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Soviet gamification (kmjn.org)
40 points by networked 1748 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

For what it's worth the "socialist competition" was widely regarded as a fake and ultimately laughable construct by pretty much everyone in the country. Sure, there were enthusiastic supporters, but they were few and far between and they weren't actually looked up to by the unwashed gray masses. They were regarded more like people who were really, really proud of their boyscout badges.

(edit) Reading other comments - I should clarify that what I said relates to the 1970+ period, not the earlier years.

That was probably true in the 80s, but from what I read back in the 30s, 40s, 50s the workers in USSR were a lot less cynical. In those days people could very well see the socialist economy improving their standard of living, education, health care, etc.

In the 30s, 40s, early 50s, workers were a lot more DEAD!

I still have family who remember Stalin's purges, starvation and WW2. The same people say life in the USSR was only reasonable under the later leaders like Brezhnev. Nobody likes Gorbachev, but they would be first to admit that the differences in their lives in the 1940s and 1980s were vast.

During the purges of the 30s and 50s, the most dangerous place to be was a member of the central committee. Ordinary workers were not affected by the bulk of the purges (and to some extent did not even realize they were happening), with the notable exception of Jews during weird Stalinst manipulations like the Mingrelian affair.

As recently as 2009, 60% of Russians preferred the Soviet days (with older citizens that number is as high as 80%). And even for eastern bloc states like the Ukraine, 46% of the population regrets the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Your first paragraph is astonishingly untrue, and a comparison to Holocaust denial would not be unfair. Middle of the road estimates for those murdered by gulag are around 40 million.


That matters in Russia worsened after the fall of Communism is separated by decades from the nadir of Stalinist violence.

Those are by no means "middle of the road" estimates. What we now know (and everyone from Suny to Sudoplatov agrees) is that most 20th century estimates of Stalin's crimes are greatly exaggerated. Specifically, it was long thought that everyone who went into the gulag died there, and it wasn't until the post-soviet years that we learned most didn't.

So it depends on how you count (is famine murder?), but the number intentionally killed by Stalin is much closer to 6 million. And again, this was not primarily a worker phenomenon, but was centered more towards specific peasant classes ("kulaks") and nationalist separatist movements (particularly in the Ukraine). It was also something that wasn't totally known, until Khrushchev's "revelations" (which were also largely dishonest themselves).

Since you're comparing me to a Holocaust Denier, I'll refer you to Timothy Snyder (a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a history professor at Yale)'s article which summarizes a lot of the current thinking:


But again, I think what's perhaps most important, was that at the height of the purges, from 1934 to 1936, the absolute most dangerous place to be was in the central committee. During that period, 80% of the central committee members were killed. That's significant because the Stalinist nightmare is often explained as a willingness to sacrifice living humans for ideology, which I think is much too simple. It wasn't the obvious power relationship seen in Facism throughout that period of an elite group killing a subservient population, but of those in power actually killing each-other.

In absolutist terms that might be true. But it's mostly irrelevant since on average the regular population was not a member if the central committee.

It's like saying 'the most dangerous (deadly)' place in a prison is the execution room on execution day. For most of the population the most dangerous place was elsewhere.

> As recently as 2009, 60% of Russians preferred the Soviet days

Nostalgia is distorting and dangerous. It's like Western baby boomers who think wistfully about the old days. There was more pollution, there was more disease, there was less questioning of authority, there was more injustice, there was more impending doom. Another analogy is how some people sometimes perceive past relationships (ie. none of the troubles).

> Nostalgia is distorting and dangerous.

That's one explanation. Another is that things didn't actually change the way people wanted them to. Where as Perestroika was supposed to be a transition from authoritarian communism to democratic communism, the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in a transition from authoritarian communism to authoritarian capitalism.

State industries were basically given away to a small oligarchy through the "loans for shares" program, which resulted in a virtually identical experience for the average Russian, only without the nice state provided pension and benefits.

Russia also has an enormous rural population, which was celebrated and idolized through Soviet ideology. The transition to authoritarian capitalism was accompanied by a cultural shift that portrays rural Russia as being composed of stupid poor people.

