Game On: Working in the Value of Play


By Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP

The games we play are more than simply diversions or entertainment.  As is being explored more often, games are a reflection: of ourselves, our society and to no small extent, our organizations.

The metaphors that emerge from the games we play have endured from the Roman coliseum to Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly and Risk to Pong, Sim City and GTA V.

Finding Meaning in the Medium
We find meaning in games. There are objectives and motives which drive us to reach the next level, to improve our characters and find a sense of accomplishment. When we ’play’ games, we are immersed—lost in the experience.

It is this immersion that provides a deeper narrative for those seeking to create engagement in the workplace.

How do games create such experiences? For starters, they have stories: some involving a single character, others a dizzying cast conjoined online. There is a common purpose or direction toward which a community of game players can align their efforts.

Next, games have people who are ready to collaborate because there is a system of timely incentives motivating them to do so: badges that recognize and reward achievement; levels or stages which indicate progression; and strong feedback loops that let players know when they are performing well.

Finally, games have challenges which increase in complexity or scope, but are always attainable, so as to foster ongoing engagement toward their purpose. All these mechanisms are built on social and online platforms.

Taken together, these applications create a sense of meaning and enable mastery for its players. Both are the foundations for engagement, ultimately resulting in immersion; akin to the ‘flow’ states achieved in work (and play) that have been famed through the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Game Theory Plays to Present
We’ve come to know the sum of these applications as ‘gamification’, defined as the application of game theory to non-game applications. While summed up as the study of strategic decison-making, game theory emerged in the 1940s and was developed across multiple platforms ranging from economics, political science, psychology, logic and biology.

Originally centred on zero-sum games wherein one person’s net loss is equivalent to the net losses of the other participants, game theory has broadened its application to include people and technology alike.

For those seeking to explore the core of game theory more closely, mathematician Jon von Neumann and economist Oskar Morgenstern’s 1944 Theory of Games and Economic Behavior remains still the best place to begin.

What does this mean for the organizational context? Consider gamification a mechanism to sustain engagement and a sense of purpose, as well as a lever to apply skills and talents to both common and increasingly complex organizational problems.

The cornerstone to the success of any organization is the development, execution and renewal of sound strategy. Gamification has already been applied in a strategic context to the consumer market. Its application is most obvious when considering a company’s standing in relation to external forces, like markets, customers and competition.

Play at Work
In a recent Forbes interview with Adam Penenberg, author of Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking, what emerged is how gamified our lives and workplaces have already become. From loyalty cards to lotteries and training software to cars that recognize and ‘reward’ efficient drivers, Penenberg sees the gamification of the workplace as both a tremendous potential and problematic.

Strategy incorporates principles of game theory – the players, information and actions available to these players at various decision points, and the payoffs for each outcome – ultimately striving to find how cooperation and conflict evolve to create optimal outcomes.

In Penenberg’s perspective, the primary challenge is surpassing the “the least interesting aspect of games—usually the points.” Instead of making jobs more game-like in hopes of the fun factor enhancing productivity, he points to the importance of “designing systems that enhance work.”

Less evolved in organizations is the application of these principles to the internal people systems, technology and networks which drive performance. How can we begin to understand the application of game mechanics to improve people systems and organizational outcomes?

Penenberg’s points to leading internal innovators already in play.

Game (Already) On
As for those companies which have already embraced gamification to train and engage employees, the list of Fortune 500 ‘players’ speaks volumes. Within the likes of Google, Microsoft and IBM to FedEx, UPS, L’Oreal, Lexus and Canon, the gamification meme is on an ever upwards trend. While the focus varies, the purpose does not; seeking to engage employees and elevate levels of efficiency and productivity is shared by all.
Among the examples Penenberg cites:

  • Googles’ gamified expense policy with its tie-in to charity; employees who spend less than the allotted fare for air travel can redirect the difference to their charity of choice;
  • IBM’s ongoing evolution of the virtual workplace in which employees separated by cubicles and continents collaborate daily;
  • L’Oreal creating ‘recruitment’ games to assist HR and prospective employee alike, gauging skill and exploring most desirable potential career paths, and
  • training software that simulates everything from remote surgery to winter walking conditions for new hire UPS drivers.

Moreover, research firm Gartner predicts that by 2014 more than 70 per cent of 2,000 global organizations will “depend on gamified applications for employee performance, health care, marketing, and training, and 50 per cent of corporate innovation will be gamified”.

On a broader platform, while the opportunity to actively engage internal employees and external customer is already in play in the marketplace, Penenberg predicts that “games will help us accomplish great things…through them, you can organize millions of people to tackle a single problem. It takes smart game design, but once you have it, good things can happen.”

Beyond First Failures
With the added caveat of buyer beware, Penenberg also predicts a lot of bad gamification as a result of the big business it already represents.  He references the words of Ian Bogost, game designer and professor of digital media and interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Bogost sees gamification’s potential to be both “a grifter’s game, pursued to capitalize on a cultural moment” and a false assurance that “gives vice presidents and brand managers comfort (that) they’re doing everything right and can do even better by adding ‘a games strategy’ to their existing products.”

As a result, the same Gartner study predicts that roughly 80 per cent of the gamification concepts currently being explored are most likely to fail as a result of poor alignment and design.

A discouraging number at first glance, it speaks volumes of the value of innovation. Where the remaining 20 per cent succeed defines a future already in play—Game On.

For further exploration, read: A Brief History of Video Games: Lessons for the Workplace.

Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP is a project specialist with Best Buy Canada.

(PeopleTalk Winter 2013)

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