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Gamification in the Workplace

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In this past Sunday’s Wall St. Journal, Farhad Manjoo had a piece on gamification in the workplace. It begins…

Envision that every one of your professional endeavors was meticulously tracked and measured in points, that there were levels to complete and you were given prizes for excellence. That every workplace action provided a tangible sensation of winning or losing as part of a system engineered to keep you addicted, thrilled to come back every morning.

I attempted to do just that back in 2012. Working at Y&R advertising at the time, I wanted to explore motivation, cross-discipline collaboration, measurement of productivity and other issues within a creative environment that often defaults to rather soft metrics when assessing output from both a qualitative and quantitative standpoint.  I should preface this by saying I by no means consider myself an expert in game mechanics, which is a real science and requires some real rigor. My experience with game mechanics, and the broader concept of gamification comes from my experience working with Badgeville, a leader in this space and a company that is mentioned in Manjoo’s article. I’ve seen a little bit of how the sausage was made and I found it fascinating and more complex than I, or I imagine most people, originally assumed.

Before diving in it’s important to understand that the blanket term gamification that gets thrown around has probably hurt more than helped. I’ve heard people just throw it out there without a real understanding. Like most tools, it can be used in a multitude of ways and before you implement it, it’s important to understanding a variety of factors:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • What are the existing behaviors of those who will be using the system?
  • Will this program be competitive or cooperative in nature?
  • Will it be individual or community-based?

There are many more factors of course, I’m just listing a couple to give you an idea. One other important thing to mention, and this is something brought up in the article. Manjoo writes:

“Getting people to do things they don’t really want to do turns out to be a key mission of workplace gamification.” 

One of the core tenants reiterated in many of my conversations with Badgeville was that “gamification won’t get people to do things they don’t already want to do.”  Or, maybe they’ll do it once, but they won’t stick with it very long and they’ll resent you for the manipulation. I’m not arguing with Manjoo’s assertion, my guess is that that is exactly how many organizations are implementing gamification on the enterprise level. My guess is that they will be disappointed with the results.

Game mechanics are better used in service of engaging people in activities they are already interested in participating in. That’s why it works so great in games, or people who are already motivated to connect with others via social platforms (think LinkedIn profile completion progress bar.)  Game mechanics can work great within communities that are focused on a common cause. I’d wager that workplace implementation of gamification strategies fairs poorly in companies that have a toxic corporate culture. Conversely, and somewhat ironically, places that have a great culture probably don’t need to use game mechanics to motivate employees.

So, how did my experiment go? It was certainly educational. I learned about my own motivational triggers, what sort of activities I liked doing and what I didn’t, and which ones I was best at. I also learned a good amount about implementing game mechanics. Here are some key take-aways:

Have a common cause

Whether you are using game mechanics on individuals or groups, in competitive or cooperative situations, it’s important that it ladder up to something more than just points and badges. Needing everybody to get their timesheets in on time is not enough of a reason. Gamification can be a great way to help employees understand how they fit into the bigger picture (lack of that understanding is a big reason people leave a company.)

Story matters 

Here’s where the science meets creativity. Yes, I created a sophisticated points and ranking system that took into account dozens of different transactions and engagements that I regularly undertook. But I wrapped that in a story about needing to reach certain point totals to help my creative muses escape the clutches of an evil villain.

Understand the Psychology of Your Potential Users

I can be super-competitive at times. I knew going in that what I created would appeal to me, and I created something that would press all the right buttons for me since I was the only player in this game. It’s important to understand the larger group dynamics within the organization. Would individual players want to know other people’s scores? Would that inspire, depress or potentially embarrass them? Would a competitive game with one winning team or player be better, or should it be set up to be a cooperative experience where individuals are helping each other? Or would the entire concept of gamification go over like a lead balloon? If your company isn’t a good fit for this sort of thing, don’t force it.

Have a Plan for the Long Game

My experiment went pretty well for the first five months. I set it up so that I would be motivated to do things that I felt were important, but that weren’t perhaps things that came naturally to me. Initially I found that I was engaging in those activities, and in general I was doing more and had a better understanding of what my overall output was. But after a while it became a bit mechanical. I hadn’t fully planned out a sequel or continuing adventure to keep the motivation high. Playing completely by myself (and being the game designer as well) was certainly a factor there, but the rule still holds true. Once you commit to engaging people through gamification, and they commit to the program, you have to make sure you know how to continue the program and be clear about how it will progress and how it will end.

