In the last week, a hundred million people devoted themselves to work of all kinds. Some of it was menial and repetitive; some of it required sophisticated analysis and team building. There were people buying and selling, people inventing, and people organizing, categorizing and diagnosing. Not too surprising, given that people have always worked. But the hundred million folks devoting their time to all this productivity were not being paid. They gave their time freely, and in many cases actually paid for the opportunity to do this work. They probably did not think of themselves as employees doing a job. You see, these were players interacting with videogames.
Somehow, videogame companies have pulled off an astounding trick. They have found a way to get us to work for no wages. It really is not at all uncommon to find people utterly absorbed in an activity in a game which, were it transposed to a work environment, they would surely walk away from if asked to do that job for no wages (and as for paying the boss good money to be allowed to do it, well!). For example, imagine there was a job at a sweet factory that entailed standing at a conveyer belt and sorting sweets, ones in a red wrapper into one box, those in blue wrappers in another box. Would you do that job for no pay? Yet that task is surely no less dull and repetitive than many of the things Minecraft has us do. Think of the endless digging through block after block, or the action of hitting an enemy with a sword over and over again.
Videogame companies have found a way to make dull work so compelling, people will pay to be allowed to do it. They have had to do this, of course, because they are in the business of selling a product that requires interaction. Whenever you play a videogame you are required to do something, and if the game designers did not ensure that activity was fun and engaging, nobody would buy their product. In the workplace, though, there is no need to ensure employees are having fun. People earn wages to live, and that provides motivation enough to persuade folks to stack shelves, wait tables, manage stores and so on. When it comes to what is expected of an employee, things like ‘working efficiently’ and ‘working hard’ no doubt rank highly among many a boss. But ‘having fun’? I suspect a lot of companies would consider play and fun and games to be counterproductive in the workplace.
THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT WORK AND PLAY
Traditionally, we have tended to adopt a protestant ethic in our attitudes to our jobs, probably because of its influence on industrial-age views of time and work. Of all employees, it is those who ‘work hard’ who are most highly praised, even though it was those who worked smart and used knowledge and technology to reduce the amount of physical and mental work required of us, that did most to raise standards of living. But if we continue to place a high emphasis on rewarding hard work, while continuing to dismiss play and games as mere frivolity, we could well be in trouble, for in the future we will be in competition with a rival workforce that would far outperform us in terms of the amount of work they can handle, and how efficiently they do their jobs.
Anyone who follows tech news is bound to have come across articles discussing robots and AI, and the impact they are likely to have on employment in the years to come. A combination of cheaper, more capable sensors, greater computing capacity and more sophisticated algorithms is beginning to result in machines that can be relied on to do jobs that once required people.
Generally speaking, we can sort ‘work’ into three categories. It is either ‘transformative’, ‘transactional’ or ‘tacit’. Transformative work entails converting raw materials into a product of some kind: Vegetables and rabbit into a meal, metal, plastic and rubber into a car. It is obvious how machines can help productivity in transformative work, because we have all seen how useful mechanization can be in this area. Transactional work entails people interacting with people in fairly routine ways, following rules. Once those rules can be converted into algorithms that can be executed by computers, machines can interact with other people or other machines and do such work as well.
As computers become more and more powerful and capable of running larger and more complex sets of algorithms, we are likely to see more and more kinds of transactional work becoming automated. We are also likely to see more jobs disappearing in ‘transformative’ work, although some of that requires hand-eye coordination as yet unmatched by any robot, so I expect some tasks will still require people for some time to come. But the point is that robots are coming and people really cannot compete with such machines when it comes to working hard and efficiently.
So that leaves tacit work, which is defined as tasks that are ambiguous and require experiential knowledge. Since they are not at all easy to codify into a set of rules, jobs that entail doing tacit work will be among the last to become automated. A robot that can do tacit work would need general intelligence, creativity, and common sense, and these have proven to be exceedingly difficult to program.
While you can command the things you want from transformative or transactional workers, such authoritarian tactics fail in the area of tacit knowledge. The only way to encourage effective work in this area is to create conditions that ensure tacit knowledge workers want to provide innovation, collaboration, and insight. In order to achieve this we will have to reconsider our assumptions about play.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
When you look past play in terms of frivolity it becomes clear how important it really is. Perhaps the strongest evidence of its value comes from the observation of play throughout the animal kingdom. Lion cubs indulge in play fighting, dogs love to chase after thrown sticks, and dolphins seem to get a kick out of riding ships’ bow waves. In the case of the lion cubs, the value of their play is obvious: it is useful practice that evolved to help them develop the skills they will come to rely on as adults. When we play we are often mimicking, and that can be a useful aid in learning motor skills, and engaging in social relationships.
