make work fun and lead to happier employees.

Were it not a paper about gamification, it would not have a broad literature review of this field like the work of Sebastian Detering. The authors make the bridge between games at work and gamifitaion, and the psychology behind it, by introducing concepts from the Self-Determination Theory of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that we all know) and the “yummi delicious” concept of Chocolate covered broccoli of Amy Bruckman – Hide non-motivating tasks under a layer of fun games.
But why go through all the trouble of implementing games at work by gamifying tasks? Let me tell you my story. I worked in a Software Engineering company, a huge one with about five thousand employees (I am not joking), with an extremely competitive environment. From the first week off you are supposed to know all the ins and outs of the whole software of a department, all the company’s structure and organization, among a huge list of cumbersome tasks that no newcomer is prepared for, while your managers are expect you to complete while they are “pointing a gun at you”. If you fail, you are out. To me, the biggest challenge was that there was definitely no intrinsic motivation to accomplish these tasks while someone is observing you in such a controlling and oppressive position, let alone the difficulty of understanding all the monolithic, non-commented code that was left for me to work on.
It was with a huge sarcastic grin that I read this part of the paper, because it proves that the managerial view that  games are for kids and that a workplace should never be either a place for fun or for forging new friendships with colleagues could not be more far from the truth.

And what is the consequence of disregarding the importance of the affective relations at work? Yet again, there is a broad review of the literature in the paper about how games at work are important as they have the key function of improving the positive affect people feel when they are at work. While gamification’s goal is not to make work more interesting in itself, it is indeed focused on improving the affective experiences that take place at work.

The paper touches another concept that it was new to me in the sense that I had never really researched on it, although I had thought of it as a consequence of gamifying work. If you are a manager of a company and you are gamifying the workplace of your employees, won’t they feel like these games are Mandatory Fun? Will not the game be felt as yet another imposed task on the work experience? Would it not make the work environment (even) more tense and deter the affective experiences that are generated? This is where the authors talk about consent to games. Games at work can indeed be seen as an obligatory experience, but there is an interesting reference in the paper that really caught my attention. There is a study of Michel Anteby on consent at an aeronautics plant. Anteby found that employees, after getting the permission of the managerial staff, used spare parts to create sculptures or pieces of art for themselves. On the other hand, the results were very different when the employees were told to do  sculptures or pieces of art for the managers. This dichotomy between being allowed to and being told to is particularly interesting, as it is clear that there is a different behavior when there is consent and when there is imposition. Finally, the authors hypothesize on the consent to games at work, formulating that employees that have had previous game experiences will more likely consent to workplace game experiences because they have not just accepted the importance of games, but have also embraced the sort of games that are used in gamification of work environments as researched by Mark Suchman.

Conclusion

Given the current on-going push for the gamification conference, this paper was actually an interesting and enjoyable read. It is a gold-mine for references since it is quite a long paper, with a good study that demonstrates that gamification is a powerful method when applied correctly. Its structure was really good since the literature review was ample, well written and very well articulated.

One additional bonus of this paper is that it overlaps my current study in punctuality which looks at gamification of work environments as well.

I feel that the movie Office Space is a great parallel way to visualize this paper, not in a sense that we should all become angry computer nerds at work, but rather in a what if sense. If the workplace nurtures a social, playful and collaborative environment, it will not end up like in the movie and everyone reaps great benefits, be them positive affect, increased productivity or overall happiness and enjoyment, instead of keeping the work isn’t fun motto in every employee’s life.

Further References

  1. Roy, D. F. (1959). ” Banana Time”: Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction.Human organization18(4), 158-168.
  2. Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O’Hara, K., & Dixon, D. (2011, May). Gamification. using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts. In PART 2———–Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 2425-2428). ACM.
  3. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2011). Self-determination theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology1, 416-433.
  4. Bruckman, A. (1999, March). Can educational be fun. In Game Developer’s Conference, San Jose, California.
  5. Anteby, M. (2008). Identity incentives as an engaging form of control: Revisiting leniencies in an aeronautic plant. Organization Science19(2), 202-220.
  6. Suchman, M. C. (1995). Managing legitimacy: Strategic and institutional approaches. Academy of management review20(3), 571-610.

Image obtained from http://kylexcraig.deviantart.com/art/Link-working-365601255 on July 02 2013, licensed under the Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. Credit goes to deviantart user kylexcraig.