The result is a lot of unhappy people.

I have very limited 2nd-hand knowledge, but that's the impression I've gotten from the people I knew who grew up in East Germany. They wanted reform of the system, but are unhappy with the reform they ended up getting. Some people wanted only a modest reform from authoritarian communism to a more democratic communism (as you mention), but even among those who wanted to abolish communism entirely and "join the West", many people thought what that meant would be adopting a democratic-socialist model along the lines of 1980s Scandinavia.

Many people didn't even really believe that the West Germans had ideals much different from theirs: they thought the idea that Wessis were really "capitalists" was Soviet propaganda trying to scare them away from reunification, and assumed West Germany was probably, in reality, just full of sensible social democrats. So it was a rude shock when they found out that Frankfurt bankers were more like American bankers than like Swedish social democrats.

The end result can be seen pretty clearly in the map of Left Party election figures: http://welections.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/germany-2009-d...

You have a point there.

It's interesting to see the contrast btwn the Soviet transition and the Chinese transitions away from core communism -forgetting that the SU had numerous other things to contend with (viz the delayed collapse of their late colonialist empire --the 'republics').

While the Chinese have moved away from the state as a direct employer and divested their enterprises and have moved away from providing pensions and benefits, the economic growth caused by their policies made those things a non-issue. That is, while the state retreated (and thus provided the same nothing to people) The SEZs and then then state-turned private and new private enterprise filled the void granting people hope and a vision of a future. People felt (and still feel, altho it might be on the descent) that if not they, their heirs have a chance at the future which they did not. On the other hand China is relatively natural resource poor and Russia is NR rich.

It would seem the transition was handled better by China than their fraternal twin, the SU. The unhurried transition probably helped, as well as culture (a Chinese family is willing to sacrifice a generation, if it has a promise of hope for the next -long view).

And there was more racism and discrimination against women and gays, which is what many Western baby boomers are actually longing for, but they are frustrated that they can't just come out and say it.

"In those days people could very well see the socialist economy improving their standard of living, education, health care, etc."

That was primarily because the previous regime was terribly bad, not because the new one was terribly good.

Author might want to learn about soviet laws about mandatory work & punishment for 'absenteeism'

"On 8 January 1939, the government made clear that an unauthorized lateness of 20 minutes (or taking a break 20 minutes too long, or leaving 20 minutes early) counted as absenteeism, grounds for mandatory dismissal (Pravda, 9 Jan 1939). Transportation breakdowns (a common event) were no excuse; a doctor's certificate was required, and doctors who gave certificates too easily themselves faced prosecution and prison.

Some workers still found it worthwhile to be absent and force a mandatory dismissal, so that they could seek work in a place where labor books were not closely read. Stalin put an end to this with a remarkable law,

Decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, 26 June 1940 "On the Transfer to the Eight-Hour Working Day, the Seven-day Work Week, and on the Prohibition of Unauthorized Departure by Laborers and Office Workers from Factories and Offices2"

This replaced the civil sanctions of the 28 Dec. 1938 decree with mandatory criminal penalties: 2-4 months imprisonment for quitting a job, and 6 months of probation and 25% pay confiscation for an unauthorized tardiness of 20 minutes. Both managers and prosecutors were themselves subject to criminal prosecution if they did not enforce this law strictly."

Russian - http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%92%D0%BE%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%BD%...

English http://www.cyberussr.com/rus/labor-discip.html

(I'm the author.) What makes you think I'm not aware of those? The essay is in effect an attempt to express skepticism about gamification by pointing out that it looks awfully similar to something that was tried in the '20s/'30s in the USSR. Admittedly I make that point more clearly in the expanded paper version of the essay (linked at the bottom), where I discuss the descent of the '20s / early '30s gamification experiments into late-'30s Stakhanovism.

I think there is overall (including today) some pretty strong internal difficulty when claiming to "gamify" work but still retaining the context of a hierarchically controlled workplace where work is mandatory, with penalties tied to the "game". Then it devolves into just another method of workplace accounting & control.

Ok - apologies, I must have misread it.

