Using Games Can Help Drive Employee Engagement

If you think games are for goofing off, think again. More businesses are using them to train and motivate employees.
July 19, 2012

Games are increasingly popular in our workplaces today–and I don’t mean those time-wasters we play between meetings. Games used to achieve a business result, such as corporate learning or customer education, have recently entered mainstream conversation, even though they’ve been around for years.

Gamification is defined as using game technology in a Website, service, community or application in order to drive participation. It’s a perfect way to create customer engagement or employee participation. Companies big and small are examining the impact of games on their business.

Once you’ve sold senior leadership on gamification, the real work begins. Deciding the best game for an organization and agreeing upon a way to effectively implement it can be a real challenge.

Types of Workplace Games

In thinking about the different kinds of games that companies are using, two really rise above the rest. The first is a virtual environment that simulates the real work atmosphere, and one of the most popular simulations is My Marriott Hotel.

The My Marriott Hotel game is a brand awareness and educational tool that gives people a behind the scenes look at what it takes to run a hotel. Francisca Martinez, VP of global talent acquisition for Marriott International, shares how the game works:

“First, players manage a virtual hotel restaurant kitchen. They buy equipment and ingredients on a budget, hire and train employees, and serve guests. Points are earned for happy customers, lost for poor service and ultimately, players are rewarded when their operation turns a profit. Then they are able to move on to other areas of hotel operations.”

The game is not only fun, but also serves a valuable purpose. The game was developed to give outsiders a glimpse of the very complex operations that take place at a hotel. “We learned that they had an immense curiosity for what it would mean to work for a hotel and what simply went on inside, as many may have never stayed at one of our hotels," Martinez explains. "So the idea was conceived—develop a game to create greater awareness of how to actually run a hotel.”

The second game type that companies utilize is one that improves cognitive abilities, such as memory, attention, processing speed, flexibility and problem solving. Lumosity offers over 35 such games both online and on mobile. A few of its offerings include:

  • Word Sort trains flexibility by exercising logical reasoning. Users must figure out a hidden rule and sort words into two piles—words that follow the rules and words that don't. The rules might be stylistic, such as the use of uppercase, or thematic, such as names of birds.

  • Speed Match trains information processing. Users must compare each symbol with the one that appeared before it and determine if they match. Users have a limited period of time to get as many comparisons correct as possible and are awarded more points for consecutive correct responses.

  • Raindrops trains problem-solving abilities by exercising math skills. Users must solve the arithmetic equation in the raindrop before it reaches the water. The game is over when three raindrops reach the water.

Each game gradually increases in difficulty and adjusts to a user's skill level, and the program also offers a personalized training and performance tracking system. Erica Perng, senior public relations manager at Lumosity, explains that the company's position in the gamification world grew out of the intersection of neuroscience and physical exercise: “Co-founders Mike Scanlon, chief scientific officer, and Kunal Sarkar, CEO, wanted to create something that helped people, so with their combined expertise, they decided to start a brain-training game company," Perng says. "They realized that there was a natural fit between their two fields—training bodies and training brains.”

Selling “Games” to Senior Leadership

Often the hardest part of introducing games into the workplace isn’t the game itself; it’s selling the idea to senior leadership. Frank Farrall, national leader at Deloitte Digital Australia, says “Games are a proven technique to drive and reward specific behaviors and can be applied to customers or staff to motivate them to behave in the desired way, while using positive rewards to reinforce desired behavior.”

The Deloitte Leadership Academy is an interactive online learning portal available anywhere and anytime. The platform also facilitates peer collaboration and face-to-face networking.

“Motivational theory can be applied to rewarding users for leaving helpful comments on a review site, staff for performing a process efficiently or in Deloitte Leadership Academy’s case, consuming more content and participating in its online community of leaders,” Farrall says.

Perng agrees that the benefits of gamifying education can be a big selling point—it shows they're not just for fun. “Many companies offer employees gym memberships to keep their workforce healthy," Perng says. "Online brain training programs, such as Lumosity, are like a gym for your brain, and they can help keep employees mentally strong and sharp."

What’s more, studies have found that working memory, which is important in storing memory and making decisions, is correlated with high job performance. According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Higgens, prefrontal cognitive ability correlated with the performance ratings that managers received from their supervisors. The prefrontal cortex supports cognitive functions, such as working memory, executive function, focus and reaction time, which are all abilities that can be trained.”

Implementation Challenges

Even the best programs run into challenges along the way. Farrall says any resistance Deloitte has received to the Leadership Academy’s introduction of gamification has come in the form of people viewing games as child’s play rather than relating to a training environment. He adds the reverse has also been true: Because participants enjoy games, making sure not to overdo it is also a struggle.

Bob Marsh is SVP and general manager at ePrize, a company that brings an incentive or game layer to any B2C, B2B or B2E organization. For example, among a sales team, ePrize creates games to learn and motivate sales activities such as client calls, booking client meetings, pitching new products and winning more business. Marsh has developed three rules for a smooth implementation:

  • Keep it simple. A complicated game structure is one more barrier to your end-goal, so a simplified experience is key. If you have too many things going on, people get confused and don't change behavior.

  • Keep people updated. Let your team members see where they stand, and keep the game top of mind with real-time results.

  • Keep it competitive. Don't focus so much on the prize. The incentive itself is not the most important thing. Having a leaderboard drives competition, and therefore, more of the activity you're trying to encourage.

Participant Response and Business Results

The bottom line is that for companies to implement games, participants have to like them, and they must result in a positive business outcome. Martinez says the response to My Marriott Hotel has been phenomenal. “At any given time, we have players from 120 different countries running their own kitchens—and that’s compared to the 73 countries we actually operate in. We also know that one-third of our game players end up clicking on the ‘try it for real’ button, which pops them out onto the careers section of our website.”

Perng indicate that in peer-reviewed research, Lumosity users experienced a greater than 10 percent improvement in working memory and a greater than 20 percent improvement in attention span after just 10 hours of training. "We currently hold the world’s largest database of human cognition, with more than 320 million data points. Lumosity’s research and development team continually analyzes this data to optimize Lumosity and the training experience and learn more about the brain health and performance."

Whether it’s brand awareness, recruitment or high performance, companies are using gamification in varied forms to accomplish their business goals. Being able to study the best practices of others can help businesses determine the approach that will yield them the best results.

Would you consider using games as a training tool for your staff?

Photo credit: Courtesy the subject