Gamification Coming to a Workplace Near You

Once considered frivolous productivity killers, games are gaining acceptance in the business world as a training method.
June 11, 2012

Businesses struggle with the idea of playing games at work–we're supposed to have fun on our own time, not on the company's dime. But the emergence of gamification is disrupting that assumption and slowly changing the way businesses train and motivate staff.

In a nutshell, gamification is the concept of applying the engaging (and addictive) elements of games in a non-game setting. For example: coaching new hires with a simulator where they can earn points and climb to a higher levels, instead of subjecting them to a dusty old training video.

Mashable spoke with several gamification experts–including Richard Taylor, senior vice president for communications and industry affairs at the trade group Entertainment Software Association (ESA)–to uncover the history and future direction of gamification.

Games for Teachers and Doctors

According to a study by Parks Associates, the number of people playing video games in the U.S. has risen 241 percent since 2008. No longer are they confined to arcades and basement rec rooms.

"Teachers at all levels use games in the classroom to teach history and civics, build STEM skills and teach foreign languages," Taylor says. "Healthcare providers use video games in physical therapy and treatment programs, and to educate patients about their conditions. Surgeons use video game simulations to help practice difficult procedures.”

Karl M. Kapp, professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University, sees an exciting trend toward implementing games to teach systems and relationships. “The commercial equivalent is something like The Sims, where the player has to weigh certain variables and make tradeoffs to keep his or her character healthy and happy,” he says.

Why are so many organizations considering games? Taylor says it's all about the cost and results.

Virtual Hotel, Disaster Simulator

“UPS began using video games to train newly recruited drivers after finding that 30 percent of candidates failed the company’s traditional training program, and the Hilton Garden Inn worked with Virtual Heroes to develop Ultimate Team Play, an interactive game that places employees in a virtual hotel," Taylor says. "Even the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice has developed a training game, called Incident Commander, in which emergency responders practice coordinating disaster relief efforts.”

Why It Works

So why is gamification such an effective tool for instruction and training? Tim Lynch, president of gaming computer company Psychsoftpc, was one of the first psychologists to study the effects of computer interaction on socialization. Doing his doctoral work, he observed that people responded to a computer in similar ways as they did to other people–but better.

“In many instances, they were more open since there was a feeling of anonymity in dealing with the computer, and that learning in a computer simulation environment transfers over to real life experience,” Lynch says.

So, the first key ingredient in gamification success is an openness to connecting with technology. The second is using the computer experience afterward in practical application. Otherwise, the learning doesn’t take place.

Kapp discovered a similar connection during an internship. He volunteered to play a paper-based game that was intended to teach people negotiation skills. He says the paper game helped him feel comfortable with those skills and led to him applying them in a more adept way.

"I realized that certain elements of games could be applied to traditional e-learning and classroom instructional design," Kapp says. "I started to play with some ideas when I came across the term ‘gamification’ which I immediate thought to myself, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do.' I don’t really want to create a full-scale Halo-type game, but I do want elements of Halo like characters, challenge, story and feedback in my instruction.”

Rajat Paharia, founder and CPO of gamification company Bunchball, saw the potential for games in a business context. “After having a lot of success in motivating customers on public sites, we realized that gamification, when properly designed, could be of huge use in enterprise applications," Paharia says.

Looking Ahead

Bunchball shipped its first gamification solution back in 2007 and currently works with some of the largest consumer and B2B companies in the world, including Warner Bros., Comcast, NBC Universal, Adobe and Hasbro. Paharia shared how gamification has evolved over the past few years and why businesses are becoming more open to it.

“I think five years ago, most organizations were reluctant to embrace gamification because of the ‘games’ concept. Since then, more organizations are learning that gamification and games aren’t the same thing–in fact they’re somewhat orthogonal. Gamification applies game mechanics to non-game experiences, but the goal isn’t gameplay, it’s ongoing engagement," he says. "Organizations are now realizing that gamification doesn’t make business more ‘fun,’ it just helps change the way people perceive their work in a positive way.”

How would you like to see gamification used in your office? 

Photo credit: Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock