How Will Video Games Change the Way We Work?

Today, games and reality are becoming ever more intertwined. Many game designers believe that some of the world’s biggest problems might be solved by harnessing the gaming spirit within all of us. At the very least, games have the potential to change how we make a living. Zócalo asked five experts how games will affect affect the way we work in the years ahead.

Games can be a huge help-but have huge limitations

Reality is Broken makes a strong case for applying the lessons of video games to work, and to the rest of the world. While I am very sympathetic to this idea, I would like to add a caveat: Games work well in part because they provide clear goals and feedback, but the application of clear goals and feedback to work environments has in many cases proved disastrous. The employees of (for examples) Washington Mutual have explained how they were being measured exclusively on the number of loans they were approving (clear goals), and how they were threatened with sanctions if they asked too many questions about a customer’s ability to pay (feedback). In fact, much of the financial crisis was due to the application of game-like design principles to work, where employees were forced to work toward short-term goals that were detrimental to the health of their company and the economy at large. In the Eastern Bloc, Polish furniture factories used to be rewarded on the basis of the weight of their total output, and consequently made the heaviest furniture in the world.

The key is to recognize that it is fine to set up goals and feedback in work environments only as long as everybody – from CEO to temp employee – understands that performance measures only give a partial image of reality. Clear goals and feedback are only inspiring in work situations when we have the discretion to decide how seriously we want to take them, and as long as there is no higher-level manager that takes the performance measure literally anyway. Games are also enjoyable because they give us wiggle room. If we are to use game design principles outside games, we need to make sure that the wiggle room is still there; we need to make sure that we are still allowed to use our sound judgment when faced with a performance goal.

Jesper Juul is a video game researcher at the Danish Design School and an affiliate of the New York University Game Center. His recent book A Casual Revolution on MIT Press examined how video games have broken out of their cultural niche and become an art form enjoyed by the majority of the populace.


Games are already the way we work

Like all media (in terms of the devices used, what people do with them, and how all of this fits into their everyday lives), video games do not change anything.

However, the popularity of games and gaming, the pervasiveness of its technologies (as we are getting used to haptic and kinetic engagement with not just games, but indeed the world around us), and the omnipresence of its genre conventions – during the recent protests in Egypt several banners read “Game Over” – are important markers for a different way of thinking about (life and) work.

We do not live with media anymore – we live in media. Video games are not technologies and practices that we can switch on or off – the distinctions between living and working inside or outside of games have become meaningless.

In my classes at Indiana University, students do not get grades – they are leveling up. In the workplace, professionals at the bottom of the corporate ladder spend their careers preparing for the boss-fight at the end. Teamwork rules supreme, but it is based on (at best) temporary constellations of ultimately self-interested and often anonymous (because regionally or globally dispersed) participants.

Games do not change the way we work. Games are the way we work. And thus: we work in games.

Mark Deuze is Associate Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University-Bloomington, where he works on the cultural and technological convergence of media culture in general and the creative industries in particular.


Gamification and adaptation

I try not to be in the business of predicting the future; I have a hard enough time with my usual preoccupation of understanding the present. Further, I’m generally skeptical of simple models of technological causation. Video games, for instance, have already been deeply influenced by the visual conventions of film and television, and I think we will continue to see everyday life influence video games as much as video games influence everyday life.

That said, what kinds of mutual influence might we begin to see? Here are two emerging trends.

The first is the way that we might adopt the conventions of gaming influence other areas of social activity — what some have called the “gamification” of everyday life. I think you can see this, for instance, in some current approaches to location-based technologies; Foursquare makes a visit to your local coffee shop into a game, or at least appropriates the conventions of achievement, competition, and reward as ways of understanding daily activities. Similar approaches have been adopted in technologies oriented to topics such as healthcare and environmental sustainability.

The second is the reframing of video games around everyday life. Gaming experiences were once typically targeted at a pretty well understood setting — a single user sitting in front of a dedicated console or high-end PC. Mobile gaming, though, isn’t just the incorporation of a new platform, but rather the recognition that games need to adapt to new settings and new patterns of play. Similarly, Wii and Kinect are not just new kinds of controllers, but the recognition of different forms of game practice, different audiences, and different kinds of engagement. I see this as an influence of the structure and organization of everyday life on the shape of games and gaming.

Paul Dourish is Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine, where he studies the social and cultural aspects of digital media.


Work will be embedded into games

The contrast between video games and work makes us wonder about how games can transform work, but I think this question almost distracts us from realizing just how much work is already going on in games!

I’ve studied online gamers for over 10 years and player narratives like the following have become increasingly common:

“After becoming a guild leader I found that I had taken on a second full time job. Creating a nice website was a pain and was time consuming. Then came trying to plan raids that the people in our guild could all attend (too much variation in levels), trying to keep people interested, recruiting new people. It was way too much work.” [EverQuest2, Male, Age 31]

In the same vein as web games that transform play into a free labor pool (Luis von Ahn), I think the larger transformation will occur as we figure out how to embed work into games, leveraging gamers.

Imagine if TSA airport screening could be transmuted into a Tetris/Bejeweled game, and majority voting would be used to trigger escalation. Of course individuals might make errors, but a simple majority voting system could be implemented. For example, a red flag is only escalated if at least 3 out of 5 gamers identify a threat. In this way, we’d also be leveraging wisdom of the crowds. This intersection is already occurring in some forms, I think, though the likely outcome will target gamers and not necessarily corporate workers.

Nick Yee is a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center exploring how behavioral insights can be extracted from virtual worlds and online games.


Games will teach us to learn before doing

There are a number of ways games can change the nature of work and more profoundly, our definition of work itself.

The first draws on a concept put forth by Peter Galison to explain how scientists from various fields are able to converse and solve problems – trading zones. Work in the future will be more multicultural, multidisciplinary, multigenerational, and cross boundary. We will need ways to explore and mine interstitial spaces for innovations. Games can become trading zones and translational devices for aggregating ideas, exploring consensus, and focusing collective genius on tough problems.

Second, games can shift the learning paradigm. Look at the news. We are surrounded by dumb organizations that seem to stumble from one failure to another with little evidence of cognitive improvement. Many games allow us to pose and test multiple hypotheses, fail safety, and ‘learn before doing’ rather than after the fact – think of organizational flight simulators used for the collective good.

Finally, what about fun? The original flight simulator was developed in the 1920s as an amusement park game. To paraphrase the science fiction writer William Gibson, dreaming in public should be an important part of our job descriptions. Games can support a bit more dreaming; less drudgery, and that may be a good thing.

David Rejeski directs the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

*Photo courtesy of Florence Ivy.