It's just to me - discussing Soviet attempts at gamification without mentioning things like the law I described or placement of peasants back into serfdom (after they had been granted freedom 60 years earlier) is akin to discussing whether Nazi train schedules were effective.

> discussing whether Nazi train schedules were effective

Honestly, that sounds like a great HN article.

Author doesn't seem to know exactly how successful the Soviet Union was with this tactic. In four years - 1929 to 1933 - it transformed from an agrarian country, devastated by wars, to world second industrial power. Just a few years later USSR was capable of outproducing in many areas the whole of Europe under fascist control.

As a side node gamification drives me mad. IMHO only an idiot would care about made up "achievements".

True, that's the pro argument (I'm the author of the linked essay). I think it was clearly unsuccessful at the bit where it was supposed to drive intrinsic motivation and worker autonomy, though. The USSR did manage to pull off a crash industrialization, but was it really "socialist competition" or game-like?

Part of my argument, though I make it more clearly in an expanded, short-paper version of this essay [1], is that the "gamification" part devolved into just regular old Stalinist command-and-control: production quotas and such, with a thin facade of worker autonomy and "voluntary" competition spread across it. That's one of the things people worry about with modern gamification as well, that a "game" that's a mandatory part of your job is not really much of a game, and more like old-fashioned, top-down control than the gamification consultants' uplifting rhetoric would like you to believe (e.g. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/19/local/la-me-1019-lop...).

[1] http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2115483

The Soviet economy was based on money a lot less than US or even socialist Denmark. An average family would have enough savings to buy pretty much everything they wanted (excluding luxury stuff, like holiday abroad or a limousine), but the only place they were legally allowed to buy most stuff were state-owned companies. A family would have to wait say 15 years in a queue to buy an apartment, 7 years for a car and a couple of years for a TV, vacuum cleaner or a washing machine. This is one place where a high achiever could "cash" on his hard work, as he may be allowed to buy stuff w/o waiting. Generally reputation, favors, networking played a bigger role in Soviet economy and hard work could help with those.

Nice article BTW ;)

>As a side node gamification drives me mad. IMHO only an idiot would care about made up "achievements".

Considering how token economies [1] are generally successful as motivators (HN karma, anyone?) I'd say this has less to do with idiocy and more with the "human nature".

BTW, if anyone wants a good, quick introduction to the criticism of gamification I can recommend the Errant Signal video on the subject [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Token_economy

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWfMjQKXZXk

I'd say military decorations are a particularly convincing example.

Would in-game achievements also count?

Re "only an idiot would care about made up 'achievements'"

Napoleon said about military medals: "With such baubles, men are led." And yet, even in this forum, you will probably find some people eager to explain how that's not the same at all.

In designing any system of incentives you have to figure in, or be fortunate to get right, how irrational people are about incentives. The market is a darwinian engine for optimizing irrational responses. Sometimes that's brilliant, and sometimes it isn't.

> As a side node gamification drives me mad. IMHO only an idiot would care about made up "achievements".

Idiots make an overwhelming majority of population.

Idiots include also that vocal part of population longing for - and getting - Nobel prizes.

One ought to realize how different SU was in 20s, 50s, even 70s from Russia today. People in SU thought about themselves and their country very similarly as it is in US now - the most progressive country, and of course, the smartest and overall best people. Little doubt about that. Tokens were much more serious then - in US one says "if you smart, you should be rich", in SU it was "if you're good, you can perhaps show an Order" - and they weren't easy to get.

Imagine the life in the South, pictured in "Gone with the wind", without slavery - because almost everybody was in the same conditions - and stimulus responses will be different. Again, what use would be for a pile of cash in SU? Not much - you can't buy proportionally, since the whole economy is targeted to "regular people", and you'd get people looking at you funny pretty soon.

"if you're good, you can perhaps show an Order" ??? Is it your wild guess? Who told you this nonsense? Gamification was executed so badly - it was complete absurd. It was anti-motivation rather than a motivation. Everything was fake, everybody ridiculed it, no one ever taken it seriously within my memory (since mid-60s).

I remember reading an article about Soviet nail factories competing against other nail Soviet nail factories. To boost production everyone ended up creating worthless pin sized nails: one point per pin. To correct this they shifted to production by weight, leading to crude low quality heavy nails.

