For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Soviet and American precursors to the gamification of work"

by Nelson, Mark J (2012)


A number of commentators have proposed adapting elements derived from game mechanics to workplaces, to motivate employees via techniques that, the argument goes, have proven successful in a videogame context, and thus may have wider motivational applications. This general strategy has become grouped under the term "gamification". I argue the gamification-of-work movement has at least two major precursors, one in the Soviet Union of the early to mid 20th century, and another in American management of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The Soviet approach focused on games to increase productivity, via experiments ranging from purely competitive games directly tied to productivity, to attempts at morale-building via team games and workplace self-expression. The American management approach focused more strongly on a sense of childhood play, aiming to weaken the work/play split, but often with games and competition integrated into the framework. Neither approach is identical to the gamification-of-work movement, but there exist significant overlaps, and thus both the historical movements themselves, and the critiques that have been directed at them, should be studied in order to better understand how to approach current attempts in light of past experiences.

Key Passage

Gamification of work presents itself as a new movement: game mechanics, the argument goes, have long motivated videogame players, but just now are we realizing that they can be also applied to motivate workers performing serious, productive work. Two precursor movements, however, have had quite similar goals. The Soviet Union’s extensive experiments with workplace-based “socialist competition” hoped to use the power of games and competition to replace capitalist competition with something that would be simultaneously more engaging and humane, yet would motivate high productivity. In a different country and era, the 1990s–2000s American management trend of “fun at work” proposed reimagining the workplace as a fun and playful locale rather than one of work and drudgery, recapturing some of what was seen as an intrinsic, child-like play; in practice this trend included many game-like elements (though not all play and fun is made up of game mechanics). (p 23) ()


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Gamification of Work

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