The importance of play in childhood is not in doubt, but traditionally its value for adults has been largely dismissed. If somebody was asked to name the opposite of ‘work’ it’s a fair bet they would choose ‘play’. According to the old-school view, play is something irrelevant to serious work, and therefore a distraction that has no place in the world of business. The world of work is one where efficiency is everything, and if play is a waste of time for adults, by having too much fun it must follow that the business process must be negatively affected.
That was how play used to be appreciated in the adult world, but there is another perspective that defines play as ‘delight in serious work’, and recognises its importance in producing focused concentration, competitive behaviour, and community identity.
GO WITH THE FLOW
When it comes to focused concentration, one name stands out: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He was the psychologist that coined the term ‘flow’ to describe a state of being that occurs when one voluntarily tries to accomplish a difficult task for which one has the right skills. ‘Flow’ refers to a high level of engagement with a task, one where the mind is totally focused on the activity, excluding all else. The state of flow is more likely to be induced when experiences stretch abilities and when novelty and discovery are involved. ‘Flow’ is a good way of understanding how enjoyment is a precursor to involvement at work, as well as how games create motivation.
Being engaged and emotionally evolved in what one is doing has obvious benefits for work. It has a positive influence on productivity, can facilitate creativity and increase the likelihood of cooperation among people. Play is an important component of attention and involvement. Whether we are talking about play or work, feeling and thinking are closely related. Attention is increased when the brain’s emotional and memory systems communicate, and game play is most effective as a learning aid when it has features that activate emotional response in the form of arousal. Excitement enhances both performance and learning, and therefore one might expect traditional school classrooms, corporate training settings and other formal environments to be less ideal places to learn than informal environments such as playgrounds, living rooms, and videogames. Indeed, new studies do tilt an advantage toward such informal settings.
The author of ‘Homo Ludens’, Johan Huizinga, said that whenever people engage in a contest of skill, challenging oneself in comparison with others, such behaviour can be defined either as work or play. Huizinga has suggested that there is essentially no difference between playful contests and politics, law, art, and other activities that shape the essence of culture. Others, though, argue that there is more to play than power and that related concepts like potency or competency are more appropriate. Whatever the case, most people believe work to be some kind of contest, one in which players compete for such rewards as a higher salary or a more plush office.
The view of games as competitive power play should be balanced with the cooperative behaviour that is intrinsic to teamwork. Play can just as legitimately be thought of in terms of community identity. According to anthropological studies into group identity, engaging in play helps increase a feeling of belonging. Games are a way to confirm membership in a group and communicate that membership to others. Since play helps build effective teams, its use for business collaboration and innovation becomes clear. As Blascovich and Bailenson wrote:
“Games at work can create community identity…celebrating those within a group, and offering opportunities for confirmation and repair within the community”.
Play, then, is not just some trivial activity. It is what allows work to transcend a sense of time and place. It is organized, purposeful and influential, helps produce focused concentration, healthy competition and team cohesion. But because studies about work and play have traditionally been considered separately, there has been scant attempt to really unify the two. The arrival of powerful computers and the Internet helped blur the distinction between work and home. As VR has the scope to further blend such boundaries we should take the opportunity to bring work and play together. A good way to do that would be to study how videogames achieve the remarkable trick of making dull work so entertaining people pay to be allowed to do it.
WHY VIDEOGAMING IS COMPELLING
A good place to begin would be to look more closely at features of ‘flow’ that contribute to a sense of enjoyment. It turns out that videogames are particularly suitable for generating such features. One thing that is required to induce ‘flow’ is exclusion of distractions. Even without fully immersing the player in virtual worlds like VR promises to one day do, videogames can use graphics and audio to pull gamers into the experience. Another feature of flow is that there are clear goals at every step. This is, of course, a mainstay of games. Not only should the goals be clear, there should also be immediate feedback. Whether it’s successful or not, each small step should provide information that keeps attention centered on corrective action. Videogame design achieves this with various cues that inform the player when a course of action is worth continuing and when it is better to try something else.
Merger of action and awareness, a tight coupling of thinking and behaviour, is another core feature of flow. A well-designed gaming interface can deliver this feature. Properly designed, the action of using a tool becomes so intuitive users see ‘through’ it and focus instead on the task in hand. The physical task may entail some repetitive action like repeatedly pressing buttons, but in the gamer’s mind he or she is trying to outrun a pack of velociraptors.
