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Gamification of Labor and the Charge of Exploitation


Recently, business organizations have increasingly turned to a novel form of non-monetary incentives—that is, “gamification,” which refers to a motivation technique using video game elements, such as digital points, badges, and friendly competition in non-game contexts like workplaces. The introduction of gamification to the context of human resource management has immediately become embroiled in serious moral debates. Most notable is the accusation that using gamification as a motivation tool, employers exploit workers. This article offers an in-depth analysis of the moral charge of exploitation. This article maintains that there are no clear grounds for believing that gamification of labor is exploitative and that if gamification of labor involves a wrong or vice, it must be something other than exploitation.

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  1. 1.

    Game elements include more than the so-called “PBL triad” of points, badges, and leaderboards. Video games also include competition, fun, winning, mastery, accomplishment, a feeling of volition, problem-solving, surprise, rewards, show-offs, likes, dueling, next stage unlocked, karma points, and many more. It is difficult, however, to deny that the PBL triad is the most commonly used game element in the business application of gamification.

  2. 2.

    Not all gamification is used in the context of the workplace. There are other implementations for marketing, non-profit, educational, or public health-related purposes. Since the moral nature of gamification that occurs in a market may be different from that within a firm, and since space is limited, my discussion in this article focuses primarily on ethical issues of gamification that can occur with respect to employees. For a discussion about the ethics of gamification with respect to customers, see Sicart (2014), which critically discusses Nike+.

  3. 3.

    There are important non-normative works on gamification (e.g., Deterding 2014, 2015; Hamari et al. 2014; Mollick and Werbach 2014a, b). This article relies on those descriptive works as background knowledge, but does not directly involve their historical, anthropological, or social scientific issues.

  4. 4.

    D.I.C.E. Summit is an acronym for the Design, Innovative, Communicate, Entertain Summit. It is one of the largest annual meetings for video game developers, held in Las Vegas. More information can be found at Jesse Schell’s talk at 2010 DICE Summit can be found at

  5. 5.

    More detailed information about the conference can be found at

  6. 6.

    For more statistics, see Werbach’s wrap-up video at

  7. 7.

    Disneyland introduced a similar type of gamification to laundry staff. The company installed monitors that displayed employees’ names and efficiency rates. The monitors were like leaderboards on which employees could see each other’s scores. One employee criticized this practice as an “electronic whip” (Lopez 2011).

  8. 8.

    One can become an accredited Gamification Designer certified by Gamification Co. by taking courses provided by Engagement Alliance at

  9. 9.

    Of course, one can say that gamification in the Target Checkout Game is voluntary, because the cashiers can always quit the job. But quitting a job to avoid participation in a game seems an unreasonable burden.

  10. 10.

    Some important topics about gamification are beyond the reach of this article. For example, there are debates regarding the definition of gamification. Rather than engaging in the debates, this article will rely upon a standard definition (Deterding et al. 2011a, b), according to which gamification refers to “the use of (rather than the extension) of design (rather than game-based technology or other game-related practices) elements (rather than full-fledged games) characteristics of games (rather than play or playfulness) in non-game contexts (regardless of specific usage intentions, contexts, or media of implementation).” Since well-written works already discuss the details of the definition, I do not explore them here. A more succint scholarly definition of gamification is “the design of services and products with the methods of game design, with the intention of engaging users in ways similar to those games” (Sicart 2014, p. 225). Although the question of what constitutes gamification involves important technical, philosophical, and semantic issues, the primary discussion of this article will be limited to a normative question—namely, whether or not the business practices that are currently classified as gamification sufficiently meet the conditions of the deontically wrongful form of exploitation.

  11. 11.

    Another important Marx commentator, Allen Wood (2004, p. 259), also remarks, “what is wrong with exploitation—why capitalists should not do it, or at least why they should feel guilty about doing it—or why morally motivated social reformers should want to arrange things so that they cannot do it. It is in fact worth noting—and letting sink in, when we read Marx’s writings—that Marx almost never looks at capitalist exploitation from either of these points of view.” In the same vein, Arnerson (1981, pp. 202–203) writes, “The posture he [Marx] adopts is that of the disinterested scientific observer standing among apologists for capital …. Quite obviously exploitation in the Marxian technical sense does not imply exploitation in the ordinary evaluatively charged sense of the term (In this ordinary sense, exploitation involves mistreatment).”

  12. 12.

