Work like a Gamer?

Gamification. Have you heard this word? This January gamification entered officially sanctioned reality. In other words, it got it’s own conference and that, these days, is as good a test as any that an idea has acquired sufficient status as a reality: people are willing to pay money to go hear what people have to say under that banner. In fact, people were willing to pay $700. for the one day conference or almost $1500 for the conference plus a workshop. In fact, you can still buy access to the video of all twelve talks & panels given at the conference for $300 at fora.tv

Last evening I saw the high priestess of the emerging theory of gaming & design, Jane McGonigal, who was talking about her new book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World to capacity room of about 300 at the Rotman School of Management. Why do you suppose so many showed up to a business school event to hear about how gaming can change reality?

In the first place, whether people like to use the language or not, I think that most agree with the premise of the book’s title: Reality is broken. And even in business schools these days you will find a growing number of people who will admit that they are woefully short of ideas about how to fix it. So, why not entertain the seductive premise that games can save us?

Not that McGonigal’s premise is either that facile or simplistic. To the contrary, she has brought a rigorous social scientific approach and collected a wealth of convincing scientific evidence in support of her arguments. The big facts, well captured in a recent talk she gave at TED, are that we are playing many, many hours in game worlds and that this time we spend is often making us better and smarter than other parts of our waking life, most particularly our working lives.

McGonigal offers up a succinct and powerful definition of games as consisting in “unnecessary obstacles we voluntary tackle.” One thing is certain, that would be almost no one’s definition of the word, work. The other troubling and subversive thought she shared was that: “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”

What is powerful about games, McGonigal and others, notably Jesse Schell, is the way they tap into our desire to be challenged, to learn, to struggle with puzzles and with each other to find and create meaning. However, it is not just making meaning that compels us to play and go on playing: paradoxically it is the drive to succeed against demonstrably overwhelming odds. McGonigal says that people are failing almost 80% of the time when playing games, and yet they still persist AND they do so without compulsion or force. They do this hard work of play because they like how it makes them feel.

The question I had for McGonigal is whether she has seen evidence of people trying and succeeding of trying to use game design (or gamification) to redesign work itself. This, I suspect is the most wicked problem facing us as we struggle to understand how to create systematic and repeatable approaches to innovation, how to get people to daily practice at and improve at solving tough problems and how to keep moving from obstacle to obstacle, ever craving more and bigger obstacles. In fact, it is this nearly addictive pattern of behavior that is exactly what characterizes well designed and successful games, according to Schell and Raph Koster (author of a Theory of Fun).

We at Moso believe that game development as a platform for serious problem solving is an extremely important emerging area of design. Designs that do not merely aim to shift how people think about work, but how they do it and how they experience it will require a great deal of experiment and courage. We are extremely encouraged by the growing recognition of people like McGonigal and Schell beyond the world of games as entertainment. The recent book and wiki project, Gamestorming, by our friends and colleagues Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo provides more compelling evidence and resources for pushing the boundaries of this important area of design: serious gaming.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I certainly agree that gamification is a fruitful concept so worth treating as ‘real’.

    But I wonder: the way you describe McGonigle’s concept of games/gaming, it sounds remarkably like the romantic ideal of the competitive market economy, beloved of many an academic economist and political theorist from Smith to Rawls and the current occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office. And, I have to say, it’s a good fit – wouldn’t we all prefer that making money was fun, rewarding, and part and parcel of the self-improvement ideal?

    How does this all relate to that other part of reality – raising a family, building community, caring for others? Rhetorical question, but my point is that the gamification idea is, I think, too much an outgrowth of its historic community – mainly men, mainly in wealthy communities, mainly now growing into senior roles in the competitive private sector that is, indeed, quite broken.

    Is it possible that rather than games, the model of a better way of working might have always been right under our noses – common projects for collective outcomes, rather than personal efforts for subjective goals? This need not be dichotomous – but it would direct our gaze to the modes of interaction and discourse in civil society just as much as in business. Institutions matter just as much as individuals and systems (the state).

    This is some of what is being proposed in the recent book The Big Society by that UK Tory MP whose name I’ve forgotten — but I digress.

    Thanks for blogging Michael – cheers.