Play is Work

Games are a type of work if you think about it. We invest our time in games. We give games our attention and our mental capacities. But why do we do that?

What makes play work? The answer is that great work is also great play. Great play makes us more productive. That means that great games can also help us become better, and more productive, individuals.

Let’s examine game play as work, and why we continue to play games, despite difficulties to the contrary. Part of why we continue to play is because we enjoy the feelings of “competent engagement” that we get from games. This allows us to get more serious about our work. But, it also affects how we approach game play.

More productive

So if play is like work, do games make us more productive? They sure do!  Playful activities are intrinsically more motivating and can help you become more productive in the workplace.

So it’s no wonder why employers are turning to games to help make their workplace more gameful and engaging. If games are already dominating the attention of some employees, then it makes sense to incorporate aspects of games into the work environment.

If you look closely, then you can see this already happening in some workplaces. Think about a sales team that tracks their monthly, quarterly, and yearly sales goals. That could turn into a competition where individuals are striving to outdo one another.

This feedback system could easily be gamified where management adds challenges. Those challenges could include sales goals. They could also support their sales team by providing them with new ways to source leads and earn some significant wins.

Bernard Suits defines games as “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” That doesn’t sound very much like work. We traditionally think about work as overcoming necessary obstacles for us in order to attain something in return.

So before we dive deeper into productivity at work, let’s first determine why we play games to begin with.

Why we play

Games foster intrinsic motivation. That is the desire for us to play because we enjoy the process. The three parts of intrinsic motivation include competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Competence comes from our ability to take part in and affect the game. This means that we have the ability to do something. Autonomy addresses peoples’ abilities to act independently from others in making their choices. Relatedness reflects how choices made affect the game, its outcomes, and the people we (sometimes) play them with.

These intrinsic motivations are also present in active and productive workplaces. Employees who are most productive are also competent: they can do the job that’s assigned to them. High performing employees can also work autonomously and execute their own actions according to their own agenda. This affects their relatedness and how their actions affect themselves, their coworkers, and the whole workplace.

So how can someone associate “play” with “work.” It’s because play is inherently intrinsic.  We are capable; we are autonomous; and we are relatable. When we are playing we are the most productive workers.

That’s why the opposite of play is not work. Great play IS great work. The opposite of play is depression, and it’s something that we should work to avoid to have the most active and engaged workforce possible.

Competent engagement

So what makes play = work and what makes work = play? The key here is to be competently engaged. If we feel competent at something and we feel that we can have an impact on the environment through our actions, then we are engaged.

Part of what makes games so engaging is that it is an easy way for us to demonstrate our capacity and our competency. We keep playing because demonstrating that competency is addicting. Demonstrating that competency is SO addicting that we’ll keep playing games until we demonstrate mastery by “beating the game.”

This feeling of mastery, this inherent feeling of demonstrating our competency, is exactly what Raph Koster describes in his book A theory of fun for game design. It’s the ability for us to experiment and demonstrate our mastery is what makes games an inherently pleasurable activity. That activity is work.

That’s why even hard work can become engaging, motivating, and addicting. We can volunteer to spend long hours to just hit the top of the leader board. But whether that is in Dance Dance Revolution or part of our sales meeting is a matter of venue and location.

Getting serious while working

So what does that mean for games? We can play while we work because play is work. Games are serious business, and should be taken as seriously as our work.

That serious attitude demands that we become part of a larger community where thousands band together for our love of work and play.

And that is why we love games. We love to work. Games are about training their players to solve complex problems, to develop their competency, and display their mastery over these challenges. There is no better definition of work than games.

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points ( and consults at University XP ( on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming ( a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

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1 Comment

  1. I find this really interesting, Dave and it begs the question “How can we go about designing work so that it is as compelling as play?” I am seeing more and more discussion of this as time goes on. It feels like this could one of the most important areas that we as gameful design practitioners could become involved in. Imagine a world where the majority of people viewed their work as play. The much publicised productivity crisis we are apparently suffering would fall away as people strive to achieve within their roles rather than tolerating their work as a necessary evil they have to endure in order to subsist. The pre-requisites you mention above, competence, autonomy and relatedness (which if I understand correctly, is about the way that games give us frequent and timely feedback), are often lacking in work. The change that is needed cannot happen by itself. This is something which requires conscious design, and we as practititioners will have to build our own skillsets and help to build capacity within the future workforce to undertake these design tasks.

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