a neon sign that reads "work and play"

How Some Companies Are Exploiting Our Desire to ‘Play’

Gamifying the workplace is distorting the way employees view employment and downtime

Social IssuesMental health and wellbeing
By VoiceBox ·


By young people, for young people

How Some Companies Are Exploiting Our Desire to ‘Play’

The psychology of ‘play’ dates back to before humans walked the earth. It’s embedded in the history of life itself and will continue to exert its influence until time stops ticking. From a domesticated cat pouncing on a ball of yarn, to polar bears skidding across ice sheets, to family feud over a game of monopoly – play is a crucial part of caring for mental well-being, strengthening friendships and learning new skills. 

In 1952, Physicist William Higinbotham created what is considered to be the first-ever video game. It was a simple tennis-inspired game that involved players timing themselves correctly so that the ball made it over the net. While it wasn’t available commercially, the exhibition that housed it welcomed large queues from the general public, who were suddenly taking a great interest in physics thanks to Higinbotham’s work. ‘Play’ was evolving into the digital world, and its consumers couldn’t get enough. 

The video games we know today are, on the surface at least, works of art. Many offer outstanding graphics full of intricate detail, immersive storytelling that feels like you’re part of a film, and bang for your buck with open-world games that take months to complete. But the current business model that some game developers follow is also heavily exploitative – not just in the ‘pay to play’ strategy, but also tasks for reward. The same ‘bang for your buck’ can involve a huge amount of unnecessary filler content, and enormous world maps filled to the brim with needless side-quests and treasure chests. For many players, it’s exhausting. Tick boxes of tasks to complete for little more than a common weapon to add to your already full meleé collection is hardly the immersive experience sold to consumers. 

“When you’re on the way to play war with Spartans, and a gleaming treasure chest is calling you from the depths of the ocean surrounded by sharks, it’s all too tempting to take a detour and find out what’s inside,” said one young person we spoke to.

“I don’t particularly enjoy it, but I have to complete it before I can rest.”

‘Tasks for reward’ is merging into other industries too, with some workplaces adopting the same practices to ‘motivate’ employees. Sadly, it’s often low-income or junior staff who are targeted. In 2017, the New York Times published an investigation into Uber, claiming that the company uses ‘Psychological Tricks’ to keep drivers driving. The publication found that Uber was exploiting the impulse to set earning goals – alerting drivers that “they are ever so close to hitting a precious target when they try to log off.”

Corporate settings aren’t faring much better. “The team leader at my job rewards this desk decoration each month to the employee who has performed best”, another young person said.

“I hate it. It makes me feel like a child. Working to the bone to be given what is essentially a toy.”

The exploitation of junior staff is concerning. Of course, work can be extremely rewarding in its own right, and no one wants to suggest that all companies are untrustworthy. There is also some value in setting goals in the workplace. We also aren’t trying to suggest that there’s harm in having a little fun at work. A World Cup sweepstake or a Thursday afternoon spent playing table tennis is very different from tempting people into overtime or giving out valueless rewards for the sake of performance. Gamifying the workplace at the expense of young people is distorting the way they view employment and downtime. If ‘play’ is at work, then what do we do at home? 

Video games should solely be for personal enjoyment; separate from paid work, ready to switch on so we can switch off at the end of the day. We urge senior leadership teams to think twice before implementing gaming models into the way they operate. After all, junior employees are real people, not avatars in a white collar alternate reality.

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