Karina Popp's portfolio

Copyright 2007-2012
Built with Indexhibit

PDF Version

Play in Labor

Many of the texts on the definition of play operate on a binary of work and play. However, there are myriad examples of play in labor, from Google’s playful attitude towards work and basic “Employee of the Month” competitions. While not all labor incorporates play, the premise of adding game-like elements to work is a common strategy among employers. These situations are usually conceived under the pretense that making work playful will improve productivity, employee morale, and company image. Despite any resemblance to games, though, play utilized in labor is only that: a tool to an end. And that end is not just an increase in work performance, but also to perpetuate corporate values that convey ideologies about play itself. Different forms of labor can be playful, but not a true game, and parsing out play in labor reveals ideologies about socio-economic class and play.

Google’s model of work particularly lends itself to analysis as play. Beginning by examining the spaces in which their employees work, a sequestering from the “real world” is apparent. Their offices and campuses (a word that itself hints to the idea that the spaces are territories separate from the rest of the world) are saturated in bright colors and their conference rooms decorated in a “Broadway-theme… with velvet drapes.” (Stewart) Writing is scrawled on the walls by engineers. The space operates partially within a magic circle, a space where “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” (Huizinga 10) Virtually any activity could be considered to have a distinct space, but Google campuses are not just distinct from non-workspaces but also other workspaces. There is a carnivalesque feeling to Google’s campuses; space has transformed and the world operates under very different rules.

Google also incorporates literal play in their employees daily lives. Workers roll through hallways on scooters, tinker with LEGOs, and go on scavenger hunts. (Stewart) Play is not always integrated into actual labor, but the two concepts are linked. The use of play in the workday at Google as a tool for forming creative communities; play makes “people feel they have meaningful work… people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.” (Stewart) According to Google, playful activities bring employees together, a vital component to their success.

But Google’s use of play in labor is extreme. Other tech-companies may follow a similar model, but they are generally outliers. Shifting towards more traditional forms of play in labor, McDonalds also incorporates play into work, but in different ways. Instead of encouraging creativity, here play aims to “use… game mechanics to encourage engagement and instantly recognize the efforts of employees.” (Eliraz) Perhaps the most obvious “game” is the common use of “Employee of the Month” competitions that superimpose game-values onto labor: the best worker “wins” and is rewarded. The competition does not infringe on the workday as Google’s use of play does and doesn’t take place in the magic circle. McDonald’s has also used play as a means to improve employee morale and investment in the company by creating an environment in which employees are rewarded for learning facts about the brand. (“McDonald’s”) These situations seem to resemble games, even more so than the aforementioned examples of play at Google, but they are not.

Despite the connotations of having a competition or winners, none of these examples are truly games by the definitions given in class. Work cannot be a game. Caillois defines games as “unproductive” and “not obligatory,” striking off labor’s potential as a game from the start. (Caillois 9-10) Suits’ characterization of games as using “inefficient means” to achieve a goal also precludes labor-as-game. (Suits 148) Labor, in itself, cannot be play. What’s more, even if labor can take place in a space resembling the magic circle, ultimately everything that takes place in it is vital to real life. To be blunt, labor in a capitalist society leads to income and income is intrinsic to life quality. While there are situations in which a game can bleed through the magic circle and effect “ordinary life,” such as when an athlete earns money through play, labor is too inextricably tied to basic quality of life to be considered a game. Juul attempts to clarify the fuzzy lines between games’ effect on real life stating they “carry a degree of separation from the rest of the world follows from their consequences being negotiable.” (Juul) The consequences of labor are not optional. Perhaps games can take place within the context of labor (as in the case of “Employee of the Month” competitions) but the act of labor itself cannot be considered a game.

Injecting labor with play is driven by ideology. To begin with, the use of play is disarming, making it useful as persuasive technology. (Raftopoulos 168) Described by Fuchs, play in labor operates by “propaganda in the style of ‘work is play’, ‘work can be play’ or ‘work harder, play harder’ are suggesting that work can be contained within the ‘sphere of play.’” (Fuchs 148) Although labor cannot be considered a game or take place in Huizinga’s sphere of play, “gamified application appear more trustworthy and persuasive to users than it should be, rendering their users more vulnerable to exploitation.” (Raftopoulos 168) In their campaign to improve company image, McDonalds leveraged play as means to alter the way their employees viewed the company, an issue they struggle with. Using play as a tool for ideology unknowingly disarms employees, making them more receptive to persuasion. Here, play is used to integrate identity with labor via play create a “mistaken identity and a unification of play and [that] labour serve the needs of the economic system, the ideas of ideology make it appear natural... the subordinate classes accept a state of alienation.” (Fuchs 147)

However, describing play in labor exclusively in the terms of ideology meant to control the working-class is limited. The ideology of play as Google and other tech companies use it is distinct from working-class play. Instead of just being a tool for increasing production, here play is used as a tool that improves the overall quality of life for the middle class. The discourse of play as it applies to tech companies is peppered with buzzwords such as “creativity,” “innovation,” and “idea exchange.” The already well-off employees describe their lives as being revolutionized by incorporating play in labor, the “cynical statement of somebody who is definitely not suffering economically.” (Fuchs 156) Tellingly, no one thinks to ask if Google’s janitors also get to write on the walls before they clean up after the quirky engineers. Creative play is vital to certain kinds of people and not to others.

What emerges are two ideologies about and perpetuated by play that resemble Huizinga’s use of “higher” and “lower” forms of play. Although Google encourages activity that could be characterized as childish (writing on walls, riding scooters through hallways), they do so in pursuit of broader goals such as innovation in technology or facilitating creative communities. Huizinga describes the “modern man” as longing for the mystery and terrifying power of the “world of the savage, the child and the poet, which is the world of play.” (Huizinga 26) Companies that primarily employ the working-class use play far differently, as a means to control discourse and labor. Play is “lower” here in terms of the rhetoric used to describe it.

Such unpleasant comparisons of the ideology of play conveyed via labor do not even approach the abstraction required to be games. To truly turn it into a game would undermine labor entirely and the final product would no longer be work. Regardless, continuing to examine the role of play in labor via an actual game would be effective. Abstracting these values in an actual game could be successful by focusing on the role that play supposedly takes on in different kinds of “labor” - all of the work abstracted into simple game mechanics - and how play effects work productivity. Work productivity and amount of play could also influence overall life quality in the simulation. Asking players to engage in juxtaposed forms of play within the context of “labor” could lead to a broader consciousness of the way that corporations appropriate play-like elements.

Works Cited
Caillois, Roger. Man, Play, and Games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Print.
Eliraz, Ziv. "Why Gamification Is the Cure for Poor Employee Engagement." Business Insider.
Business Insider, Inc, 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014. Web.
Fuchs, Mathias. Gamification as Twenty-First-Century Ideology. 6 Vol. 2014. Print.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens; a Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon
Press. Print.
"McDonald's - World of Good Gamification." Inward Strategic Consulting. Inward Strategic
Consulting. Web. 6 Oct. 2014. Web.
Raftopoulos, Marigo. Towards Gamification Transparency: A Conceptual Framework for the
Development of Responsible Gamified Enterprise Systems. 6 Vol. , 2014. Print.
Stewart, James. "Looking for a Lesson in Google’s Perks." The New York Times. The New York
Times, 15 Mar. 2013. Web. 6 Oct. 2014. Web.
Suits, Bernard. "What is a Game?" Philosophy of Science 34.2 (1967): 148-56. Print.