Work is a Game, Seriously

I love video games. In the not-so-distant past, I have lost countless midnight hours totally absorbed with particular games. From Tetris and Sid Meier’s creations in the early days, to Second Life and Minecraft more recently (I’m more of a strategy guy than an FPS junkie). So much so, that I forbid myself to start new games now for fear of losing chunks of my life.

It’s no wonder that research and opinion makers have latched onto the fact that a task, when treated like a game, becomes enjoyable and perhaps even addictive.
If you can persuade someone that a task is to be ‘played’ as a game, the perceived time spent doing the task reduces and a more positive energy is created.

This is interesting: can gamification be a legitimate way to boost someone’s motivation in the workplace?

What is gamification when applied to the online world?

Listen to this TED talk by Jane McGonigal and have your perception of online games changed forever.

With a weight of evidence behind this, the term ‘gamification’ has entered everyday vocabulary. I was first made aware of this gaming framework as more and more reports from marketing folk raved on about ‘viral success’ in online games, videos and promotions. The link between the viral adoption of something and the concept of gamification started to become clearer. The important mechanisms within games are now widely recognised as:

  • linking your participation or in-game achievements to your social graph, in some cases even involving your friends directly;
  • different – and more challenging – levels and experiences to follow and a well defined way of keeping score;
  • a system of recognition involving badges, rewards and leaderboards;
  • a way to represent your online self in different ways, using an avatars, etc,

Wikipedia helps us out, as usual, with a pretty good definition:

“Gamification is the use of game design elements, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.
Typically gamification applies to non-game applications and processes, in order to encourage people to adopt them, or to influence how they are used. Gamification works by making technology more engaging, by encouraging users to engage in desired behaviors, by showing a path to mastery and autonomy, by helping to solve problems and not being a distraction, and by taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming. The technique can encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys, shopping, filling out tax forms, or reading web sites.”

See also this discussion on Quora: “What is a good definition of gamification?”.

Feed my Crazy

Gamification can feed our desire to seek out and master different challenges in a reasonably risk free environment, in small and regular doses. The cycle of instant challenge-feedback-reward is, it turns out, pure pleasure for our easily-addicted brains. But there is a downside. It carries risks that the games are themselves gamed and, rather than reinforcing positive changes in behaviour, it interferes with existing norms and brings new unintended consequences we may not be prepared to handle.

If you’re in the research world, gamification offers rich opportunities to collect activity and behavioural data. If you’re making online games, like the infectious Farmville (courtesy of Zynga), then you are free to explore the outer reaches of planet possibility. Recognize these bad boys?

Angry Birds

But if you’re trying to improve some work practice or workflow, I think the recommendation is ‘tread with caution’ as people can tire of games faster than the time it took to become popular, and that’s if you’re lucky!

Product Development, Yes

I liked this passage from an article by Erin Dwyer on Gaming Business Review. In talking about building brand value into a product or service, she wrote:

“Remember that gamification adds the fifth “P” – Pleasure. The four P’s of marketing are: Product, Positioning, Pricing, Promotion and gamification introduces Pleasure. Games are successful because they enhance a consumer’s life; they give them a sense of pleasure. People do not continually engage with a game because it’s work that they have to do, or because they are going to earn a coupon. They play because they enjoy it. Build your gamification strategies around adding fun and enjoyment, not around delivering a coupon to ‘drive to purchase.’”

So by harnessing people’s natural competitiveness, you can have a real impact on desire and how your product or service is perceived by your user.

But do we really need this in the workplace too?

Just take a look at some stats from Newzoo for the UK in 2011:

  • 31 million active gamers in the UK, 52% spending money on the games;
  • 43 million hours per day spent in-game, 69% of which is played out on websites, 65% on mobile devices;
  • 30% of social network time is attributed to games.

I don’t think we can afford to separate people’s adoption of games and their time at work. This has huge potential.

Robert Schaffer in the Harvard Business Review Blog gives us a convincing reason why we need to start thinking clearly about using gamifaction in workflows, process design and job design.

