Gamification Is Exploitation

The trend of gamification — applying elements of game play to other areas of life — is the apex of the neoliberal fantasy, rendering both work and our leisure time outside of it into a series of games that we supposedly enjoy playing for their own sake.

Gamification is interested far less in affirming our ludic capacities than it is in exploiting the habit-forming and addictive mechanisms of our minds. (Gabby Jones / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

One of neoliberalism’s promises was that it could create a world of creative and fulfilling work, where workers were no longer extensions of factory machinery as they had been under Taylorism. Workers were imagined as artists, and these benefits would no doubt trickle down into everyone’s personal lives as well. The trend of gamification might just be the apex of the neoliberal fantasy rendering work — and everything else — into a series of games that we supposedly enjoy playing for their own sake.

But gamification is a hollow scheme — offered up by managers, behavioral economists, industrial psychologists, and consultants, none of whom have our best interests in mind — that distracts us from the drudgery of work and endless self-improvement while constraining the human capacities it pretends to develop.

The Gamification of Work

When defining gamification, most academic papers use the same definition: the use of game design features in nongame contexts. But what does this actually look like when put into practice? Everywhere it has been implemented, gamification is more or less the same: a constellation of avatars, usernames, badges, incremental rewards, progress bars, and leaderboards where people are ranked against their peers. Often included is a degree of interactivity. People can progress by pushing buttons, moving levers, connecting dots, pulling up to refresh, or any other fine motor movements suitable for touch screens. Not all these features have to be in place for gamification to make itself known, but they often come together.

However, while “gamification” might be new, the introduction of game mechanics into the labor process predates the proliferation of touch screens and the web by decades. Back in 1979, Michael Burawoy wrote of “The Labor Process as a Game,” describing how workers would turn their factory jobs into games to pass the time and make their jobs more endurable. Burawoy cites Donald Roy, who describes how the introduction of piecemeal rates — in which factory workers were paid based on output, not by a standard daily wage — began an implicit competition among workers not based on quotas or outputs but scores and results. The workers in question could exercise their workplace skills, like dexterity and stamina, and a degree of uncertainty and luck added to the level of excitement. “It is not so much the monetary incentive that concretely coordinates the interests of management and worker but rather the play of the game itself,” Burawoy writes, in a statement that has only become more prophetic with time.

As the above example shows, gamification doesn’t necessarily require internet technology to function, but the introduction of information technology has certainly helped gamification proliferate throughout workplaces. This has less to do with the technology of video games and more to do with the degree to which management can monitor employees’ speed and competence and quantify their actions.

To draw from my history working in supermarkets, every checkout system I’ve ever known has taken note of how many items each worker scans per hour — sometimes per minute — and sometimes an actual leaderboard will be placed in locations visible to employees, letting them know exactly where they stand in competition with each other, similar to various gamified apps.

A comparable system exists in white-collar workplaces, where employees’ productivity can be closely monitored at their desks, whether by Microsoft Viva or by keylogging software installed by management. An open spirit of competition is less prevalent in professional workplaces such as these (with notable exceptions), but the fact that one often receives updates of their own productivity encourages not only an implicit competition against other employees but also against oneself, always looking to improve and optimize.

As was to be expected, gamification has taken the gig economy by storm. TaskRabbit, Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb have all incorporated consumer ratings into their systems on a scale of one to five stars, usually with some form of demerit or benefit if users drop below or rise above a certain rating, respectively. Taskers with high customer ratings and reliability, for example, are given badges recognizing them as “elite” and preference in customer searches, both of which are benefits in so precarious and competitive a field. Elite taskers also get more active community support from TaskRabbit itself and an invite to an exclusive Facebook group with others like them. Airbnb hosts who rise above 4.8 stars and meet a threshold of ten guests per year get recognized as “Superhosts,” and they also receive preference in customer searches.

On the other side of things, if one’s rating for their services is too low, their search preferences will suffer badly. And in the case of Uber and Lyft, if a driver’s rating remains below 4.6 for long enough, they lose access to the app. For gig workers on these platforms, the consumer rating system is an omnipresent reminder that just because they don’t have a boss in the traditional sense doesn’t mean they are free from surveillance. Far from it, platform apps track workers’ every movement and map their behaviors, and management is largely offloaded onto their customers, with little support from the companies themselves if either a worker or client has an issue.

But these rating systems also give gig workers the sense of reward so crucial to the rhetoric of gamification. In an article in the Guardian, Lyft driver Sarah Mason writes that these customer rating systems prey on “our desire to be of service, to be liked, to be good,” and that whether she’s rated highly or poorly, both keep her more motivated to drive for Lyft all the same.

Now You’ve Made the Green Owl Cry

But gamification doesn’t end at the workplace. It has spread from language learning apps like Duolingo to exercise aides like Fitbit. To paraphrase Guy Debord, who was himself paraphrasing Marx, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of games.

On Duolingo, users are not only subjected to the app’s notorious push notifications; they’re also placed on a leaderboard and ranked among other users. If one’s position on the Duolingo leaderboard isn’t convincing enough by itself, there are also the notifications around one’s streak of using the app every day, points to collect, and avatars to create for oneself. Fitbit encourages its users to connect with people they know personally and compete with them over things like heart rate, hours slept, steps clocked per day, or distance walked, run, or cycled.

