Despite their reputation for violence, not all video games are about zapping aliens or shooting zombies.
Plenty offer gentler amusements, like tending a virtual farm or playing a relaxing round of golf. And a few take their inspiration from business and management. Players can assume the role of a football-team boss in “Championship Manager” or an aspiring transport magnate in “Railroad Tycoon”.
Even the evil overlord in the 1997 classic “Dungeon Keeper” must make sure to pay wages to his vampires, dragons and trolls, lest the workers rebel.
As video games have grown from an obscure hobby to a $67 billion industry, management theorists have begun to return the favour. Video games now have the dubious honour of having inspired their own management craze. Called “gamification”, it aims to take principles from video games and apply them to serious tasks. The latest book on the subject, “For the Win”, comes from Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter, from the Wharton Business School and the New York Law School respectively.
Gamification proceeds from the observation that, to non-players, a lot of what gamers do looks suspiciously like hard work. Improving a character in “World of Warcraft”, an online fantasy game, is a never-ending treadmill. The most dedicated players sign up for weekly sessions with two dozen other players which can last for several hours–vital if they wish to defeat the toughest monsters. Jokes about the game being a second job are common. Other gamers will spend hours trying to shave fractions of a second from a record lap time in a driving game or chasing a high score in “Angry Birds”.
All this is fascinating to management gurus, who come from a world in which people must usually be paid to undertake repetitive tasks. Games not only subvert that rule, they invert it completely: players will happily fork out good money for the privilege of being allowed to attempt arbitrary jobs. What if, say the gamifiers, it were possible to identify the “special sauce” responsible for this strange effect, extract it and then slather it onto business problems? Can the compulsive power of video games be harnessed to motivate workers?
In “For the Win”, readers are told of an internal Microsoft competition to hunt down translation mistakes in its Windows operating system. Points were assigned for spotting mistakes and totted up on a companywide leaderboard. The mixture of instant feedback (via the points) and competition (through the leaderboard) provided a powerful spur. The entire Japan office took a day off from other work to hunt down mistranslations–great for motivation, but perhaps not for productivity. LiveOps, an American firm whose employees do call-centre work from home, uses leaderboards and points to boost productivity, while a series of “badges” (modelled on video-game “achievements”, given for completing certain tasks) denote mastery of certain skills.
Games can be used for enthusing customers, too. Fitocracy, a fitness website, lets its users set up “duels” with each other, to see who can get the better jogging time. An escalating series of “levels”, a concept invented to measure a character’s power in role-playing games, is a frequent feature of gamification schemes.
Does gamification merit the hype that has quickly surrounded it? The idea is only a couple of years old, but it has already spawned a host of breathless conferences, crowded seminars and (inevitably) TED talks.
Some video-game designers are opposed to the idea on principle, arguing that gamification is really a cover for cynically exploiting human psychology for profit. They compare many of the games beloved by the gamifiers, such as “World of Warcraft”, to slot machines, with rewards carefully doled out in order to keep players hooked. Others argue that gamification usually misses the point, focusing on incidental features of video games such as points, badges and instant feedback while ignoring the deeper features–like being able to explore freely a virtual world–that actually make them fun. And the benefits, the critics say, are likely to be transient. When a player gets bored of a video game, it is easy to buy another. When workplace games become dull, they are not so easy to put aside.
Level-headed management types, meanwhile, say that many of the aspects of gamification that do work are merely old ideas in trendy new clothes. High-score lists for sales staff, for example, have been around for decades, as have employee-of-the-month contests. Airlines were giving points and perks to loyal customers long before anyone had heard of “Farmville”.
Messrs Werbach and Hunter accept much of this criticism. Indeed, they go out of their way to warn aspiring gamifiers of the many pitfalls they face. Trying to enliven boring, unskilled work is risky, they say: presenting cutesy badges to call-centre staff can easily come across as patronising rather than motivating. Workers already toil for a reward–money–and will be suspicious of attempts to introduce a new form of compensation that costs their bosses nothing. The authors cite psychological experiments suggesting that intrinsic rewards (the enjoyment of a task for its own sake) are the best motivators, whereas extrinsic rewards, such as badges, levels, points or even in some circumstances money, can be counter-productive.
The problem is that, after the authors have finished instructing their readers in what not to do, the concept of gamification is left looking somewhat threadbare. That is a shame, because their central idea–that the world might be a better place if work was less of a necessary drudge and more of a rewarding experience in itself — is hard to argue with. But then perhaps it is called work for a reason.
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