Video Games as a Metaphor for Organizational Development


By Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP

How directly do video games tie to the workplace?

For starters, it is by no means a male-dominated realm any more. Over the years, the uptake of gaming by females has increased dramatically—to a point where almost half the gamer population is female.

Games like Tetris and The Sims played an important part in levelling the playing field. Why? On the surface, the two could not be more different. Perhaps it’s what these games have in common—a strong cortical connection requiring the player to think ahead and think critically about decision-making.

And while the cause/effect trope in the virtual-life ofThe Sims is far more apparent, Tetris’ provides a much more immediate reward for twisting, turning and neatly aligning its falling tiles. The ‘stories’ these games tell could not be more different, but both serve to engage, regardless of demographic.

Violent Games and Poor Stories
Unfortunately, this approach to modern games is not universal. Today’s most popular games are often built around less-than-intelligent themes—everything war, grand theft and general lawlessness (think Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty).

Could it be that we are beginning to see a dark cloud cover the benefits derived from games? Are they at risk of a decline thanks to ignorant storytelling?

This phenomenon is eerily echoed in the modern organization’s battle for engagement. In this case (as it may be with modern games), there isn’t enough attention given to telling the right story (or any story at all) to create the context for meaning, purpose and immersion in the workplace.

Intelligent Gameplay at Work
As we’ve seen, games work well to engage because of the incentives, platforms for collaboration and feedback loops they offer. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the stories upon which they are based that create the purpose and meaning for gamers.

Since the earliest video games emerged in the study of artificial intelligence, I wondered what the history of video games might reflect about our own intelligence—particularly in terms of its application of organizational development.

Geeky admittedly—relevant to business in general, and HR in particular, regardless.

While gamification is only beginning to reveal its human potential within the workplace, many of us have lived with video games in our lives from childhood. Regardless of generation, we have all one time or another found ourselves either engaged or enraged by the medium.

Just as the organization is constantly evolving, so too have video games. A quick overview of their evolution can help to create comparisons and insights for organizations as they seek to innovate and integrate game concepts.

With no apologies for geek speak, what video games offer as a lens of insight into generations well beyond X and Y—as well as the way we work and play together—is actually pretty fascinating.

A Quick History: Matter of Scale
Moving from the science lab to the arcade to home consoles to towers and laptops and the palm of our hands, video games have since become eponymous with the modern moment. Moreover, from single game devices the size of vending machines to single devices capable of carrying an arcade’s worth of games, the economic scalability of the earliest efforts have proven exponential.

While the first U.S. patent for a “cathode ray tube entertainment device” was filed in 1947, it would be another 25 years before the concept truly hit home with anyone other than the math-minded’s most gifted; a group of MIT students programmed SpaceWars! as far back as 1961 and the first baseball simulation was programmed in the same year by IBM.

It was a decade later in 1971 that the first coin-operated video game appeared at Standford University—Galaxy Game. Only one unit was ever built.

A year later, in 1972, Atari Inc. was founded and Pong bounced into the world—first in arcade format and then six year’s later pre-loaded on Atari 2600 home console.

Pong Puts Games In Play
As the first popular videogame, Pong remains the epitome of success and simplicity—and officially launched an industry flooded by clones of the same basic premise for the next five years.

Regardless, Pong hit home. While the purpose of the game—to win a given number of points before losing the like number to your opponent—remained unchanged throughout multiple adaptations. No greater story was offered than the experience and the level of focus demanded was absolute.

Mastery was defined by perfecting a very basic skill, winning which fostered a strong competitive mindset, strong hand/eye coordination and a demand for further innovation.

Identifying Achievement
The next evolution in games featured the tracking, identification and display of high scores. Games like Asteroids and Pac-Man allowed players to take their competition to another level—against themselves—and have their scores tracked to compare against others.

In our organizational context, this is the equivalent to having sales dollars posted for fellow team members to see. We can view this application as an advancement in the concept of ‘gamifying’ the workplace, as now a team of sales agents can challenge themselves to find new and better ways to increase personal sales. However, the competitive orientation carries on.