Even though the discourse surrounding gamification implies an inherent similarity with video games, there’s frankly not much connecting the two. In fact, gamification represents the worst aspects of video games with little of the positive to be found, or none at all.

Whereas video games have story elements, meaningful choices to be made, and occasionally interesting graphic design choices, the conventions of gamification lack all these things. The only graphic design style to be found is the same “Corporate Memphis” aesthetic permeating everything from fintech startups to public transport advertisements, and the interactivity on offer is usually as minor as clicking a button, watching a progress bar expand, and hearing a sound effect. Gamification is interested far less in affirming our ludic capacities than it is in exploiting the habit-forming and addictive mechanisms of our minds. And rather than allowing us the freedom that video games aim to create, gamification constrains us within a few select motions and processes. Gamified systems fall far closer to slot machines than, say, Red Dead Redemption 2.

Games Without the Fun

Gamification, argues Ian Bogost, isn’t really a style of game design at all. Rather, “it’s a style of consulting that happens to take up games as its solution.” It puts the emphasis much more on the “-ification” suffix than it does the “game.” As a pair of business luminaries from the Wharton School write, gamification is all about giving an otherwise unenjoyable task an intrinsic motivation, a sense of fun that makes us want to do the task for its own sake. The factory workers from Burawoy’s example are more willing to work, and to work harder than usual, if they have a motivation beyond simply earning a paycheck at the end of the week. In the case of voluntarily using a free app like Duolingo, gamification works to ensure that we want to keep giving it our attention, despite genuine criticisms that gamification undermines the app’s stated goals of language acquisition.

And finally, the supposed creativity gamification is supposed to grant us is undermined by the fact that the creativity in question is totally subordinate to utilitarian problem-solving. Sandbox games like Zelda, Minecraft, or the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption 2 allow genuine creativity by giving the player a series of tools and resources and setting them loose in an environment. The most fun to be had in these games almost never comes from story missions but from screwing around in the games’ open worlds. The creativity supposedly produced by gamification, like other specious forms of creativity in economistic neoliberal societies, is that of creative solutions or creative insights into one’s personal or professional life. The implication is that creativity isn’t good unless it’s useful — or, better yet, profitable. This instrumentalization of creativity is by no means specific to gamification — education suffers badly from the same issue — but both are a symptom of the same neoliberal economizing.

It’s clear that gamification falls short in a variety of ways, but where does it succeed? Simply put: in providing us with compelling distractions. Whether we’re at work or in our brief moments of leisure time, gamification is always there to ensure that we never feel negatively about the task at hand.

In the works of notorious pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, negative feelings are a constant existential threat that we must distract ourselves from by any means necessary. (Even the “gamification-from-below” outlined by Jamie Woodcock and Mark Johnson is founded upon distracting workers from the misery of their work. It’s obviously preferable to what they call the “gamification-from-above” offered by Fitbit and our bosses, but it’s nonetheless a distraction.) However, if Schopenhauer’s conception was correct, gamification would give us more than we need to feel satisfied and fulfilled, because mere distractions would be enough to ensure our happiness. All we’d need is a lack of this fundamental negativity. That obviously isn’t the case. What we need, then, is a conception not of negative feelings and their negation, but play and its affirmation.

All Work and No Play

For a description of play that doesn’t see it as a mere distraction from negativity, we can turn to an essay David Graeber wrote for the Baffler nearly a decade ago. In it, Graeber suggested that “there is a play principle at the basis of all physical reality,” from the random movement of electrons to groups of birds flying in complex formations with nowhere to go. “The free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities will,” Graeber says, “tend to become an end in itself.” Dogs chasing each other around a yard, children inventing role-playing games utterly inscrutable to anyone supervising them, stoners hypothesizing thought experiments with no real-world application — these are all examples of play undertaken for no reason other than because whatever entity is playing feels like it and has the capacity to do so. Rather than wallowing in Schopenhauerian pessimism, Graeber’s claim gives play an affirmative content, a quality far beyond simple distraction. This is the kind of play that makes life worth living.

Gamification and play differ in that the former needs to give the employee or self-optimizer a singular purpose. There’s a reason why the person is doing a task that is supposedly so mind-numbing that it requires gamification to render it tolerable, whether it’s learning a language, writing emails at a desk, exercising, or doing menial labor. Play, as we’ve seen, requires no reason at all other than the player’s ability and enjoyment. “Play has only internal purpose,” the German philosopher Eugen Fink reminds us, “unrelated to anything external to itself.” The children’s game of tag has a purpose — the tagger tags others and the others avoid being tagged — but this purpose only makes sense within the process of playing, and it ends when the school bell rings. In a similar fashion, meerkats spend a lot of their time wrestling each other, leading zoologists to the conclusion that there must be a broader physical or social reason for their doing so. But so far studies have ruled out meerkats’ play-fighting as having any effect on their social cohesion, levels of aggression, or their future success in fighting. This seems to suggest that, true to the thinking of Fink and Graeber, the meerkats are playing for the fun of it, and perhaps for that reason alone.

Gamification cannot deliver on its promises of creativity, fulfillment, and fun. By its very nature, it can only distract us from a task that would be unbearable without it, an inadequate solution to a more complex problem. Real play — activity done for no purpose other than to exercise one’s abilities — provides that which gamification promises but cannot deliver.