As I have mentioned before, I am a gamer. I am also a hobbyist game developer and an employee. So it probably won’t come as a surprise that I am also interested in gamification. This is the use of game-like techniques in nongame contexts, especially but not exclusively business, with the overall goal to improve outcomes. Gamification aims to change people’s behaviour to make them act willingly in the desired fashion. A simple example is the fitness app that encourages people by showing them the positive results of their past activities.
Classical approaches to gamification in business involve provisions for sales personnel, internal awards for employees and rewarding customers with prizes for sharing their data, which is also the principle behind loyalty cards. More modern approaches include fitness rooms or creative breaks.
Most recent approaches, however, look at gamification by literally introducing game elements like high scores, experience points or virtual goods into the daily business. Why is that?
Just one more round!
Undoubtedly, computer gaming is a huge, ever-growing market. In the past, gaming was seen as a nerdy, unwanted, unnecessary waste of time and, if you ask my wife, it still is, but there is something going on that companies’ leaders are now noticing. The “2018 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry” survey by the Entertainment Software Association states that 72 percent of American gamers are older than 18 years, 60 percent play video games daily and the average American gamer is 34 years old. That looks like a good target group for employee acquisition, right?
But why do people play games, why do they keep playing and why do they invest huge amounts of time in them? The most basic answer is: fun! Getting a bit more sophisticated, it is about the game continuously rewarding them for their actions, making them want to get more rewards.
Let's take one of the most popular games of all time, Tetris, as an example. Tetris has low-end graphics, very simple mechanics and technically only one reward meter, the score counter. People played and still play Tetris over and over again just to get a better score. Modern games use similar concepts, adding better graphics, as well as more complex mechanics and reward systems, but with the same overall goal: make players play the game over and over again by producing as much fun as possible. Gamers often refer to this as the “just one more round” feeling that quite often can lead to sleepless nights.
However, that is only the introversive view of games. That score counter in Tetris, combined with simple mechanics, allows for essentially everyone to compete with others. The game creates communities, from schoolyards to big online sites. And did you know about the annual Tetris competition that is played on original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) cartridges – a system that was released in 1983?
If you watch the video, you will notice that these guys push their eye-hand coordination to a level that you – or at least I – will probably never reach. They improved their individual performance just by playing a game that they like, to which they devote countless hours of their free time. That should be what we think of when we use the word gamification: “voluntary dedication that leads to natural personal improvement." Not, as stated in the first paragraph, “aiming for changing people’s behaviour to make them act willingly in the desired fashion.”
The gamification recipe
Keeping that in mind as the overall goal, I think that implementing a gamification concept into a company is far from an easy task. When developing a game, you design the graphics, mechanics, rewards and everything else for a certain specific target group that will (hopefully) form into one or more communities once you release the game. In business, you might have more or less separate, existing communities that each may be receptive to very different mechanics, but mutual target scores aligned with your company key figures. The game you design will be complex by nature.
Instead of proposing to implement just some high scores and leaderboards, I want to try to sketch an approach that describes a much more general and wider concept based on my experience of how computer games work. In this respect, I would think of six layers.
Layer 1: General idea
Every game starts with an idea that defines how the game will work but on a very general level. Since you are designing a game for your company, it makes sense to choose something that somehow refers to what your company does. You sell houses? Why not build houses in your company game?
Layer 2: Resources
So you decided on a general idea. The next step will be to translate the company KPIs into game resources that employees can work with. Since you have different departments requiring different mechanics, these resources will probably be hierarchical. That is, you require multiple resources to build the next-level resource. For example, you might make the yearly company goal of the game to build a house where each floor represents a certain revenue value, rooms represent customers, furniture is service quality per customer, etc.
Layer 3: Mechanics
The mechanics then describe how the resources are produced. In the house example, a new floor might require a certain company revenue to be built, furniture can only be built when the room has four walls and walls are connected to project milestones. The more detailed this is, the better. Individual employees should know exactly how they can contribute to the overall goal, who they depend on and who depends on them. This will lead to them seeing their relevance in the big picture, which is great motivation.
Layer 4: Competition
To allow for individual improvement, the whole system should be built around competition, and competition requires three very important factors: simplicity, balance and a learning curve. Simplicity means the mechanics need to be understandable by everyone. Nobody should feel overwhelmed by hundreds of steps they need to keep track of. A competitive system also needs to be fair. Balancing it is usually an ongoing process that is fed by input from the people that live in it. And lastly, there should be a – probably logarithmic – learning curve for mastering the mechanics. This encourages people to improve individually by comparing their performance with others.To allow for individual improvement, the whole system should be built around competition, and competition requires three very important factors: simplicity, balance and a learning curve. Click To Tweet
Layer 5: Individual skills
To support competition and individual improvement, the game should represent individuals with a game character. This makes it easy to assign awards, and if combined with something like experience points and a levelling-up system, you can easily track overall progression and actual real-life experience. And maybe even connect that to salaries or other monetary benefit systems.
Layer 6: Realization
Since implementing gamification in your company is probably not your core business, I would recommend going for a modular approach. Define an extensible framework with core concepts, resources and mechanics, but design them so that you can easily add more of everything. The user interface might be web-based or even a little game client based on some game engines that are available on the internet. A lot of effort will probably go into the interfaces to operational systems.
I don’t claim this to be an exhaustive list. In fact, I could go on with this forever. However, I wanted to share a new view of business gamification – from a gamer’s point of view.
Companies live in a very similar landscape as teams in competitive games. As the skill gap between these teams is usually very small, products become more interchangeable as they improve. Companies need to find other means to stay ahead in the market: improve team performance. Gamification is a means to keep motivation high, to foster a great team spirit and to support individual improvement.
For me, gamification is not just adding some simple game elements to your business. It is more about generating that same “just one more round” feeling in your employees every day they come to work. I believe, if done right, a company will not be recognized as a company anymore but as a thriving community. The game itself will grow with it, not only in size but also in maturity. And so will the company.