The new name of the game

Gamification is a creative way of engaging within and without the company



Gamification has gained a tremendous amount of attention in the past two years, particularly since the rise of location-based social network Foursquare.

Now, analysts predict a multi-billion dollar market for gamification within the next five years and a world filled with incentive and engagement around every corner. Lost in the fracas of fun however is an equally powerful, if somewhat less public gamification movement - and it’s taking root in the most unlikely of places: the enterprise.

Embrace the promise

Led by organisations not immediately known for their flexibility – such as SAP, Target Stores, IBM, and (gasp!) governments at the local, regional and federal levels – gamification of the enterprise promises to make mincemeat of today’s distinction between work and play. Not to be outdone, small startups have embraced the promise of game mechanics, frequently driving both technical and design leadership in the space. All told, the potential effects are staggering: esteemed analysis firm Gartner Group estimates that by 2015, fully 50 per cent of all innovation among the Global 2000 (the world’s largest companies) will come from gamification, with over 70 per cent of them participating in the trend.

So what’s behind all the excitement and energy for a new technique in such early days? Why are organisations of all sizes clamoring to gamify their workplaces, and what implications does this have for the rest of us?

The new normal?

In short, work sucks. Despite the utopian vision of fully actualised workers following their passions in supportive corporate environments that make space for their dreams, most people don’t really care for their jobs all that much. And even entrepreneurs – many of whom come to self-employment with a desire to break the shackles of being “on plan” all year – quickly realise that the promised autonomy quickly fades if you raise money or hire employees. Either way, you have to spend a lot of your free time doing stuff you don’t want to do, often for people you don’t really respect, without the necessary feedback to keep you engaged.

But if work simply sucked, the baseline expectations of all workers would be lowered (think Foxconn factory floor) and sucky would be the new normal. The problem is that corporations of all sizes are in a race for constant productivity and innovation improvement. And without engagement, it’s impossible to get workers to be their best.

Many uses

Enter games. Anyone who’s ever played a game – or been a widow of a serious game player – will understand the kind of engagement that video games can produce. In a singular way, from Angry Birds to World of Warcraft, a well-balanced game brings a kind of focus and intensity that enables the player to effectively shut out the world around them. Known as ‘flow’, this state of intense concentration also has the potential to produce greatness, much as a musician deeply enmeshed in a jam might uncover new sounds.

So companies began a long process of bringing games into the enterprise – and the practice of training employees using games isn’t exactly new. Many of the techniques were brought over the from military (long a proponent of games in the workplace) and were used to help players learn, train and develop their skills in simulated realities. Other games in the workplace focused on employee interaction, synergy or trust – such as the improv games (theatresports) favoured so much in the 2000s. Still others attempted to use games as a simple bonding tool or stress-reliever – putting games into breakrooms and running Guitar Hero challenges during lunch or break.

Four objectives

But while these approaches are interesting, they always longed for something else. Specifically, they lacked a day-to-day mode; a long term interaction where the game system, the player and workplace were integrated. In seeking a method of fusing the game and real-life, enterprises big and small have come to gamification.

As a new discipline, gamification draws on game design, loyalty programmes and behavioural economics to design long-term processes for engaging and changing behavior. It’s ideally suited then to be integrated into the day-to-day lives of employees at companies. Today’s leading edge practitioners of the techniques generally focus on accomplishing one – or more – of four objectives (acronymised as HIRE):

I. Happiness: In happiness objectives, organisations attempt to use gamification to raise employee satisfaction. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh famously used gamification to weed out employees who were unlikely to be happy by offering them an incentive to quit. Hsieh’s concept worked as a challenge – anyone who chose not to take the money effectively took on a challenge to be satisfied. And NextJump founder Charlie Kim has had success by gamifying employee health and fitness through a combination of leaderboards and challenges. Today 80 per cent of employees at his company work out on a regular basis, spurred on by intramural, team-based competition.

II. Innovation: Innovation, as the Gartner research points out, is a central challenge for most large organisations. Applying gamification to this challenge set has been unusually rewarding – with a lot of behind the scenes successes – and some big public wins. Most famously, Foldit – a game from the University of Washington – leveraged thousands of players around the world to successfully discover a key enzyme in the fight for a cure for HIV/AIDS. More demurely, an entire industry has sprung up around “Innovation Games” – such as the one played at GSummitX –where companies use specific games to drive innovation, idea flow and problem-solving. IBM’s well-regarded Innov8 is a good example of this approach – and you can explore some ideas in two excellent books: Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo (see extract on p. 28); and Innovation Games by Luke Hohmann.

III. Results: Although it’s an obvious objective, some organisations have focused their enterprise efforts largely on accomplishing tangible goals. Beginning with a detailed metrics analysis, Target stores used gamification to change the way front-line employees achieve faster checkout speeds for customers. Their implementation – which is more about feedback than traditional gameplay, per se – has been enormously successful by giving cashiers a powerful sense of agency. Similarly, Google has reported success in gamifying projects like software Quality Assurance, much like startups devoted to these outcomes, such as RedCritterTracker.

IV. Education : Similarly, education has long been the focus of enterprise games – and companies big and small have used games to train and educate employees. For example, GE uses its Patient Shuffle game help train healthcare professionals on how to run a health clinic. Microsoft has seen tremendous success as well with their game, Ribbon Hero – designed to teach users of the popular Microsoft Office series of apps how to interact with an all-new interface.

Transforming your organisation 

Regardless of which objective its targeting – happiness, innovation, results or education – gamification of the enterprise has a bright future. From minimal and fragmented investment only a few short months ago, to a top priority among organisations large and small, the use of game mechanics and game thinking in business is poised to transform our working world. How will your organisation make everything a little less dull and a little more fun?   

Gabe Zichermann

Gabe Zichermann is the chair of the Gamification Summit where top thought leaders in this burgeoning industry gather to share knowledge and insight. He is also an author, highly rated public speaker and entrepreneur and board member of