Playing the game

First published in Pay and Benefits Magazine

With the worldwide gaming market nudging annual revenues of almost £70 billion, according to market research firm NewZoo, it seems that games are no longer just child’s play.

The application of workplace “gamification” – game dynamics, psychology and mechanics – is beginning to soar. Technology research firm Gartner found that more than 70 per cent of the Forbes Global 2,000 organisations have at least one games-based application,and that half of all companies that manage innovation processes have “gamified” them.

A company seeking to attract, retain and motivate employees can benefit from the fun, engaging and addictive potential of gamification, which is where HR and pay and benefits teams come in.

The term “gamification” was coined in 2002 by Nick Pelling, a British-born computer programmer and inventor, although the concept did not gain momentum until 2010. Since then the market has exploded and is expected to be worth £3.6 billion annually by 2018.

Gamification is about extracting the fun from games to motivate people’s behaviour, explains Pete Jenkins, Founder of Gamification+.

“There are lots of theories and knowledge out there, including motivational psychology, user experience and behavioural economics,” he says. “Gamification gives us an easy framework to apply that wealth of expertise to any business situation.”

Kevin Werbach, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, defines gamification as “using design techniques from games in a business context or some other non-game context”. He later expanded on this to describe gamification as “the process of making activities more game-like”.

Who plays games?

Gamification is established in areas such as e-learning, health and safety or compliance training, and recruitment, where it is used to find suitable candidates and take them through their induction. However, Jenkins warns that it is not a simple matter of just adding game thinking to increase engagement.

“The challenge is in understanding the different motivations of different demographics, challenges and situations,” he says. “And it’s critical to ensure you pick the right motivational drivers to ensure that gamification doesn’t have a negative impact and actually lead to employee demotivation.”

For many employers, it sits in the box labelled “possibly too hard” when they are seeking novel communication approaches. Perhaps it’s deemed too silly or a little risqué, or even just inappropriate for serious subjects such as employee benefits and pay. These are the concerns of some of our clients and contacts who have been toying with gamification.

So can it be relevant for pay and benefits communications? Jenkins says gamification does not have to appear game-like, with badges and leaderboards. “Games are about making it more fun to learn difficult concepts or to help absorb lots of complex factual information. This, in fact, lends itself brilliantly to the world of pensions and benefits.”

But let’s consider who plays games. Around 70 per cent of gamers are older than 18 and half of these are women. Compared with teenage boys there are more adult women playing games – if you are a commuter you might have seen fans of Candy Crush, Solitaire or Angry Birds at play. The reality is that everybody plays games.

At the same time, there is an increasing cross-over between work and play. We expect a consumer-grade, seamless experience whichever system we use. On this basis, game elements in work communications may seem increasingly “normal” and desirable.

Therefore, applying game design theories to everyday situations at work should be a no-brainer. You can redesign anything to be more interactive and fun – from employee training and recruiting to benefits communication and workforce management.

The uphill task of creating an engaged workforce is well documented: research from performance management consultancy Gallup points to 63 per cent of employees being disengaged. So why not try game thinking to increase engagement? Although we all have the capacity to enjoy games, there is a caveat. Any old games will not do. They must be engaging, fun and relevant to the company purpose. Points, badges and leaderboards might be considered but question how relevant they are to staff and organisation. Importantly, ask what makes a game fun – or boring.

The design of the game will give it meaning. As Jenkins says, like many areas of HR, the idea is only as good as its implementation. This is not so much about its technical aspects, but understanding the dimensions that contribute to its popularity.

There are some excellent frameworks to structure game design, including Jenkins’s “9 Ps” and the Octalysis model developed by gamification guru Yu-Kai Chou. These have influenced Landscape, a digital agency, to create its own model.

There are three core considerations for successful gamification:

●  the game will work only if it connects with a clear business objective
●  the game will need to be well designed to meet motivations and encourage the desired behaviours
●  well thought-out analysis will need to be applied to continually improve the user experience.
Business objectives 

Being clear about the business objective is critical to the success of most projects. Communication is no different. At Landscape we need to fully understand a client’s problem and know that a gamified route is the right channel for them. Sometimes we work with clients that have already thought this through, but it usually pays to challenge the game’s purpose. What is the organisation trying to achieve and how can game thinking help? How are player and enterprise objectives aligned, and what is the intended contribution to bottom-line business results? In game terms, what is the “quest” or goal? The games we are talking about in the pay and benefits arena are likely to centre on motivating and encouraging a change in behaviour.

Stakeholder engagement

A game’s purpose is to achieve behaviour change. Knowing the audience and its needs and motivations are at the core of understanding the best route from A to B, as well as how to keep people returning for more excitement and encourage sharing. Fostering individuality and creativity keeps the fun alive and prevents people getting bored. It is not crucial to instil competition; indeed this could be counter-productive. Collaboration or personal triumph can be just as motivating.

Landscape works with clients to segment and profile audiences, including groups of employees, to explore their motivational drivers. This involves mobilising focus groups for collaboration and engagement while the game is being designed so that it meets the aims of the required behaviour change.

A bonus is the presence of established employee champions, which has a direct correlation with buy-in and ownership when the game is launched in the business.

Key stakeholder support is one of the most critical markers of success or failure. If the big guns don’t love the game, it either ends on the “cutting room floor” or there is little take-up. Employees need to see that their leaders are taking gamification seriously. It is important to avoid designing a great game that doesn’t fit with the business, and senior management must be consulted throughout the process.

Analysis and testing

Design does not end with the launch. Since most games are online, instant data presents valuable metrics and a feedback loop for the provider to assess and develop the gamified offering. This is standard practice. Just check your smartphone; your app store provides continual updates on your choices.

A great game app is continually upgraded to meet user requirements. Amusingly, this is often presented as a “bug fix”, but the reality is that the design team is constantly monitoring audience feedback and tweaking the offering to improve it.

Making the world better

Doubtless, gamification in the pay and benefits arena is on the rise. And, as Chou says, “gamification can make our world a better place”. We all spend a lot of our time at work and, pay and benefits are at the heart of our relationship with the organisation and our employer.