Perhaps the most important feature of enjoyment in flow is the balance between challenge and skill. Achieving this requires the creation of just enough uncertainty about accomplishment for attention to be required, but not so much that the state of flow is interrupted. ‘Flow’ is found in those experiences that are on the boundary of what is possible given your current abilities. Videogames have long used difficulty settings that let players determine how hard a challenge will be. As sensors and computers get better at capturing and understanding psychological cues and biometric data, videogames will evolve to have adaptive difficulty settings, dynamically lowering or raising the bar to maintain that perfect balance between challenge and skill.
Looking back over these features, we can see that many of them share something in common. In one way or another, they are all about feedback and reward. Oftentimes, when a job fails to engage it is due to some deficiency in the feedback/ reward system. Sometimes work is too easy. Where MMOGs are concerned, easy work can be embedded into quests and storylines that are part of a larger narrative within a multilevel game. If the convergence of gaming and work through VR allows similar tricks to work in business, workers would be more engaged, which would lead to more enthusiasm for the job, and higher productivity. Work can also be too hard, maybe because the learning curve is too steep, or because evaluating and celebrating each intermediate step is not easy enough. As we learn to ‘gamify’ jobs, the techniques of good game design could become useful guides for fixing poor work design.
Csikszentmihalyi wrote about some of the elements that interfere with job satisfaction in ‘Good Business’. Enthusiasm for one’s work suffers when there is uncertainty with respect to individual goals, when there is a mismatch between skills and challenges and when people lack sufficient control over their work. Strategies for resolving some of these issues include using machines to do the mechanical and transactional parts of a job out of the way, but if we are interested in making work engaging enough to induce flow, care will have to be taken to ensure that extracting inefficiencies from work will not result in jobs that are even more boring or tedious. Games can clearly help here, as they embed a lot of experience in providing satisfying levels of complexity and aspiration over timescales of seconds, minutes, hours, and maybe even months and years in the case of MMORPGs and online worlds.
One thing many business share in common with games would be reward incentives that indicate important differences and reputations. In videogames these can include ways of customising one’s avatar with better and fancier armour, say, or accessories that signal to other players that you have accomplished such and such or are adept at so and so. Businesses too sometimes use various insignia to signal reputation, such as pins and plaques or differing office sizes. But rewards in business differ from games in terms of their often being markers that are unreliable and imprecisely linked to information about expertise, project successes and other aspects of reputation. Also, in business, such insignia are awarded maybe years after whatever accomplishments might have merited their reward. In videogames, such rewards are awarded in realtime, and have shared definitions that make it easy for fellow players to put together teams with the right set of complementary skills.
It is also easier to trust reputational markers in videogames because the skills required to merit them are objectively calculated by the computer, which is keeping track of everybody’s stats and displaying the results for all to see. Leadership in business tends to be predetermined by a resume of past accomplishments, and office politics can influence who climbs up the hierarchy. It is hard to think of any system that automatically produces as much relevant, valid and transparent data as an MMOG does. An argument could be made that videogames are a rare example of environments where promises of a meritocracy are truly kept.
There is, however, one way to cheat the system, and that is to buy a character that has already been levelled up. In countries like South Korea, sweatshop labourers no longer sit at sewing machines, manufacturing cheap clothes. They sit at computers, grinding through levels and improving the stats of avatars that are bought by people who prefer not to do such work.
It’s not necessarily the case, then, that an avatar who displays insignia broadcasting certain skills and accomplishments belongs to a person who has such abilities. However, this form of cheating is corrected by the relaxed view of risk and the related accelerated pace in games. In business, leaders often only execute a course of action after carefully debating opinions. For gamers, failure is a learning aid for strategizing about the next attempt rather than a career killer. Failure is an expected feature of play, at least on occasion, and games make it easier to get past mistakes because the player never has to wait long to retry or attempt an alternative approach.
In games, then, trial and error, weighing odds under uncertainty under often chaotic conditions, is the norm. This trial and error and relaxed view of risk extends to leadership and other team roles. The quick and organized pace of play changes leadership from an identity to a task, because gamers see no permanence in any role: Unlike in real life, where leaders are often identified and trained for roles that may last for years, leaders in games are chosen or volunteer in minutes and the relaxed view of risk means it’s easier to have people step up and prove they are as good as their avatar would have others believe. Bryon Reeves and J. Leighton Read wrote in ‘Total Engagement’:
“There’s an expectation in games that someone will step up to offer temporary leadership if things go awry. What if work groups were more dynamic, allowing for continual changes as a group developed, including the opportunity for self-nomination?”.
