The more a job inherently resembles a game …. the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of developmentMihaly Csikzentmihalyi, Flow, p. 152
Mihaly argues that work can be made less boring and more autotelic by introducing some of the elements of games into the workplace. This view is the basis of a lot of the attempts at design gamification being practiced in the world today; the addition of game elements to the work environment to increase the engagement and flow that workers experience.
The interesting thing in this statement however is that boring work already has an analogue in a very specific type of game.
The solved game is a game like Tic Tac Toe (X’s and O’s, Naughts and Crosses,) where the outcome of any play through is completely predictable.
If we take two players who both know the above games fully, they will always end up with a tied game. There is no way for them to influence the outcome within the established rules.
Solved games by their very nature are repetitive and boring with little engagement for those who are playing them. To borrow from systems thinking, the ability to control the outcome of the system has become so certain that it has become algorithmic. Player one does X, player 2 does Y, Player 1 does Z, ending in a tied game (or in certain game conditions, player 1 or 2 always wins.)
So, is boring unengaging work a solved game?
As shown in some of my other posts on this site, work definitely fits the criteria established of a game; goals, rules, feedback, and voluntary participation. It becomes a solved game when the outcome is known before the system is ever engaged with.
The deskilling of jobs that has taken place, and the concentrating on mechanistically repeating a set of specific actions to achieve a specific predetermined goal would suggest that this game has in certain areas definitely been solved.
Since the industrial revolution and the moving production line, work has become highly predictable in both input and output, leading to vast increases in the levels of production that are achieved. Unfortunately the mental model that this is the best way to work has been adopted broadly by society to the point where even non-production based work has adopted many of the same traits. This leads, over time, to a breaking down of jobs into individual predictable tasks undertaken by people who, to a large extent, know the outcome of their labor before they walk through the door.
Can the addition of game like elements improve the playability of these jobs?
Sadly, no. The addition of game elements is at most a balm slapped onto the system. This is similar to adding a chance system or a leader board to Tic Tac Toe. It may add some complexity to the system in the short term, increasing interest for a short time, but it will not address the underlying problem.
To have any chance of making solved work / games enjoyable, two elements have to be in place.
1. The underlying assumptions of the system must be challenged.
Is it truly better that the work that we are doing be broken down into meaningless repeatable atoms?
How can we ensure that the players have some form of influence over the outcome of the activity while maintaining uncertainty in that outcome, while all the time balancing the quality of what is being produced?
2. Workers / players need to be able to see a value to what they are doing that extends beyond the activity.
Think of how players are willing to grind away at mundane tasks within a MMORPG to have the resources available to them to engage in something more challenging. If the task is linked to an activity that they can take part in, or a feeling of accomplishment, the engagement level is much higher.
When this is done, there is some hope that the game itself can be changed, leading to a better more autotelic life for all.