Games Workplaces Play

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What if work were as fun as play? That blissful vision is the goal of “gamification,” the effort to infuse workplaces with the best elements of playtime.

Games have long been used for training purposes. The Solitaire and Minesweeper games included with early versions of Windows were designed to painlessly teach people how to operate a computer mouse. Flight simulators used to train aspiring pilots became so popular that they evolved from a workplace training tool into one of the most popular genres of video games.

Perhaps the most common kinds of games are team-building exercises at annual company retreats. The hope is to break the ice and build friendship and collaboration, but some old classics such as rope courses and trust circles (in which you catch a falling colleague) may be old hat for longtime veterans of corporate retreats. An interesting new twist on the genre is the escape room.

Escape from Bad Teamwork
Escape rooms put a group of colleagues into a live version of a horror movie, video game, or sci-fi thriller. They are trapped, perhaps in a maniac’s improvised jail cell or a mysterious underground cavern, and have to work together to find a way out before a timer goes off. Is there a hidden key? A password? An air vent they can crawl out of?

Especially popular in Japan and Los Angeles, these installations can be incredibly elaborate, with live actors, laser motion detectors, and elaborate technology rivaling that found in major amusement parks. They are also very popular; the online Escape Room Directory now lists more than 4,000 installations in 75 countries.

John Hennessy of Escape Room LA began operating scavenger hunts in 2004. He now operates four themed escape rooms in Los Angeles with such settings as an alchemist’s laboratory, an old haunted theater, and a 1940s detective’s office. He says that corporate clients looking for a unique team-building experience now account for half of his income.

“I think it’s a great activity for businesses,” he told The FruitGuys Magazine. “Going through the process either shows you how well you work together as a team, or how poorly you work together. Either way, you are going to learn something.”

Play Every Day
It’s one thing to build games at an annual retreat, but wouldn’t you want the values that games promote—creative thinking and team building, among others—to be part of your company’s everyday culture? That’s just what some organizations are doing as they look to “gamification”—integrating games more deeply into the very structure of day-to-day work.

“Gamification is different than games or play. Gamification means understanding what makes games engaging, and applying that to motivate people in other contexts,” explains Kevin Werbach, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and coauthor of For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. “The experience doesn’t need to look anything like a traditional game, or be promoted as ‘fun.’”

One Indianapolis marketing company, PERQ, successfully turned revenue goals into a collaborative “game.” To make this central to the company’s workflow, executives had to commit to opening the company’s books to employees and posting the financials (updated daily) on scoreboards in the busiest part of the office.

“We display the top three goals we have for the first six months, and if we hit two out of three, we get an extra day of [paid time off],” co-owner Scott Hill told Inc. magazine. “We want to borrow off a lot of the same game mechanics that make games enjoyable. There are rules, a score, ways to track progress, goals, and rewards.”

Note that in this game, employees are working together and other companies in their market are the “opponent.” Too much internal competition can create more tension (or even cheating) than fun. Even so, Hill admitted that the system has its ups and downs. “If we are ‘winning,’ morale is great. If we are ‘losing,’ then people are frustrated. I think this is natural and the way every team should feel...The fun has to be earned, and sometimes winning comes easier than other times. For our culture, it has had the great effect of having a driven and passionate workforce. A person who doesn’t care and is looking only for a paycheck won’t be tolerated by his or her peers for very long.”

The results have been impressive. By 2014, PERQ had grown 20 percent per year for three years running, and revenue hit $30 million in 2013.

Gaming Behavior Change
A traditional workplace game is time-limited, designed to be a break from routine. When it’s over, you go “back to work” with an inevitable sense of letdown. The goal of gamification, in contrast, is to make the gaming mindset a permanent part of your corporate culture.

A middle ground is to design a longer-term game designed to permanently change one specific employee behavior. Bluewolf is a San Francisco–based consulting company that helps companies implement Salesforce software. In 2012, management wanted employees to put more effort into building the company’s online and social networking presence, so employees received points and rewards for such actions as replying to a Chatter post, sharing content to their personal social media networks from within Salesforce, and publishing a blog post on the Bluewolf website. Thanks to the strong online presence that resulted, Bluewolf grew to 500 employees in 12 worldwide offices; it was recently purchased by IBM (in May 2016) for a reported $200 million.

Whichever approach you take to gamifying your workplace, Professor Werbach encourages an open-minded approach.“Game design provides a surprisingly rich palette to apply to business challenges....Thinking like a game designer can be a useful way for managers to explore different forms of motivation.”

The things that make a game fun are the common-sense basics of good management—open communication, a level playing field, clear rules for advancement, and frequent feedback on successes or failures. You don’t need point systems, leaderboards, or badges to improve workplace morale, but thinking about what makes games fun can help make any workplace work better.

Mark Saltveit writes about science and health, Daoism, palindromes, political scandals, and football. He's the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution.


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