So, videogames have developed review and reward mechanisms that make goals clear, reduce ambiguity, provide lots of opportunity to advance and encourage an attitude that plans will often fail but what is more important is to try, register the feedback, and try again with a modified course of action. But most videogames- certainly MMORPGs- have more than just good trial and error mechanics to explain how they make dull work exciting. They also have well-crafted narratives.
Arguably, the human species could be described as a storytelling animal. Given their ancient relationship with us, we would expect stories to provide important psychological advantages. This is indeed the case. Stories aid us in thinking, in developing social expertise, and are an important part of emotional experience.
In the case of aiding us in thinking, people find it much easier to remember information that is presented in narrative format, rather than merely stacked one fact on another. A common method used by champion recollectors is to make up a story around whatever they are memorizing (the sequence of a stack of cards, say). Narratives are important in games because they aid memory, and that helps give gamers a greater sense of control over the information they are gathering. Narratives help guide action and are useful in organizing such things as character roles and group action. Narratives help players figure out what their relationship is to other players and how what they are currently doing fits into the larger picture.
Narratives also have a place in business. When business case studies are presented as stories, placed in the context of events sequenced with a beginning, middle and end, along with some tension over how things resolve, audiences become more engaged, placing themselves in the same negative space. This is one of the psychological responses to narrative at work. All good stories rely on uncertainty as a way of creating excitement and tension that both sustains and involvement and focuses the mind on resolution and release. The natural response people have to excitement is to attempt to reduce it, especially in the case of excitement whose source is conflict. This natural response to excitement is critical to the engagement of stories.
It’s already fairly common to use narratives in business planning and management, but this most often consists of a narrative to guide a single training session or somebody’s motivational pitch. The grander narratives built into MMORPGs hints at a more complex alignment of game and business narratives. A compelling sense of purpose is the most important ingredient frequently missing from management. If we look at MMORPGs, though, then in the words of Bryon Reeves and J. Leighton Read:
“Player time is structured along a vector of aspiration and accomplishment that is part of a larger narrative that ties the process together. There is much that modern enterprise can learn from this”.
Another thing to bare in mind is that game designs leave room for more complex evolving networks of player behaviour. Such networks could be useful in businesses looking for more connectedness between employees in large organizations that allow many degrees of freedom between a worker and actual customers.
We can now put together the component parts of the structure that enables games to encourage people to work for free, or even pay to be allowed to work. Games provide narratives that inspire purpose. They provide environments where every action is imbued with meaning as part of a valid goal, and they provide relevant and timely feedback that guides skills appropriately matched to important challenges. In short, as Bryon Reeves and J. Leighton Read put it, “games do a better job than sophisticated corporations of creating purposeful environments where action is imbued with meaning as part of a valid goal”.
ENCOURAGING TACIT WORK
We saw earlier how advances in automation are likely to wipe out jobs that involve transformational and transactional work, but that tacit work requires creative and social skills that are formidably hard to code into computers. The difficulty in designing machines to perform tacit work suggests it’s not something that can be commanded, and this is indeed the case. You can’t command the things you want from tacit knowledge workers, instead you have to create the conditions that encourage innovation, collaboration and insight. This is best achieved when people enter workplaces that allow serious interactions to parallel playful ones, and so we should expect the most successful businesses of the future to take advantage of computing and VR tech to redesign work to be more like a videogame. The truth of this becomes pretty obvious when you consider just how much time and devotion people freely give to videogaming. Businesses would consider employees as dedicated to their jobs an invaluable asset. In games we typically find extraordinary teamwork, complementary roles that require coordinated action, elaborate data analysis and strategy and, perhaps most important of all, decision-making and leadership behaviour that is quick to happen, has transparent consequences and is awarded in a way that gets closer to a true meritocracy than perhaps any other experience. VR will make it easier to mashup home, work, and playful environments, and the engagement that gamers regularly experience would lead to tremendous increases in productivity for businesses that successfully ‘gamify’ the workplace.
The drive to ‘gamify’ work will come from people who have experience with games and recognise that serious work and the acquisition of useful skills can indeed come from play. The more people videogames can appeal to, the more the knowledge of their potential to drive productivity will spread. So, probably the most important condition for bringing about this change is for the gamer demographic to become as wide as possible.
HERE COMES EVERYBODY
There was a time when ‘inclusive’ was just about the last word anyone would use to describe videogaming. Once upon a time, games systems were considered by most to be very different to consumer electronics like the TV or stereo. It would be expected that the whole family would use those devices, but as for the games console that would appeal only to the young son. Videogames were once considered to be kid’s toys that girls and adults would not or should not find appealing in the slightest.
