Long before Mary Poppins sang to us that “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun, you find the fun and Snap! The job’s a game!” we have believed that playing games makes work more fun.
Lately the trend toward “gamification” in the workplace has exploded – with experts recommending we gamify everything from performance reviews to project team assignments. Turning work into a game is hot right now. Games are the new black. But, do they really work?
Gaming and social media guru Philip Trippenbach recently gave an ignite speech in London titled, “Kill it With Fire: Why Gamification Sucks and Game Dynamics Rule”, that basically tells us gamification is dumb – most of the time – but game mechanics are cool all of the time. Check out his talk.
Many of the gamification consultants out there (yes, there are really people who do this) try to sell the idea that turning otherwise mind-numbing tasks into a game works because it is in our human DNA to desire “badges and achievements”. We are so desperate for recognition that if a task rewards us with the accumulation of shiny little trophies we are more motivated to do it. Trippenbach explains that this line of thinking in business is what leads people to do silly things such as add badges and a points system to their very boring web site.
Confession: I was one of the business people enamored with the idea of adding badges and achievements to things. My Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership book co-author, Randy Harrington, and I even toyed briefly with adding “cool” badges to our website for accomplishing higher levels of development on the “Evolutionary path”.
But, it turns out that after more research has been accumulated on gamification in the workplace over the last few years, people don’t play games for the badges and achievements. They play games if they are fun. Fun first, badges are just icing on the cake.
Says Trippenbach, “Want to make people run? Don’t give them a badge for running. Give them a ball and shove four sticks in the ground. They’ll run around the field chasing the ball (and each other) for ages. The experience is intrinsically challenging and amusing, and the running is a by-product. Games rely on dynamics like these and rules to generate the conditions for positive engagement.”
Therefore, it is the use of game mechanics to change the actual nature of work that will serve to drive motivation and engagement. The first step is to make the work itself more fun. The second step is to provide clear, real-time feedback. In games, there are clear indicators for how we are performing – we score points, we move up a level, or we lose power, or in some cases our player may even die. The stronger the narrative and experience, the more engaging the game. It’s in the feedback aspect of game mechanics that badges and achievements can be of use. They tell us how we are doing and give us bragging rights later.
Trippenbach tells us the last component of successful game mechanics is “challenge”. People become more motivated and engaged when they are challenged. This doesn’t mean the more challenging the game the better. If a game is too challenging people will give up. But the best games work because they present the player with levels that step up in difficulty as the gamer’s skill increases. We all love that feeling of moving to the next level, and this feeling of triumph is a big part of what can make games so addictive.
This is not just game theory – we have understood the need for “modulated challenge” since we first started to think about developing skills and knowledge.
In the 1970’s, respected developmental theorist Lev Vgotsky introduced the zone of proximal development (ZPD) to explain two key elements of learning: (1) we need to be challenged beyond our current capacity, and (2) when challenged in this way, if we are aided by someone (or a group of peers) who are more capable, we can progress. This concept was quickly connected with the theory of “scaffolding” (also introduced in the 1970’s by Wood, et al.) – a methodology for boosting achievement through a series of modulated challenges aided by appropriate support or “hints” along the way.
Those who work with us know that we often like to talk about the power of increasing challenge in the workplace to enhance productivity. One of our favorite developmental theorists is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “ME-HIGH, CHICK-SENT-ME-HIGH”), a renowned Hungarian psychologist who, in the 1960’s, introduced the world to the notion of FLOW. For those fans out there of Marcus Buckingham and Strengthsfinder, this is where it all started – so go do your homework and check out Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: Beyond Boredom and Anxiety – The Experience of Play in Work and Games.
Flow is essentially the concept of getting lost in your work, of losing track of time, and feeling strong and magnificent when the work is done. It’s the exact point where our ability meets the level of the challenge at hand – where we are stretched nearly to the breaking point of our capacity, but not so far beyond it that we crack. And in that place of “flow” we are able to reach our highest potential. And it feels great. Sounds a lot like playing and winning an awesome and challenging game, yes?
And “getting” all this science behind learning behaviors, social cognition, and development is exactly why Trippenbach’s last warning is so crucial: don’t hire your IT people to gamify your next work project. Yes, the technical aspects are going to be important, and IT will play a big role in that. But, games are not about the technology. They are about the experience.
So what have we learned?
- Badges and achievements won’t make boring work less boring.
- Motivation and engagement hinge on 3 things: (1) fun; (2) feedback; and (3) challenge.
- Games can be a powerful tool in business.
- Use qualified experts in learning and development theory when designing your next game.
Are you using games in your workplace? If so, we want to hear your stories! Please share them with us!