Gaming in the Workplace

How mixing work and play can motivate employees

7 May 2014
NTT Data, headquartered in Tokyo, was one of the early adopters of gaming in the workplace. It developed a video game called Ignite Leadership to train its employees on skills such as time management and problem solving.
Illustration: NTT Data

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Playing video games instead of doing your work might sound like a surefire way to get in trouble at the office. But some employers encourage game playing, and even use it as a path to promotion.

Gamification—a relatively new word that stands for applying game-design thinking to non-game applications—has been used in several industries and is now making its way into offices. Gartner, a research firm based in Stamford, Conn., predicts that nearly 2000 global organizations will be using gamification to train their employees and track their performance by the end of this year. And in February, IEEE announced that its experts predict that over the next six years, gaming will be integrated into more than 85 percent 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 percent reduction in the number of people leaving the company. The game ultimately saved it money on recruitment and retraining.

In another example, the beer company Miller Brewing, based in Milwaukee, developed a virtual game called “Tips on Tap” that instructs bartenders on how to pour the perfect glass of beer. Points are lost if the beer glass in the game hits the tap, where it could become contaminated, and points are earned if the bartender finishes with the right amount of foam on top.

“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. When was the last time you got a gold star for doing something right?” She 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. Illustration: NTT Data

TAKING ACTION

At the University of California Benioff Children’s Hospital, in San Francisco, gamification was used to help prevent hospital-acquired infections. It’s estimated that these cause up to 100 000 patient deaths in the United States alone each year. To motivate nurses to take more careful measures when working with patients, the hospital implemented the gamification app Compete into the workplace.

The app gives the nurses points for logging in their daily tasks, which include reporting on a patient’s condition, especially any unusual symptoms that might signal an infection. Nurses can see one another’s score, which adds the element of competition.

“Something as simple as a scoring system can motivate employees to change their behavior,” says Bertozzi. “It is difficult to teach motivation. That’s what games can do. Game developers look at a situation and figure out how to persuade people to engage in a specific activity by turning the situation into a more competitive one.”

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 customized 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, Ore., 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. For example, Badgeville’s client Deloitte, an international business-skills-training company, integrated a point system with its online courses to motivate its employee-consultants to pay regular visits to the training site and complete their training sessions. The results showed not only that the training site had 47 percent more visits per day, but also that the consultants completed courses in half the time.

One study by the University of Colorado, in Denver, showed that organizations that use games to train employees have more motivated workers who “learn more and forget less.”

GAMING OVERLOAD

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.

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