Gaming In The Workplace: Mixing Work and Play Can Motivate Employees

Monica Rozenfeld, associate editor for the publication of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers highlights the importance of gamification at workplace

Monica RozenfeldGamification is a relatively new word that stands for applying game-design thinking to non-game applications, and has been used in several industries and is now making its way into offices.

Research firm Gartner predicts that nearly 2000 global organisations will be using gamification to train their employees and track their performance by the end of this year.

And in February, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers announced that its experts predict that over the next six years, gaming will be integrated into more than 85 per cent of daily activities, which include tasks in the workplace.

One of the early adopters of gamification in the workplace is the IT consulting and outsourcing company NTT Data, headquartered in Tokyo. In 2011, it developed a video game of on-the-job scenarios that its employees might face to help them learn to make better decisions.

Its online ''Ignite Leadership'' game has a samurai guarding a road leading up a mountain. The employees must reach the summit but face challenges along the way that teach negotiating skills, time management, and problem solving.

Players are awarded points for each level they pass; those reaching the top level are also identified as potential leaders for the company. According to the company, more than half the employees participating in the game also advanced to team leadership roles, and this was coupled to a 30 per cent reduction in the number of people leaving the company. The game ultimately saved it money on recruitment and retraining.

''Games can be very motivational,'' says IEEE Member Elena Bertozzi, a professor of digital game design and development at Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Conn. ''They constantly reward players and make them feel good about themselves. She also adds that when scores are worked in, games also tend to make employees competitive with other players in their company. Employees at NTT Data collect points and badges as they complete each challenge. Those that reach the top level are also identified as potential leaders for the company.

For gaming to be effective, a company must focus on exactly what it wants to accomplish, she explains. There must be a clear and desired outcome, one that can be measured to indicate if a game is successful.

Bertozzi points out, however, that awarding points for activities that employees already do well is not useful. Rather, gamification should be reserved for activities that workers are doing poorly, such as wasting supplies or not responding to customers' queries. Or games can be used for tasks that employees hesitate to engage in, such as carpooling to work.

Any industry can implement gamification, Bertozzi continues. It might be expensive to create a video game customised to the employer's needs, but quite inexpensive to keep score by hand on a leaderboard.

Also, free or inexpensive tools are available online to create a game-like experience such as using social networking platforms. Some companies allow employees to play computer and mobile games, like the pattern-recognition game Bejeweled, to help keep their minds sharp.

Others, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, in Portland award employees virtual tokens of different value for simple actions, like resetting a password, as well as complicated tasks, like implementing a new idea that saves the company money.

Employees can then gamble the tokens in an online slot machine to win cash and other prizes. While some companies develop their contests in-house, others rely on outside gamification designers such as Snowfly or Badgeville.

But gamification is not for every problem, Bertozzi says. ''In the past few years, the mentality around gaming has dramatically shifted from an activity that is a waste of time to something that can change the world, which is often an exaggerated claim.''

There may come a saturation point where games may lose their appeal. ''We don't know how long this spurt will last in which gaming is immersed in industries outside of games themselves,'' she says. ''It's not play once an employer institutionalizes it.''

Moreover, once the point system is removed, will employees still engage in activities that the games reward? Most likely not, according to Bertozzi, who has found that people will not have the incentive to continue, say, carpooling or making cold calls if they don't have to.

''A game is designed for players to get good at the game and motivate them to succeed in it. That's all it needs to do,'' she says.