Communication

This wasn’t an issue I ran into in my experiment, but it’s something I’ve experienced participating in many gamified environments. You need to over-communicate to the participants. Yes, you know what’s happening and why and when, but they don’t. This shouldn’t be a mystery, clear objectives and goals should be stated. Let people know what they need to do to succeed, how it works and who they can contact if they have questions. That being said…

Surprise!

What you do want to do is add little elements of surprise, or humor or some other trigger that gives the user a little moment of joy. It could be in the copy you write, humorous badge art or an inside joke turned into the name of a super-power earned.  The more personal to your organization the better.

Fiero and Naches

I can’t make this an exhaustive primer on gamification, but here are two key elements you do want to understand and consider. Fiero refers to the feeling of accomplishment one gets when succeeding in a task that is just hard enough to be challenging. Creating a system that achieves enough of those moments is difficult and I’m sure something that isn’t often considered in the enterprise level gamification that Manjoo is writing about. Naches is the sense of pride one has when we see the success of someone we taught or helped. Parents get this with their kids, and there are no doubt people at your workplace who thrive on the sense. How are you creating, fostering and rewarding that behavior is a key question.

When done right, game mechanics can be as powerful as the hype surrounding it. But I’d caution that you have to really understand it and put resources behind doing it right.

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Understanding Games: Gamification, Game Mechanics, Game Design

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For me, 2011 was the year I discovered games. Not in the football, baseball, basketball sense, or the Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, Dungeons & Dragons sense. No, games in the marketing sense. While Oxford may have chosen “squeezed middle” as the Word (words?) or the Year, for me it was “Gamification.” I’m not particularly a fan of the word, but it was the one that seemed to stick. And while it may seem trivial to argue semantics – game theory, gamification, game mechanics – it actually is important to try an understand what these terms really mean. We’ve seen what happens when the marketing industry grabs an idea and runs with it, we end up with people still talking about “viral” videos more than two years after the word was ‘debunked.’

I’m by no means an expert in this territory, but I did have a decent amount of exposure to the ideas and people who are leading this industry forward, and it is indeed an industry.  From working with Badgeville to speaking on a Gamification panel at Social Media World Forum, I was able to really begin to understand the science and art of games and develop an appreciation for how challenging it is.

If you work in marketing communications it’s likely you’re going to hear a client, a vendor or a colleague mention games and one, or several, related terms. The first step to understanding this area is understanding some of the fundamental terminology. So, with that in mind I wanted to give a brief primer on three terms that are often used interchangeably or incorrectly: Game Design, Game Mechanics and Gamification.

Game Design

Let’s start with this as it is the most important, most complex and least used of the terms.  Game design encompasses all aspects of creating a game.  It is the skeletal framework from which everything hangs. People tend to throw around the word gamification to mean creating the game, but that’s incorrect. Here’s the definition from WikipediaGame design, a subset of game development, is the process of designing the content and rules of a game in the pre-production stage and design of gameplay, environment, storyline, and characters during production stage. The term is also used to describe both the game design embodied in a game as well as documentation that describes such a design. Game design requires artistic and technical competence as well as writing skills.

Game Mechanics

Game mechanics refers to how the game works. It’s about the interplay between the game and the player. What happens when a player takes an action? What does a player see or hear?  Again, from WikipediaGame mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game or gameplay. All games use mechanics; however, theories and styles differ as to their ultimate importance to the game. In general, the process and study of game design are efforts to come up with game mechanics that allow for people playing a game to have a fun and engaging experience.

Gamification

In essence, gamification is the act of adding game elements to something that doesn’t inherently have them. It’s probably the most misused term, thrown around as a shorthand for Game Mechanics or Game Design. The fundamental misunderstanding is that you can just add a points system, or award badges, and you’ve successfully added gamification to your site/product/service. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: Gamification is the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences. Typically gamification applies to non-game applications and processes (also known as “funware“), in order to encourage people to adopt them. Gamification works by making technology more engaging, by encouraging users to engage in desired behaviors, by showing a path to mastery and autonomy, 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. Available data from gamified websites, applications, and processes indicate potential improvements in areas like user engagement, ROI, data quality, timeliness, or learning.

 

Think of the relative importance of these three ideas with this graphic:

Understand the Importance of Game Design

 

I think we’re going to see a lot of companies try to tack on gamification elements this year without truly understanding its role. Game Design is the core issue. That takes a lot of time and consideration and without it, you’re going to find yourself struggling to understand why people tired of your ‘game’ after one of two sessions.

Here’s three books I’d recommend if you want to learn more about this (and trust me, you do):

The Art of Game Design, A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell

Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal

Game Frame, by Aaron Dignan

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