At around the same time tracking and identification were introduced, advancements in graphics and console processing power began to advance the level of immersion game players could experience. In its infancy, the ever-more realistic visual nature of games started to blur the lines between what was real and what was fantasy.
In the context of work, that advancement is an important one to note; what makes game theory come alive in the places we work is the level to which it resembles our actual interactions with people, places and systems.

Stories and Simulations
Few games reached into such realms immediately. That changed in 2000 with the launch of a game that trade trigger fingers for personal choices.

The Sims has gone on to become the best-selling franchise in PC history with Sims 4 just recently released. More importantly, in the context of organizational development, The Sims marked a gaming move into what is now known as ‘sandbox’, wherein specific goals are less important than interactions and personal choice; consequence became the predominant gaming driver and provided narrative evolution of player-directed plot.

Essentially, the rise of The Sims digitized the interactive consequences of managing resources or skill in an environment with parameters. The actions of game players could be viewed through a broader lens, showing the effects of choices across a system.

The existence of one-dimensional goals (i.e., beat your opponent by scoring 15 points before them) had, for the first time, been removed from gameplay. In its stead was the motive to maintain effectiveness in a given environment—in other words, multi-dimensional goal setting and exploration.

In our organizational framework, this set of mechanics is applied when a talented manager is deployed to a struggling function and boosts its operational effectiveness— all contingent on multiple, interacting goals. As deemed appropriate, the manager is rewarded with recognition, resources or a raise.

One can argue that this is where the modern organization has currently evolved to in its application of game mechanics—but the sandbox has grown considerably.

Ranking titles, career ladders and pay grades all mimic the mechanics of status, reward and resource allocation found in games. Motivating ‘game players’ through multiple, related goals to maintain a storyline (i.e., purpose) is how the modern company currently mimics gamification in its operations.

However, concepts from the latest evolution of gaming have yet to be universally applied.

Collaborative Character Development
Visual advancements and the dependency of choices set the stage for the most recent evolution of games, wherein the World Wide Web has integrated to enable collaborative character and community development. From the online launch of World of Warcraft in 2006 to over 8 million WoW subscribers in 2013, multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) have only continued to grow.

Creating challenging environments, demanding collaboration and encouraging the development of communities and individuals through socially-visible achievements, there is far more to MMORPG than warcraft.

Taken to the organizational level, this concept of gaming lays the framework for the latest chapter in organizational effectiveness.

A story with a call to action unites to create a common purpose; characters and teams are built to cooperate – rather than compete – to create synergies, cross-functional collaboration and the reduction of silos. All this is recognized across online platforms, which enable players to check the status of themselves, teammates and projects.

Playing it Forward: A Rewarding Experience
And its not just the games, but the systems themselves which are encouraging these interactions; both the recently launched XBoxONE and PlayStation 4 have continued to expand the community experience—well outside of the gaming experience itself.

If you simply cannot imagine playing a video game with your whole body or using hand gestures to interact with your television, where game systems have gone eight generations on from the Atari 2600 might surprise you.

The key here is the integration of social technologies as platforms to collaborate and then track, recognize and provide feedback on achievements.

Games have evolved from single-player, point-based interactions to massively multiplayer, collaborative environments. Organizational people systems have co-evolved—up to a point.

The next ‘gamified’ innovation involves building socially visible rewards that recognize achievement and foster collaborate toward a common purpose. What’s more, attention needs to be given to the stories which drive these common purposes to achieve a sustained effect.

We live in a working world of internal competition and behavioral consequences—and are ready to take the broader step of aligning our stories, characters and reward systems toward stronger collaboration and deeper meaning.

Game on.

Watch for Nilesh Bhagat’s article “Game On: Working in the Value of Play” in the Winter 2013 issue of PeopleTalk.

Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP is a project specialist with Best Buy Canada. Outside of work, Nilesh enjoys reading up on the latest business trends, is an avid follower of hockey, baseball and golf—and plays video games.

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