When Work Becomes a Game

Across corporate America, applying the principles of games to the non-game setting of the workplace is a growing phenomenon


What motivates employees to do their jobs well? Competition with coworkers, for some. The promise of rewards, for others. Pure enjoyment of problem-solving, for a lucky few.  

Increasingly, companies are tapping into these desires directly through what’s come to be known as “gamification:” essentially, turning work into a game.

“Gamification is about understanding what it is that makes games engaging and what game designers do to create a great experience in games, and taking those learnings and applying them to other contexts such as the workplace and education,” explains Kevin Werbach, a gamification expert who teaches at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

It might mean monitoring employee productivity on a digital leaderboard and offering prizes to the winners, or giving employees digital badges or stars for completing certain activities. It could also mean training employees how to do their jobs through video game platforms. Companies from Google to L’Oréal to IBM to Wells Fargo are known to use some degree of gamification in their workplaces. And more and more companies are joining them. A recent report suggests that the global gamification market will grow from $1.65 billion in 2015 to $11.1 billion by 2020.

The concept of gamification is not entirely new, Werbach says. Companies, marketers and teachers have long looked for fun ways to engage people’s reward-seeking or competitive spirits. Cracker Jacks has been “gamifying” its snack food by putting a small prize inside for more than 100 years, he adds, and the turn-of-the-century steel magnate Charles Schwab is said to have often come into his factory and written the number of tons of steel produced on the past shift on the factory floor, thus motivating the next shift of workers to beat the previous one.

But the word “gamification” and the widespread, conscious application of the concept only began in earnest about five years ago, Werbach says. Thanks in part to video games, the generation now entering the workforce is especially open to the idea of having their work gamified.

“We’re at a point where in much of the developed world the vast majority of young people grew up playing [video] games, and an increasingly high percentage of adults play these video games too,” Werbach says.

A number of companies have sprung up—GamEffective, Bunchball and Badgeville, to name a few—in recent years offering gamification platforms for businesses. The platforms that are most effective turn employees’ ordinary job tasks into part of a rich adventure narrative.

“What makes a game game-like is that the player actually cares about the outcome,” Werbach says. “The principle is understanding what is motivating to this group of players, which requires some understanding of psychology.”

Some people, Werbach says, are motivated by competition. Sales people often fall into this category. For them, the right kind of gamification might be turning their sales pitches into a competition with other team members, complete with a digital leaderboard showing who’s winning at all times.

Others are more motivated by collaboration and social experiences. One company Werbach has studied uses gamification to create a sense of community and boost employee morale. When employees log in to their computers, they’re shown a picture of one of their coworkers and asked to guess that person’s name.

Gamification does not have to be digital. Monica Cornetti runs a company that gamifies employee trainings. Sometimes this involves technology, but often it does not. She recently designed a gamification strategy for a sales training company with a storm-chasing theme. Employees formed “storm chaser teams” and competed in storm-themed educational exercises to earn various rewards.

“Rewards don’t have to be stuff,” Cornetti says. “Rewards can be flextime. Rewards can be extension time.”

Another training, this one for pay roll law, used a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs theme. Snow White is public domain, but the dwarfs are still under copyright, so Cornetti invented sound-alike characters (Grumpy Gus, Dopey Dan) to illustrate specific pay roll law principles.

Some people don’t take as naturally to gamified work environments, Cornetti says. In her experience, people in positions of power or people in finance or engineering don’t tend to like the sound of the word.

“If we’re designing for engineers, I’m not talking about a ‘game’ at all,” Cornetti says. “I’m talking about a ‘simulation,’ I’m talking about ‘being able to solve this problem.’”

Gamification is “not a magic bullet,” Werbach cautions. A gamification strategy that’s not sufficiently thought through or tailored to its players may engage people for a little while, but it won’t motivate in the long term. It can also be exploitative, especially when used with vulnerable populations. For workers, especially low-paid workers, who desperately need their jobs yet know they can be easily replaced, gamification may feel more like the Hunger Games.

Werbach gives the example of several Disneyland hotels in Anaheim, California, which used large digital leaderboards to display how efficiently laundry workers were working compared to one another. Some employees found the board motivating. To others, it was the opposite of fun. Some began to skip bathroom breaks, worried that if their productivity fell they would be fired. Pregnant employees struggled to keep up. In a Los Angeles Times article, one employee referred to the board as a “digital whip.”

“It actually had a very negative effect on morale and performance,” Werbach says.

Still, gamification only stands to become more popular, he says, “as more and more people come into the workforce who are intuitively familiar with the structures and expressions of digital games.”

“We are way ahead of the tipping point,” Cornetti agrees. “There’s no reason this will go away.” 

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