Pragmatic Marketer Volume 10 Issue 1

Remember when you were a kid “playing pretend” with your friends? The old oak tree in the backyard became a spaceship, a patch of dirt was another planet and, of course, beware of the invisible aliens.

In order to play in that pretend world, you would make up rules and “winning” would let you know you were playing well. We would even have a name for what we were playing, however inaccurate or goofy it might have been.

As an adult, it’s not called “playing pretend,” it’s called “gamify,” a word that has been trending over the past year. Many of the definitions out there are quite scholarly and researched, but mine is simply this: To gamify is to approach a task, an experience, a challenge, a project or even life itself as the game it is—and then make it even better.

“But no, games are frivolous, and life is serious business,” you say. But business is the ultimate game and we’ve been making up the rules for years. We’ve evolved the definitions of how to win and even how the players can make moves in it. Unfortunately, business has focused on the “work” and not on the play—one of the key components of successful games. Regardless of the level of investment of time, energy, emotion and resources, people won’t stay without play. They want fun to be part of the experience.

The Importance of Engagement

When my son was young, I watched him stack blocks for hours. He was accomplishing a task, using intense concentration. He was learning about things like gravity, hand-eye coordination and balance. He was dedicated in a way that most employers can only wish their staff was.      

A recent Gallup poll found that 71 percent of American workers are disengaged, and consider this:

Over the past several decades, business and psychological researchers have identified a strong relationship between employees’ workplace engagement and their respective company’s overall performance   (Gallup, Oct. 28, 2011).

This is even more significant because plenty of surveys on employee engagement over the last 10 years show that employee disengagement has increased despite all the awareness and initiatives.

Now I pose this question for you: Has anyone ever had to motivate you to be engaged in a game? Most likely no. In fact, parents these days regularly complain that they can’t get their kids away from playing at the computer for hours on end, much like our moms had to call us in repeatedly from playing outside.

So here’s one key point to remember: People deeply engage in games because they are having an experience they enjoy having. And gamification in business can produce results.

Online players of a game called Foldit figured out the structure of a type of protein that is crucial to the replication of HIV—a puzzle that AIDS researchers have tried to solve for years (Time magazine online, Sept. 19, 2011).

In another instance, Ross Smith from Microsoft created the Language Quality Game and recruited company employees from all over the world to play, reviewing Windows 7 dialog boxes and getting points for each “suspicious bit” of language. The results? As many as 4,500 people played on their own time with no additional pay, logging 6,700 bug reports that allowed for hundreds of fixes. And they had fun doing it, while still holding up their job responsibilities. (Source: “For the Win” by Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter, Wharton Press, 2012).

These are just two of the many examples of how gamification of business can produce results. It’s real-world evidence of how gamifying one’s approach to a challenge can not only create more productivity, but also create a more engaged work force. We need to recognize the innate power of play and of games for creating engagement and focus.

Get Gamifying

If work felt more like a game, instead of something you have to trudge to and from, people would naturally engage more. To get started gamifying in your workplace, you need to incorporate the seven key elements of a game.

Play. Without a sense of fun, without the game feeling like the best they’ve played since they were kids, you’re wasting your time. It is and always will be about the experience. If gamification is attempted purely as a productivity/engagement manipulation, it will fall flat. It has to be genuinely designed to produce a fun experience.

Rules. Rules are structure. A lot of people don’t like the notion of rules, but rules are necessary. Without them, someone could run on the basketball court with a baseball bat and club a player attempting to shoot. The key thing to remember about rules is that you’re already playing by them in whatever business you’re in. The question is: Are those rules allowing employees to have the experience that will create engagement? In most cases, if the company or the industry has been around for a while, the answer will be some version of “no.”

The second thing to remember about rules is that they can be changed, bent or even broken. We tend to play games by the rules, forgetting that the rules exist because we made them up in the first place. Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos became successful by breaking the rule that said you have to have a retail location to sell books. But at some point in the history of human beings, there was no such thing as a bookstore to begin with.

Name of the game. Having a name provides focus and direction. Basketball is played with a basket and a ball. In the Microsoft example, it was called the Language Quality Game. Yup, it was about language quality.

Winning defined. This one is a bit tricky in that companies typically go for a win that is bottom-line defined (dollars of revenue or percent of market share). However, that may not mean much to an employee. Discuss what would not only be meaningful wins to the company, but also make the game worth playing for employees. Consider the definition of winning on both a tangible and intangible level, because it’s the intangibles that will affect how deeply engaged people get when they play.

Environment. This is the board, the court or wherever the action takes place. Whatever it is, it needs to support the experience.

If the game board doesn’t suit, then the experience will be one of struggle. Imagine a basketball court that is made of grass instead of wood. It would make a big difference in how you play. Pick your board appropriately for the experience you want to be having. Consultants will often take the game off-site, because they know that if they’re going to initiate a much-needed paradigm change, a different environment will support it better than the one people have been playing in.

How to play. This is about the moves and what one can and can’t do. It may sound like rules, but it also involves improvisation. For example, there are a number of moves sitting in a playbook for quarterbacks to learn, but the great ones know that the “right move” is really contingent on the opponent’s moves. They may well have to “call an audible” or improvise, based on what they see.

Players. Every game has one or more players. What’s most important about players is their attributes and skills. Are the players on your team of championship caliber? If they aren’t, are they developable or trainable? If not, what are you prepared to do about it?

There’s no point in attempting to have your company win your version of the championship with players who aren’t up to the level they need to be. Everyone is much better off with them being somewhere else.

In designing your game, ask yourself what qualities you need in your players to win. And by the way, check in to see if your own personal game is up to snuff. Nothing defeats a team more than being asked for something that isn’t modeled as game-winning behavior. Remember, even viewing your employees as players in your game (along with your vendors and customers) can change how you interact with them.

Here’s one big tip: If you really want to go at this gamification thing, then you have resources all around you. Talk to people you know who play online games or even your own kids. Take the time and ask them how those games work. Ask them what keeps them playing. Listen. Study the games. And remember that games need to be genuinely designed to produce a fun experience. There must be sufficient challenge, a clear potential for winning, a sense of autonomy and a clarity of process for moving up the leaderboard.

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