“No manager ever says, ‘Let’s make our company a humdrum place to work.’ Nevertheless most do a superb job of achieving that result. For example:

  • Endless sameness: People come to work and, without climactic events, do essentially the same thing every day forever — like a mountain climber who never sees a peak ahead;
  • Little sense of personal achievement: Most people lack sharply measured goals. They can work diligently every day but never have a significant success — or failure;
  • No celebrations: Individuals throughout the organization may contribute to some very crucial project. But when the project succeeds — and there is a new jet engine or a new drug — very few of those people will enjoy the exhilaration of a personal win;
  • Long time spans: In their personal lives people enjoy activities with shorter and shorter time spans — sports events, computer games, texting and so on — whereas at work they must live through glacial planning cycles.”

He contrasts the idea of gamification with the level of focus, energy and performance associated with short term crises. The real sense of achievement from successfully overcoming a work crises creates the same energy, focus and bonding in the team one would find in more pure-play game environments. I would agree people are more focused, committed and creative when the pressure is on.

Are games designed into work a way to create that stimulation? A day out building hypothetical bridges in some artificial team building is definitely not.

Some Real World Examples

John Dodge in a CIO Forum talks about an experiment by Fedex to improve the sharing of knowledge in the Company (here’s a link to the full presentation):

“The gamification program rewards and reinforces sharing through The Fedex Badge program. Ideally, it starts with engagement, moves to adoption and then goes viral. The benefits are:

  • Identifies key knowledge holders and encourages sharing;
  • Applies and grows relevance to subject matters;
  • Facilitates adoption of new features and user experience elements;
  • Motivates individuals to complete training and enhanced skill building programs;
  • Promotes appreciation and pride in one’s accomplishments;
  • Allows for tracking and analytics of compliance and usage.”

Are you convinced? Personally, I’d be interested to know the impact on the project’s goals. Take a read here and here for more examples of companies trying to improve aspects of recruiting, training and marketing through game play and game mechanics.

UPDATE: 28 November 2012

Nice piece from the Guardian (“Gamification, huh?”, Stuart Dredge, 28 Nov 2012) following Gartner’s recent report.

If you’re looking for pointers….try this:

  • In your next round of quarterly or monthly team reviews, pick a team that has the most energy and predisposition to try things out;
  • Deliberately build in a visible short term objective (2 week time frame?) into an upcoming project and make it challenging;
  • Design a way to score each person’s progress, and make the score board visible;
  • Set half of the team against the other half in a competition;
  • Let them lose, record and recognize progress everyday.

I’m interested to know how this impacted the creativity and energy in the team. I’m even more interested how the other people outside ‘the experiment’ reacted. I’d bet good money they were curious and somewhat jealous. If you’ve ever worked with a software engineering team using an agile development method, you can see these game mechanics playing out in things like storyboards, burndown charts, daily standups, velocity.

If you don’t think this will work, don’t take my word for it:

“Charles Schwab had a mill manager whose people weren’t producing their quota of work.

“How is it,” Schwab asked him, “that a manager as capable as you can’t make this mill turn out what it should?”

“I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I’ve coaxed the men, I’ve pushed them, I’ve sworn and cussed, I’ve threatened them with damnation and being fired. But nothing works. They just won’t produce.”

This conversation took place at the end of the day, just before the night shift came on. Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk, then, turning to the nearest man, asked: “How many heats did your shift make today?”


Without another word, Schwab chalked a big figure six on the floor, and walked away.

When the night shift came in, they saw the “6” and asked what it meant.

“The big boss was in here today,” the day people said. “He asked us how many heats we made, and we told him six. He chalked it down on the floor.”

The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out “6” and replaced it with a big “7.”

When the day shift reported for work the next morning, they saw a big “7” chalked on the floor. So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift did they? Well, they would show the night shift a thing or two. The crew pitched in with enthusiasm, and when they quit that night, they left behind them an enormous, swaggering “10.” Things were stepping up.

Shortly, this mill, which had been lagging way behind in production, was turning out more work than any other mill in the plant.”

Taken from a blog post by Michael Schrage, “Why Keeping Score Is the Best Way to Get Ahead”


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