    Here, I assume that a normative statement cannot be drawn from a set of only descriptive statements (Donaldson 1994). One might disagree with the fact/value distinction, believing like Hilary Putnam (2004) that the term exploitation is a “thick” concept that contains both the normative and the descriptive. But those who agree with Putnam can still accept that Marx’s account of exploitation is not itself clearly normative, because Premise 2 above (what Marx means by the term exploitation) is clearly not thick enough to be evaluative.

  13. 13.

    One might admonish that, descriptively, gamification of labor is not a form of exploitation from the beginning and that it is nonsense to examine a descriptively non-exploitative practice through existing normative accounts of exploitation. I have two responses. First, the debates in gamification communities center around the term “exploitation,” so it is practically useful to engage the debates with the same language, unless the language is seriously misguided. Second, their choice of the term is not seriously misguided. Wood (2004, p. 246) descriptively defines “[e]xploitation of a person, or a person’s labor” as “our use of the person, or their labor, which has been made possible for us by some way in which they are vulnerable to us.” Contemporary workers like the employees in Checkout* face a certain condition that can make them vulnerable to employers who have the power and resources to implement gamified elements. Then, in what sense are workers still vulnerable to employers? Many employees do not find their work meaningful and fun, are not satisfied with their jobs, and experience stress, boredom, etc. Employers can take advantage of this dissatisfaction. In fact, most advocates of gamification of labor begin their lectures or books by emphasizing how stressful, unsatisfactory, not fun, boring, and meaningless most workplaces are. It is no surprise that most working conditions that employers want to gamify—for instance, that of the Target cashiers—are boring, monotonous, and potentially meaningless. It strikes me as plausible to say that this is precisely the sort of vulnerability that companies can take advantage of or leverage through gamification. But, of course, a descriptively exploitative work is not necessarily normatively exploitative. Therefore, we need to examine Checkout* with normative accounts.

  14. 14.

    Wertheimer (1996, p. 231) himself acknowledges that an application of his view would be not straightforward to cases like “the hypothetical market price for an autographed first edition of A Theory of Justice.”

  15. 15.

    A similar rights-violation based account is found in Hillel Steiner’s (1984) liberal theory of exploitation. Steiner’s account states that a transaction between A and B is exploitative if any historically previous transactions that led A or B to the current transaction involved a rights violation with C. Zwolinski’s account differs from Steiner’s historical account, because for Zwolinski, exploitation itself is addressed by rights violation, whereas for Steiner, exploitation is a result of a previous rights violation. Since we are concerned mainly about whether the employment that uses gamification itself is wrongful or not, in this article, I do not discuss Steiner’s account.

  16. 16.

    Wertheimer also makes a similar distinction between wrongful exploitation and a permissible form of exploitation. See Wertheimer (2011, Ch. 5).

  17. 17.

    Underlying Zwolinski’s argument is Wertheimer’s (1996) “non-worseness principle,” which holds that “in cases where A has a right not to transact with B, and where transacting with B is not worse for B than not transacting with B at all, then it cannot be seriously wrong for A to engage in this transaction, even if its terms are judged to be unfair by some external standard” (Zwolinski 2008, p. 357). For-profit companies like Microsoft in the Language Quality Game obviously have a right not to provide gamification for employees, and providing the testing workers with an option of gamification is not worse for employees than not providing it, as I discussed earlier. Therefore, it cannot be seriously wrong for the company and the testing workers to agree upon a labor transaction that involves gamification.

  18. 18.

    A distinction is often made between moral autonomy and personal autonomy. For instance, Joseph Raz (1986, p. 371) says that “[p]ersonal autonomy” is “a particular ideal of individual well-being” and it “should not be confused with the only very indirectly related notion of moral autonomy” which he believes “originates with the Kantian idea that morality consists of self-enacted principles.” For a review about different accounts of personal autonomy, see Buss (2013).

  19. 19.

    For more information about Target Cashier job descriptions, see

  20. 20.

    For a comprehensive analysis of the existing literature about exploitation, see Ferguson (2013) and Wertheimer and Zwolinski (2012).


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Kim, T.W. Gamification of Labor and the Charge of Exploitation. J Bus Ethics 152, 27–39 (2018).

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  • Gamification of labor
  • Gamification ethics
  • Labor relations
  • The ethics of human resource management
  • Incentives
  • Motivation
  • Exploitation