Working As Intended: The gamification of the workification of games


Last weekend, my husband made the bold choice to let our young son play The Stanley Parable. I am not entirely sure the kid can articulate the subtext, but he’s definitely understanding bit by bit. For example, when he got to the infamous “baby game” – where the player is told to press a button to repeatedly stop a fire from consuming a cutout of a baby – he instinctively realized the futility, the trick of it, and opted out. He wasn’t fooled by gamification.

He definitely didn’t click the button for four hours. But some people do.

Granted, The Stanley Parable is a game designed to explore the meta of this problem. It’s working as intended, quite literally. You’re supposed to think about these things. That’s the whole point.

But other games? And online games? They don’t want you to think too hard. If you start thinking, you stop pushing. They just keep the buttons coming.

I started thinking more about gamification gone awry after MOP reader Sally tipped us off to an Aeon piece about how companies and governments gamify every bit of mundane work their low-level employees suffer through. They use electronic monitoring to track, for example, how many towels a worker has folded. And then they turn it into a “game” to try to make everyone work even harder.

“Every worker’s name was compared with the names of coworkers, each one colour-coded like traffic signals. If you were keeping up with the goals of management, your name was displayed in green. If you slowed down, your name was in yellow. If you were behind, your name was in red. Managers could see the monitors from their office, and change production targets from their computers. Each laundry machine would also monitor the rate of worker input, and flash red and yellow lights at the workers directly if they slowed down.”

That’s dystopian enough, but it’s worse: Apparently, even employees who detested being excessively monitored and encouraged to chase a leaderboard couldn’t ignore it. As one union organizer told the publication, laundry machines would “flash” at workers when work slowed, until employees “felt like they couldn’t stop.” In fact, the “electronic whip,” as workers called it, led to a higher rate of injuries and people skipping bathroom breaks as “the formerly collegial environment degenerated into a race” and folks “got upset when coworkers couldn’t keep up.”

The recovering hardcore MMO raiders in our audience are probably nodding to themselves right about now, thinking of all the garbage food they ate, the late nights, the tongue-lashings they got in voice chat from raid leaders, how many times they held their pee for one more crack at the last boss. The game, and their fellow players, manipulated them into that. And they didn’t even get paid for it.

Aeon’s focus is naturally the horrors of gamifying work. In MMOs, however, the problem is slightly different: We workified games, and now we’re regamifying that.

I don’t think I’m saying anything revolutionary here. MMO players have been using the words “grind” and “grindy” to describe gameplay at least all the way back to Ultima Online, and I presume long before that too. Early MMOs asked us to work, whether that work came as crafting or killing. They ask us to perform repetitive, often boring tasks: chop trees for logs, gather ore from that mine, deliver this letter, forge armor, cast 500 spells for .1 increase in skill – yes, even kill ten rats for experience so you can kill ten slightly stronger rats. The tit-for-tat of these tasks was overt: Do a thing and get a thing. And then those tasks, and task-measuring devices like levels, were artificially elongated to keep us subscribing.

It’s tempting to assume that the key difference between MMORPGs and RPGs back then was the online massively multiplayer element; it’s right there in the name, after all. But I think the more powerful difference was the fact that games like Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, and KOTOR wouldn’t have dared expect players to work. That was something MMOs did, following in the footsteps of the MUDs before them. MMOs weren’t about storylines; they were about living in a world. And you can’t have a truly living world, a life simulation, without work (we can barely conceive of a holodeck-life, we children of work-ethic culture). Work, more than time or money, became the proximate measure of your value in the simulation.

And for a lot of people, that was boring. We have enough real work without paying to work in a game, right? Consequently, when World of Warcraft arrived in 2004, it honed and then mainstreamed the gamification of MMO work by replacing obvious work tasks (like killing a thousand dragons to level up) with storylines and quests that more mirrored single-player RPGs than MMOs. The “grind” was still there, but it was hidden behind layers of flavor text that posed as content, or at least as more palatable chores. We moved from skills to levels: Instead of practicing a skill over and over, we simply completed our checklist of levelbanded honey-do tasks, over and over, and followed that up with our checklist of dungeons, hoping the skinner box would reward us with the shiny this time.

Certainly, there were MMO players who saw through that veneer even then, who preferred the “honest” work of, say, running digital factories in Star Wars Galaxies or EVE Online to running dungeons for RNG drops in World of Warcraft clones; that sandbox/themepark divide was there from the start. But the decline of the MMO market in the last half decade has brought the conflict to a head as game studios contend with recasting gamification to work with the new monetization and the scramble for headcount. They’re not content with gamifying the core loop of the game; now they’re gamifying everything.

Consider how MMO guilds have changed over the years. I’ve written at length about how MMO guilds have been gamified to absurdity and obsolescence; where once they were little more than chat channels, in some MMOs they became games of their own, with levels and perks and rewards and even special quests. Or consider login campaigns, like the sprawling multi-month Elder Scrolls Online affair, which transform participation into a complicated ordeal of hoop-jumping in exchange for a distant reward. Think about how even when sex and romance are added to MMOs and RPGs, they’re framed as minigames (Revival literally planned an orgasm minigame). Or how about the gamification of exploration? It’s not enough to simply create an explorable world; some MMOs turn even “going places” into a reward track.

