Gamification, Flow & Blue Collar Work


Gamification has been receiving a lot of attention. Its promises for a future that holds more rewarding and meaningful engagement in any social sector have been debated intensively over the last few years.

Closely related to the concept of Gamification (applying lesson learned from game to real life situations), is the concept of Flow. Flow is characterized by a state of active being during which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Although Flow can exist without Gamification, one of the key goals of Gamification is to bring people in flow to create an engaging an memorable experience. Here we will treat them in conjunction.

stock-footage-coal-miner-blue-collar-worker-actual-suit-in-kentuckyBlue Collar Gamification Blues?

But is Gamification applicable to all sectors and all strata of society? Surely obviously boring, repetitive and non-inspirational jobs will be just that: boring, repetitive and non-inspirational no matter what sauce you add to it?

In fact some of my Gamification colleagues have been suggesting that Gamification and reaching flow cannot really be achieved in blue-collar situations (e.g. assembly line work). They claim that blue-collar work situations are radically different from other (let’s call them white-collar) work environments. In their view blue-collar workers don’t learn anything new in the end and therefore you cannot Gamify their work, nor can these people really achieve flow. Their work is just too boring and monotonous.

Now, at first glance, the argument sounds logical. Since achieving optimal work experiences through flow depend mainly on the ability to invest mental or psychic energy into activities, it is hard to see how an assembly line worker could ever achieve flow (let alone that we can apply Gamification to his tasks).

People are Peopleimgbluecollar-300x230

However, a closer look at scientific proof falsifies this seemingly obvious assumption completely. Most notably, even without any externally devised workflow optimization scheme, around 40% of blue-collar workers report being in flow on the job more than in their leisure time. So, not only can you help blue-collar workers help reach very satisfying and memorable moments in their work, they are already doing this in droves themselves!

Just as white-collar workers report more satisfactory experiences when they are able to learn and employ newly learned skills to challenge new obstacles and challenges, factory workers experience the same. Denying this is not only unproven, it also would mean supporting an elitist viewpoint that blue collar workers are somehow fundamentally different human beings with radically different motivational triggers.

We know, however, that the amount of mental energy that can be embedded in an activity determines whether that activity is experienced as rewarding or not. The more an activity is dependent on external input (machines, engines etc), the less it leads to memorable experiences.

So how have blue-collar workers created flow and memorable experiences in seemingly repetitive, non-inspirational work? Has it been possible for them to input enough mental energy to make their jobs rewarding? Studies from the early 1970s already show that those who succeeded in their efforts did as follows. They managed to:

  1. change the constraints they were facing into opportunities for expressing freedom and creativity;
  2. discover new challenges: e.g. perfect what you are doing; do it faster; do it different; do it in different team settings;
  3. change the job itself until its characteristics were more conducive to flow: create more flexible challenges, clear goals and immediate feedback.
  4. develop new skills to complement or to supplement the new activity;
  5. develop new obstacles.

As you can see, these elements put together relate inter-alea to some of the key building blocks used in games: challenges, fun, obstacles, problem-solving. Moreover, since they are applied to a real world setting they in fact constitute (non-intentional) Gamification. Hey, Gamification and Flow CAN be reached in blue-collar working environment after all!

farmer-and-tractor-tilling-soilPreparing the soil.

Now, not everybody can easily attain flow easily, whether you work in a factory or in an office setting. Your (perception of) abilities to identify opportunities for action, hone your skills and set reachable goals is also important. If you feel that any new challenge is too hard for you, you will always feel anxious. If you feel that any increased challenge is still not hard enough, you will still feel bored and non-engaged. Influencing these perceptions seems often forgotten, but is as important as our Gamification framework itself. For seed to grow, we need to plough the soil first…

After that, make sure to include the foremen, and other bosses. They may be most concerned about speed, efficiency, and numbers and may be sceptical about creating more flexibility in operation procedures. Luckily there are many examples and success stories that we can use to show that people can be more content AND more productive at the same time. In fact, the one leads to the other!

Keep the faith.

Comments (4)

  1. RomanRackwitz

    While there is definitely no question about the fact that blue collar workers can experience a state of flow just like white collar workers I believe that we are talking about two different kind of flows. 
    This is because to be able to achieve the state of flow depends as much on the context you are involved in as on the type of person you are, and so on.
    I think there is a huge difference between a worker who is involved in a rather cognitive task or someone who has to perform a mechanical task. Our brains are challenged in different ways while performing these particular tasks and so it is also behaving different and so it is open to different influences that, again, can lead each of them into a state of flow.  
    So, yes, blue collar workers can achieve the flow and probably, because of the often repetitive nature of their tasks, it will be even more important or interesting to use Gamification for blue collar workers. I think that why this wasn’t the case so far is that organisations are (unfortunately) more open to invest in their white collar workers. But I’m pretty sure that will change in the future.
    Great post, thanks.

    1. Joris Beerda (Post author)

      Sorry for the late reply! Great comment back thanks for your time. Let’s do some blue collar focused gamification soon together, that would be interesting!

  2. mherger

    Nobody says that blue collar workers cannot reach flow. But we speak of a different from of flow.
    Csikszentmihalyi describes how it feels to be in the flow:
    We feel completely
    involved in what we are doing. We are very focused and concentrated.We feel a sense of
    ecstasy, of being outside of everyday reality.We are with great inner
    clarity; we know what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.We know that the activity
    is doable and that our skills are adequate to the task.We feel a sense of
    serenity, without worries about ourselves, and with a feeling of growing
    beyond the boundaries of our ego.There is certain
    timelessness, as we are thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to
    pass by in minutes.We are full of intrinsic
    motivation, where whatever produces the flow becomes its own reward.
    But the problem is from us, the way we look at it . We keep using the flow-diagram, where Skills (or sometimes Time) needed and Difficulty are kept in balance. Workers at a conveyer belt / assembly line have pretty soon all the skills needed. From that point on, nothing changes. Neither difficulty of task, nor skills are being increased. Nor may be there much autonomy that blue collar workers in such a work environment have. They are also typically not allowed to change routine or the setting (like in an Asian car company where the workers have to follow the 8 steps precisely as told in the right order.

    Which means: I cannot design for a learning/mastery trajectory. There are no levels, no status to reach.

    Instead of mastery/learning, we need to focus on other things. Such as breaking the monotony, socializing/camaraderie, dignity etc

    of course not all blue collar workers are at an assembly line. There are many who can fit in Mihaly
    Csikszentmihaly’s flo-diagram, namely those who can be creative, think of a car mechanic reparing your car. He needs to identify what the problem is, which is a creative process and where he learns.

    1. Joris Beerda (Post author)

      Hey Mario, cheers for the comments. Always good to hear your points of view indeed.

      Mihalyi’s research shows that a very large percentage of people on monotonous, blue collar, jobs are more in flow on their jobs than in their spare time. That’s the remarkable thing isn’t it? So even though it is repetitive, monotonous and they seemingly learn nothing new, they are still more in flow than when they have all the liberty to learn all the things they want. Partly this has to do with the social aspects of the job, and group identification undoubtedly plays a very large role in work motivation. Partly it is the case that there are ways to diversify your work (how fast you do it; how perfect you do it etc) even on very monotonous jobs. But partly it may just be that these people are fine doing exactly what matches their (perception of their) skills and their (perception of their) skills.

      This is quite another thing than stating that we all should strive to have monotonus jobs of course 😉 In the end non-monotonous jobs are (intrinsically) more motivating…


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