Whether on a factory floor or in a call center, games have long formed a crucial part of workplace culture, providing momentary distractions for employees and lending a bit of fun to tedious tasks. Scholars first began taking serious note of gameplay at work during the 1930s, and a seminal 1959 study recorded a range of ways manufacturing workers tried to spice up their onerous jobs by introducing competitive challenges like “stamp a thousand green shapes in a row.” In recent years, praise has been heaped on companies like Google and Pixar that encourage their workers to blow off steam and recharge their batteries at Ping-Pong tables, pinball machines, and video game consoles–often in full view of the executive suite.
But this new study, a working paper from a pair of professors at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests there’s a big difference between workplace games employees may decide to play on their own and games that are mandated by management. Given the benefits associated with happy, engaged employees, who are typically more productive and work better with their colleagues, not to mention the nonmonetary and social rewards that games uniquely provide in an office environment, managers have increasingly tried to weave competitions or contests into day-to-day work life. The result, according to the authors of this paper, is the dread term gamification—a subtle shift from spontaneous and employee-generated games into well-meaning but mandatory “fun.”
In a study of 242 employees at a fast-growing technology firm, the authors divided salespeople into two groups: one in which members were required to participate in a contest and a control group that did not play games. With the assistance of professional game developers, the authors designed a simple basketball-themed competition. Workers scored points by closing deals with customers—few points for “layups,” or sales based on hot leads, and higher points for “jump shots,” sales that resulted from cold calls. When teams scored points, animations played on large display screens in the office to update the leaderboard. At the end of the 18-day competition, the winning team got a bottle of champagne.
All of the employees in the game group were surveyed at the start and end of the contest on a wide range of factors relating to their attitude about participating in the game, and how it affected their work. The authors then collected performance and sales data directly from the company.
In their analysis, the authors controlled for how often participants played games outside of work, their organizational tenure, and the effects of individual managers. The results were striking: Those who were enthusiastic about the game had a much more positive outlook on their work, compared to their colleagues in the non-game-playing control group.
But the feedback from employees was not entirely positive. “Games like that are annoying. Our goals are not a game, and no one dreams them like they are,” said one sales representative, summing up the impressions of those employees who had a negative reaction to the game.
Those who resisted the managerial-instituted competition also reported more negative feelings about their job as a whole. And while having a positive attitude did not, in and of itself, lead to employees closing more deals, those with a negative outlook toward the game saw their performance slump in comparison with the control group. Interestingly, the actual result of the game didn’t matter much—winners were only slightly more likely to have a positive attitude about the game than losers.
The paradox of “mandatory fun,” therefore, poses a dilemma for companies, as engaging workers in morale-boosting initiatives means more than insisting they take part. To help ensure that workers are on board, the authors suggest that managers solicit ideas from employees when launching intra-office competitions. Otherwise, even well-intentioned efforts might backfire. But if workers believe they have genuine input in a contest that springs organically from their and their colleagues’ ideas, why then, the game’s afoot.