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Gamification Or Manipulation? When Games At Work Are Not That Fun

05/09/2016 14:20 | Updated 05 September 2016

Gamification is based on the use of game mechanics, mainly online, to engage people more in the tasks they do and help them and their organization to achieve a higher performance and at the same time satisfaction and enjoyment.

For example, employees in a call centre will be shown the number of calls they answered, the type of issues they solved and the score and feedback they got from clients and how their performance compares to the performance of other colleagues. They may be also shown a timer or a progress bar, which motivates them to solve the issue in a certain amount of time following a certain way. The timer could be visible on the screen of the employees only or also to the other members of the team and thus be viewed as healthy competition between peers or surveillance from management. Leaderboards are a classic game mechanic widely used in gamification.

Are there any ethical and social issues in "gamifying" the workplace?

Yes there are and, unfortunately, they are not being seen as a first priority problem to deal with.

The main concern from the employees' perspective is the relatively high loss of freedom and the probability of being heavily monitored and judged based on what computers can collect about their performance. Such data are often partial and simplistic, e.g., computers would not know whether an employee is calling a difficult customer who has many issues and cannot be dealt with quickly, as they simply collect the time spent, whether the issue is solved and whether the customer scored the employee high or low. This creates a situation where employees may strive to avoid customers of this kind or just prefer to terminate the call with them quickly and accept their low score and negative feedback as employees may feel that such customers will be doing that anyway.

In addition, a one-size-fits-all policy in developing and applying gamification could lead to serious social and mental well-being problems at workplace. For example, employees who are introvert may find it intimidating when appearing in the leader board. This could be even more stressful if the reward is given to them based on their group activities where they may feel the pressure to engage heavily with others against their innate wish.

In our ESOTICS research group at Bournemouth University, we study the engineering of rightful and effective software-based motivation. We advocate the need to consider ethics and social responsibility as first class principles for businesses when adopting gamification-based solutions. We have taken practical steps in that direction via proposing to have a code of of ethics for designing and applying gamification, proposing to take individual differences into account and trying to re-conceptualize this technology as a socio-technical system.

What is a typical justification of gamification downside?

The main justification is based on viewing gamification as just another legitimate form of collecting performance data which is the right of business management for reasons related to appraisal and human resource planning. It could be even argued to be a mechanism that is helpful for staff development by allowing them to do goal setting and self-monitoring. Transparency could be argued as yet another potential justification for using gamification where performance data are captured continuously in a traceable and concrete way and rewards are given accordingly in a fair style.

Is gamification always good for businesses? Is it really increasing performance?

Businesses are recommended to be very careful when applying gamification solutions and think of the overall picture rather than just the presumed performance enhancement.

For example, some employees may be collaborative by nature and asking them to participate in a competition-based gamification, e.g., some point-based rewards or a leaderboard, may make them less willing to share ideas and knowledge. In addition, some employees who could be genuinely willing to do the work may feel that game elements are trivialising it and they have to do them differently or to a lower quality just to win the reward. Indeed, for them the genuine interest in the work is itself a motivation and adding game elements to it may appear like a noise or distraction.

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