Every year, some company with network-monitoring software to sell comes out with a handwringing report detailing how much time employees waste on the latest online addiction. Back in the ’90s, it was called “surfing the Web.” (The horror!) In 2006, it was YouTube. In 2007, it was Facebook. And lately it’s FarmVille and other social games.

Do you see a pattern? The time-waster changes names, but the pattern of online idleness never goes away. Maybe it’s time for managers to think about harnessing this phenomenon rather than fighting it.

VentureBeat has written increasingly about the phenomenon of gamification — the application of game-design principles to products and services far afield from the conventional gaming sector. It’s being applied to everything from building websites to serious efforts like improving healthcare. Why not put gamification to work at the office?

Popular social networks like Twitter and Facebook have game-like elements: the constant flow of updates can feel like a stream of cascading Tetris bricks, each one demanding a response: Quick! Like that comment! Retweet that post! Foursquare, the fast-growing location-announcement service, has long incorporated elements of gaming, like badges and points, even though they carry nothing more than bragging rights — much like having the high score in a game.

Indeed, the biggest complaint about Foursquare and FarmVille is that they are games that aren’t fun — networked rituals of obligation, performative acts of online status-seeking, abstract clicks in a circular, self-involved world that ultimately lack purpose.

And yet the millions of people drawn into these pseudo-games find them addicting. Zynga, the maker of FarmVille, employs behavioral psychologists to make sure its games hook people in just the right way. FarmVille may feel like work — all that harvesting and planting and gift-giving — and yet people keep doing it.

It’s a boss’s dream, in short: Getting people to perform repetitive tasks out of a feeling of obligation in a way that somehow feels rewarding.

The visual design of productivity software, too, could draw inspiration from the world of games. Web-based dashboards could present messages, alerts, and tasks in a serendipitous, time-driven way that feels like clicking through a first-person shooter — and maybe pull in teammates the way online multiplayer games do. Imagine organizing your department into a raid through that quarterly earnings spreadsheet!

There are many practical lessons managers could gather from studying social games and services. But there are a few obvious ones that jump out:

  • Small but frequent rewards
  • Mutual obligations to teammates
  • Data that comes in short bursts rather than long documents

The more that work feels like a game, the less we’ll hear about the time workers waste on online diversions. Indeed, social-game makers may have to commission studies by network-monitoring software vendors on the cost to the American economy of the distractions of work.

How else could we design work to make it as attractive as social games? Leave your ideas in the comments.

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