And if you gamify things like this too hard – if you turn all motivation into extrinsic motivation – people won’t do anything without it, and pretty soon we have a whole crop of new gamers who go into virtual world MMOs and have no idea what to do, not because of “hand-holding” – I hate this term – but because they feel lost without the carrot and the stick.

Every achievement system in every game is basically an attempt at solving this (perceived) problem: When the game itself is not enough to keep you playing it – and paying for it – it introduces new layers, new tasks, new chores, new methods of “progression” along new tracks, new ways of measuring your, well, work, all while trying to hide its true nature.

And don’t even start me on the monetized gamification known as lockboxes.

At some point, a lot of players opt out. They don’t burn out; they just push back from their desks and say, thanks but nah. When you realize that every quest is another cardboard baby, another psychological trick, then you, like my son, stop pushing that button. And all the gamification in the world can’t fix that. Over-gamification got us here. It’s not the way back out.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.

No posts to display

newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Kickstarter Donor

I’ve never minded drudge work in games. Was a big fan in mining in eve, which was basically just be chatting with my corpies and relaxing after a day of real work. It creates a barrier to entry that most people just don’t care enough about to do. Which makes the work more meaningful. It’s also one of the reasons I hate bots so much. They screw up the whole system.

On the real topic though, I’m honestly not that worried about it. It’ll only be another five or ten years before someone will come up with a way to procedurally generate content. It’ll likely just be simple killx quests to start, but once that Pandora’s box gets opened it’ll mean I might be able to see some real MMO’s before I get too old to want to play them anymore.

Loyal Patron
Cosmic Cleric

Every achievement system in every game is basically an attempt at solving this (perceived) problem: When the game itself is not enough to keep you playing it – and paying for it – it introduces new layers, new tasks, new chores, new methods of “progression” along new tracks, new ways of measuring your, well, work, all while trying to hide its true nature.

Blizzard has always been stingy with our time vs their time.

Instead of spending more $ and making more content, then slow us down and make us re-visit the same content they’ve already put out.

Then, as you mentioned above, they try to hide that fact of the insufficient quantity of content.

The real “fix” for gaming to go back to how it should be (or at least was, depending on your opinions on the matter) is for game companies to make more content, and less profit.

Kickstarter Donor

The recovering hardcore MMO raiders in our audience are probably nodding to themselves right about now, thinking of all the garbage food they ate, the late nights, the tongue-lashings they got in voice chat from raid leaders, how many times they held their pee for one more crack at the last boss. The game, and their fellow players, manipulated them into that. And they didn’t even get paid for it.

Other than the not getting paid for it part, of course, that does not describe my experience hardcore raiding at all. I’m sure that does describe the experiences of many, but it’s certainly not universal. Always done by 11:00; no tongue-lashings; and if someone needed a short break, someone else filled their role until they got back. We certainly weren’t “casual” (whatever that means to you) though… we raided 4 hours a night, 6 nights a week. But we had lots of fun and a sense of comraderie that I haven’t experienced in a game before or since and those times are still some of the best gaming-related memories I have.

The irony is that our main rival for servers firsts was one of those guilds that, for example, had a midnight phone tree for catching the Emerald Dragons at all hours, work night or not. And yet, we traded servers first through AQ40 (sometimes within minutes of one another) until we, for the first time, decisively beat them by a few days on Cthun and maintained our server first status throughout all of Naxx40. Look, I totally get that sort of raiding isn’t for everyone; it’s not even for me anymore. But let’s not go making assumptions that it’s necessarily full of people being assholes to and exploiting one another.


I was lucky that i had that happen twice. Way back in EQ2 and again in SWL.

Sure i have lots of very good memories outside those two experiences, a couple guys i play with regularly at times, but sometimes you click with some peeps and the whole thing snowballs into something you never expected. It becomes more about the social and less about the game in many ways.


Exactly, games go out of their way to lure you into activities you dislike, and after a while you can’t even remember what it was you liked in the game in the first place, since most of your time is spent either doing something you don’t want to, or wasting time trying to avoid that thing.

Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor

I see directed content systems put in place in response to many players not liking more open, sandbox gameplay. Giving players a checklist gives them motivation where otherwise they’d have to create their own content. That’s not to point and say sandbox gameplay is a bad thing.

And I agree that at times, developers certainly go overboard on the extrinsic design. I wouldn’t mind seeing MMOs step a bit back from overdoing it and provide more sandbox opportunities while still having a solid foundation of content for players to fall back on. Or in other words, being the broken record that I am over the years, “sandparks”!

While players may realize the underlying systems over time and/or tire of them, with newer, often younger, players entering the space all the time, it’s allowed many MMO designs to persist. I know when I first played MMOs, I was much more willing to do heavier grinding because at the time it was enjoyable.

I imagine new players today will experience the same thing. If anything, I’d look to how the MMO market has developed in other countries where they didn’t start as early, and I’d imagine you’d see similar patterns. I feel that may explain some of the reasoning for why MMOs that spawn from certain countries/regions feel so different, such as being more grindy in comparison to other areas and yet still doing well in their home regions while not doing so well elsewhere.