Nowadays games consoles like the PS4 are designed to sit alongside consumer electronics and marketed as such, rather than as just toys. Mobile gaming and innovations like the Wii controller are bringing gaming to a much greater audience than just little boys, or at least trying to. Most console manufacturers now advertise their products as hubs of social activity that can appeal to anyone. VR can help here, because it has potential to enable us to interact with computer-generated worlds in highly intuitive ways, worlds that could be highly social.
What helped this transformation is that the gamer generation matured. People of the past who grew up never knowing homes without a TV or radio became the people who were brought up in homes where videogames were ubiquitous. The kids who played on their Segas and Nintendos became adults who play on their Xboxes and smartphones.
YOU PLAY MINECRAFT? YOU’RE HIRED!
In the past, when videogames were considered to be nothing but toys for little boys, it would have been just unthinkable that you could secure a job on the basis of what accomplishments you had achieved during gameplay. No boss would employ somebody who said they deserved a job because they achieved a high-score on such and such game. And no prospective employee would think to put their game achievements along with their work history and educational background on their CV.
But once you can safely assume that your boss plays videogames and that it’s likely he or she recognises that real work and valuable skills are part and parcel of gameplay, it would make a lot more sense to cite appropriate game skills among the reasons why you are right for the job. Since this requires nothing but a change of attitudes (from videogames as mere distraction to videogames as training grounds for employable skills) it is likely to be the earliest changes along the way to merging play with work.
Do players really acquire useful, employable skills during gameplay? Yes. Today we have videogames that require players to perform work like identifying information by categorizing, estimating, recognizing differences or similarities, and detecting changes in circumstances or events; estimating the quantifiable characteristics of products, events or information; judging the qualities of things, services or people; evaluating information to determine compliance with standards; making decisions and solving problems; developing objectives and strategies; scheduling work and activities and establishing and maintaining personal relationships. And that is just a small sample of all the technical, interpersonal and creative skills that people develop as they strive to meet the challenges laid down by modern games.
It’s quite likely that most players are not aware that they are engaged in work while at play, because the sheer fun of what they are doing makes it seem far removed from work as it has been traditionally defined. The more an experience becomes explicitly educational, the more it becomes about developing compartmentalized skills. What we most want to encourage in a world where tacit work is the main source of employment is experiential learning rather than intentional training. Experiential learning is a bottom-up process that relies heavily on environments that reduce the cost of failure while retaining useful lessons from experience. In MMOGs, it’s typical to try and retry challenges repeatedly in a variety of ways until the right blend of skills, talents, and actions required to succeed are discovered and perfected. This kind of learning trains people to be more flexible in their thinking and more sensitive to social cues, which is precisely what future work will require as other kinds of work are taken over by robots.
There are two lessons that games are teaching us here: That videogame environments can encourage experiential learning which can translate into employable skills and that learning and working can be fun and engaging. The gamer generation has grown up knowing that it’s perfectly possible to offer a sense of purpose and aspiration to workers in the context of tasks that are often dull and repetitive. Their experience of gaming will shape their expectations of what jobs should offer. Why should future workers settle for work experiences that do not provide timely feedback allowing people to know how they are doing and how to improve? That do not provide socially-rich interactions occurring over multiple scales of time and space? That do not let people rise up the ranks based on merit? After all, for years they will have worked in game environments that achieve all that and more. Why would entrepreneurs not take advantage of VR to reconfigure workplaces into playful environments that encourage the kinds of skills future work will require of people?
It was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who said we should “make certain that organizational behaviour does not deprive workers of the enjoyment that comes naturally from being able to to do one’s best”. As the future of human work will be about engaging workers more than commanding them, the most successful businesses will be those that allow for experiential learning. As Bryon Reeves and J. Leighton Read put it:
“Ultimately, the entire workplace may be transformed by 3D environments and game mechanics…The metrics by which the new systems evaluated will be efficiency and productivity. But the mechanism responsible for success will be straight out of entertainment: I’m having more fun”.
So there we are. VR can be entertaining. It can also help us to reconfigure workplaces into playful environments that encourage the blossoming of tacit skills which will become increasingly useful as more algorithmic work is taken over by automation.
Now, if only they could make wearing VR gear look a bit less dorky…
*hero image used from http://www.fastcodesign.com/3027921/facebook-google-and-sony-are-getting-ready-to-fight-a-cyberpunk-war