Gamification doesn't work unless it actually means something.

As an academic, this sounds remarkably like what's going on with our own "gamification" of academic publishing, with impact factors, citation counts, h-indices, acceptance rate targets, journal points systems, etc. People do strange things which happen to maximize ("game", as it were) those metrics.

"Of course, the Soviet economy is not widely held up as a model of success."

I agree with you. The country went from a civil war and foreign invasion (including by the US, something I'm sure 99% of Americans don't even know) and then 25 years later were invaded by an alliance of Germany, Finland, Italy, Hungary and other countries. Followed by a Cold War against a nuclear armed opponent and its western European allies.

Yet during the 1930s, when starving veterans were being shot dead in the streets of Washington DC, when unemployment in the US and Europe was over 20%, the Soviet economy was booming. Massive steel factories were erected in places such as Magnitogorsk, and factories building tractors to send to industrialize agriculture. The US said Russia stole all technology from the US - until Russia launched Sputnik. You can't blame the adversary for stealing IP when they're doing things you can't do.

China also was a rural backwater, dominated by Europeans and Japanese until the 20th century. Under the leadership of the politburo of the communist party, its economy has been growing 10% a year since the early 1980s. People say that is unsustainable, but they've been saying that since the late 1980s. I'm sure their growth will slow down eventually, but they're already the second largest economy in the world by GDP. Of course, the politburo is not as left wing as it was during the height of the Cultural Revolution.

The USSR economy did stagnate when Stalin died, and people like Molotov were sidelined. Capital spending decreased, policies like detente were enacted, and the economy stagnated. The economy did very well before this change in policy though. American and European workers and firms went to the USSR in the 1920s because there was work and contracts in their growing economy, while the US economy went off the hinges. Kind of like the current US unemployment rate which is higher than anything since the mid-1980s.

A former Soviet citizen here.

> Yet during the 1930s, when starving veterans were being shot dead in the streets of Washington DC, when unemployment in the US and Europe was over 20%, the Soviet economy was booming.

Oh yes. The US and Europe credited the Soviet Union well, and the Soviet Union paid in gold.

At the same time, Soviet authorities robbed its own people, partly by putting hundreds of thousands to forced labor camps, partly by just taking away their possessions. The great hunger of 1935, with massive human casualties, has happened because grain was expropriated from peasants to be sold for gold, and the gold was spent to build massive steel factories and weaponry plants, using American and German expertise.

With regard to shooting people dead, USSR was not shy of action at all. Massive death sentences in 1935-1939 witch hunt campaign plus cruel oppression of several riots against expropriations and hunger account for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

(If you can't look this up in Wikipedia yourself, I'll gladly help you.)

Trust me, this is not a model of growth you'd enjoy.

Regarding gamification — yes, that was one of brighter ideas. Too bad that real competition was often replaced by a fake that made bosses happy, using massive falsification of results.

You want a competition between producers? Have you tried the so-called 'market'?

May be it was no best model, but about "hundreds of thousands to forced labor camps"- it was about 1 million people in GULAG before second world war (0.59% of 170 millions population). For modern USA incarceration rate is 0.74%. Are you sure it's better model?

> You want a competition between producers? Have you tried the so-called 'market'?

Market is nice when you have many producers. But as soon as company became 'too big to fail' competition disappearing.

I'm definitely unhappy with the US incarceration levels.

I still think that cutting wood or digging ore in Siberia (see e.g. the weather in the fine city of Norilsk) is noticeably more cruel than serving time in a US prison. A quick googling allows me to assume that forced labor as a punishment has not been used in the US since 1940s, except for rare cases in the military.

I very much hope the the US government, however crooked it might be, is not considering high incarceration level as an engine of economic growth.

Yes, United States stopped using penal labor at twentieth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_labour#United_States). Soviet Union at fifties.

I think 30 years lag is not soo bad considering level of social-economic development of USSR and USA.

Penal labor is extremely prevalent in the US, and if anything, is growing (over 1 million US prisoners today are engaged in penal labor).

