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Gamification Advocates Try Really, Really Hard to Make Work Fun

by Mark Hay

December 12, 2014

According to Adam Penenberg, editor of the delightfully critical tech news outlet PandoDaily, the world is moving rapidly towards an Ender’s Game reality. Not in the sense that we’re on the verge of militarization after a space war with insect-like alien invaders, but in the sense that, like that novel’s titular protagonist, rather than flying planes or toting around boxes or writing TPS reports, one day we may do all of our work by proxy, playing complex computer game simulations that translate mouse clicks into anything from menial to complex labor. 

That’s currently a far-off reality, but it is the long-term goal of a new movement in American business. Described in Penenberg’s 2013 Play at Work, this trend of gamification aims to use the science behind games to harness their addictive and competitive drive, reengaging the 70 percent of U.S. workers who describe themselves as bored and disconnected. 

A scene from Ender's Game

In the past half-decade, gamification has grown from a fringe concept into a mainstream strategy. In 2012, the tech consultancy firm Gartner estimated that in the next few years 70 percent of major corporations would use at least one gamification program and 40 percent would consider it a centerpiece of their corporate strategy. Critics have blasted the trend as an overhyped failure, pointing out that most work games are duds. (Gartner also estimated that 80 percent of gamification programs would be poorly designed and fail to achieve their goals.) But rather than give up, gamification advocates have redoubled their efforts, within the last year developing a more robust and comprehensive set of guidelines for how and when to introduce play into the workplace—a new wave that may help gamification unlock its sci-fi future potential.  

Although some claim the concept stretches back to the 1930s or even ancient Egypt (play for pyramids!), modern corporate gamification was inspired by a number of successful programs in the scientific world. Most notably, in 2011 a University of Washington game called Foldit utilized the puzzle-solving drive of non-scientist gamers to unlock the structure of a vital enzyme in the AIDS virus that had baffled researchers for ages. Subsequent programs used the same principles to classify whale sounds, identify millions of far-space objects, and develop public health pandemic response scenarios

Yet when management gurus and supervisors, wowed by this success, tried to implement games in the workplace, they wound up taking what Gamification @ Work authors Janaki Kumar and Mario Herger call the “chocolate covered broccoli approach”—slapping progress bars, badges, and point systems on top of existing tasks. These visible and competitive interfaces, they hoped, would be a one-size-fits-all motivator. But as life gamification proponent/business gamification skeptic Jane McGonigal cautions, this mandatory fun has all of the bells and whistles but none of the heart of a game. Research this year out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business pointed out that such sparkly interfaces, sold to companies by cookie-cutter designers like Bunchball and consultants like Dopamine, just aren’t that engaging. They get old quickly, often lead to backstabbing and cheating, and simply come off as a new incentive system designed to squeeze more productivity out of workers. 

PlantVille

However from the ashes of these pyrrhic takedowns of lackluster and thoughtless gamification, critics have in turn developed the principles of player centered design—basically a bid at gamification 2.0. In addition to incorporating feedback like levels and power-ups that you see in current work games, these individuals argue, companies ought to create tailored simulations focused on rules, narratives, and physical interfaces that accommodate particular work cultures and evolving tasks. 

Thus far the greatest success in building more complete, immersive, and engaging games seems to be coming from training programs. From Hilton Garden Inn’s Ultimate Team Play to Siemens’ PlantVille, these games allow players to go through boring training manuals in a compelling environment while simultaneously introducing recruits to the institutional culture and norms of the company in a way no physical training course could. Now it’s just a matter of transferring the principles that made these games work onto even more menial and mundane tasks. That’s no small order. But with a little precedent and more focused guidance developed over just a couple of years of trial-and-error, fueled by a still-healthy business obsession with games, it seems fairly likely that we’re still on the way towards our Ender future. 

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

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Gamification Advocates Try Really, Really Hard to Make Work Fun