David Goodman

I agree with most of this, but some parts, I’m… conflicted about?

I played back in the UO days, and primarily i played tradeskill characters: I mined a lot of ore, and I cut a lot of wood.

I did not then, nor do I think now, consider that “work” or a chore of any kind; it’s not like i’m simulating an activity I can feasibly do in real life. (it can literally be done, but not feasibly so; not without immensely more income than what the game costs.)

As part of the fun of the game I was having back then, I was living an alternate life that I could not do outside of it. I enjoyed, legitimately, chopping down trees and going through the process of turning them into tables, bows, etc.

When I play World of Warcraft currently, I play it so I can live the digital life of an Orcish hunter who kills dinosaurs, raids templates, hangs out with friends (roleplay), and so on.

If you break this down into it’s component parts – i’m doing the SAME dungeon and the SAME dinosaur spot and the SAME temples – then yeah, I guess you could consider that the game has been distilled down to a grind, but.. does anyone ACTUALLY do that, who actually enjoys playing games?

I’m in Warframe right now, currently running Ceres – Gabii multiple times to level up my Inaros frame (on Forma #5, with a little bit of Monica in m– *dragged off screaming*) – and, if I really forced myself to slow down my brain, I could break this down into it’s component parts and it would sound incredibly, pants-wettingly boring.

I could not even begin to imagine living my life like that. It would literally suck the joy out of every single thing to the point where i’d just step in front of the train instead of on it in the morning. This article was almost painful to read even though I could logically agree with much of it.

The workplace stuff, it’s horrifying, and I can see bits of it in my own workplace, but that paragraph seemed out of place. It was related, but you went into so much depths about workifying games, and then there’s this tiny bit on gamifying workplaces, and then back to video games/MMOs. Just odd.

I don’t have a real comment about it. My company is trying to make work “competitive” by publishing what they probably think is a leaderboard for people who meet certain metrics. I wonder if they honestly expect people are motivated to be on the top of it? Or if people honestly DO want that, and I’m just out of the loop?

Personally, when it happened, I saw it as, “This is their way of saying they are going to cut the bottom performers and they want to have a way people can think, “I’m safe if I am on the board”, but i’m cynical about corporations.

I do not know if there’s an honest danger in having too much extrinsic motivation — I don’t like achievement systems at all (particularly if they don’t have any reward other than to be a ding on your screen that you can’t even show off to others), but some people seem to dig them. I don’t understand them, but they don’t need me to understand them for them to have fun.

I think that games that are open world enough for people to get confused about what to do are fundamentally the fault of the developer. It’s not that people need hand-holding, I don’t think. I believe that most open-world games are trying too hard to do everything — they try to make the crafting system so complex it in requires multiple spreadsheets, or they try to both have an epic, over-arching story AND be free-form at the same time. It’s not enough to just give people the tools to do whatever for them; they have to make that whatever be an endless complex as possible because they think mechanics create a deep game, when it doesn’t. UO wasn’t complex, not by any concievable standard, but it was endlessly deep.

I typed way too much. Uh… TLDR, TLDR… um… banana bread! There, now you know all you need to.


Hey, an opinion article I mostly agree with. Good job Bree.


Great article

/keep smiling everyone
/start backing up slowly

Yea was certainly thought provoking

/keep nodding
/don’t make any sudden moves

was interesting yes much food for thought

/stay calm
/continue backing up slowly

I’m messing with you Bree you know that, just joking, it is some deep thought there, seriously was a good article, i’m not joking it is a good read

/ya ya just keep backing up, keep smiling like nothings wrong

hehe i’m /jk

“At some point, a lot of players opt out.” The daily log in thing, ugggg, that becomes such a game killer for me, ok i only want opt for a little break, i need one, but yea ok i should keep that daily log in thing going, so you get a constant reminder of a game you’re not really into playing atm, for me its killed every game i’ve done that with, so i’m not sure what, well i have an idea but does it really work? as i end up opting out forever with such disdain for your game. With fotuna on the way i’m pretty much daily logging Warframe, my heads into another hobby of mine atm too, so gaming isn’t really top of the list atm, i just hope i don’t turn on Warframe (highly doubt it), it’s so fast to log in and close, i guess it’s those games that take forever to load, then log in, then click, then exit… Hey, why you all backing away from me smiling and nodding weirdly?

Loyal Patron

That’s the best thing I’ve read on this website in a very long time.


This might be part of the reason I have trouble getting into single player games these days, and the lack of cheats, I loved cheats, added so much more longevity to some games. Its like im losing out on progress by not playing a MMO type thing, even if I dont enjoy it.


Single player games get stale fast i find.

Geux Bacon

I’ve put over 1k hours into Fallout 4, and I would not be surprised to see myself at 2k in a few more years. I’ve finished the main story one time, have not yet been into Nuka World or Far Harbor, and almost finished Automotron. My time is mostly spent messing around in settlements, which is a ‘sandbox’ kind of thing, and revamp mods (I’m using Horizon). So while a SP game like Dragon Age may get bored, games like Age Of Empires have much greater longevity.