It might not be "punative" penal labor, which takes it out of the category of "forced labor." But US prisoners do labor in private prisons for private companies, with the sole remuneration of reducing time from their sentences.

I think that a couple of states in the US southeast still make use of chain gangs and labor.

Yeah right, you had access to free healthcare, 3 meals a day and a lot of leisure time in a Soviet gulag. You are delusional if you think you can compare them.

1. Healthcare was avaliable in GULAG prisoners. And it was free of course 2. Yes, GULAG workers get 3 meals a day (often part as dry ration) 3. Workday in GULAG was about 10 hours, so yes they have about 6 hours leisure time.

But this isn't my point. Of course conditions in prison in modern US is better then in USSR 80 years ago. My point that you have higher probability go to jail in modern US then in USSR in thirtieth. Target for great terror in USSR was elite and it was insignificant (again, lesser then in modern US) for ordinary people.

Not insignificant, however you look at the numbers. But more importantly, what could land you in jail was a simple political joke, or having ancestors of a wrong kind (the "class" of kulak, for instance, as it was defined in the Soviet penal code) or even, in some periods, a random chance.

I look at the numbers because they are something that can not be speculated and manipulated easily.

Lets take a claim "a random chance could land you in jail". I've seen numbers that percent miscarriage of justice in US is about 5-10% (not sure it's correct, but anyway even for death penalty there are many mistakes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wrongful_execution). So for modern US 0.05% (about 160000 people) are in jail by random chance. I don't have numbers of USSR and, again, I am not trying to compare. I show that you should be very careful when using simple claims without numbers.

Or let take "simple political joke". Do you know that in many modern countries you can go to jail for ten years just for telling something that is not accepted by mainstream (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_against_Holocaust_denial#A...)? Again it's incorrect to compare. but I think raw numbers people in prison is quite accurate and objective estimate of "badness" of system. And for USSR in thirtieth numbers doesn't look very terrible.

Numbers can indeed be manipulated easily. I am sure you have heard the term Potemkin village. I am not sure you realize how prevalent this kind of deception is in the world outside of the US and a few other "Western" countries.

Well as far as robbing people and taking their possessions - where did the state Massachusetts get its name? Or Delaware? It came from the Massachusetts and the Delaware, who were mostly killed off as their land was stolen. Africans were enslaved to pick cotton. Children grew up in company towns and were sent down to the mines, or sent to work in dangerous factories for twelve or more hours a day in the US, England etc. The English recorded this, like they do everything, quite diligently, their paper record of it is enormous.

For the corporate press and standard line, whatever the USSR did was wrong. If its economy grew it was cruel. If it devoted capital toward consumer goods and eased up on production demands, it was a stagnating economy proving socialism doesn't work. Any choice they make is called wrong, no matter which choice they make.

I think few people would approve of the killing of Native Americans and keeping slaves — now or in 1930s. Some would, but fortunately they are not the political mainstream.

Slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, and in Russia, in 1861, so they had uniquely close positions in this regard. By 1980s, the difference between USA and USSR was far more pronounced, and not in favor of USSR. Maybe the American way was less perilous.

But looking at the American problems of today (the list is long and grave) I can only conclude that there's no silver bullet. We humans are not ideal, you know. OTOH they say that creation of Eden on Earth is a futile task, and we're in a business of keeping Earth from becoming Hell. With this regard, the Soviet way seems clearly inferior.

Lies. Don't see the point to argue, just couldn't let someone lie through their teeth without calling them on it.

But if anybody wants to understand that Stalin's USSR was pretty much a mirror image of Nazi Germany (they were evil to same degree - Stalin actually pulled genocide on Ukrainians before Hitler did it to the Jews), please make sure to read this book:


Interesting points.

My (limited) understanding is that Sputnik was launched by a rocket designed in Nazi Germany and copied with minimal modifications.

I'd say the outsourcing craze we see in the recent years is very similar to the transfer of factories and technologies to USSR and Germany in the period 1929-1939.

Yep, your understanding of Soviet space history is pretty limited. That part you got right.

Care to correct me than?


R-1 was the Russian name for the German V-2, Sputnik was launched by R-7.

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