Gamification, the newest challenge for HR

If you know a little bit about me you’ll no doubt know that I’m not new to the world of video games. One of the things that fascinates me is the analogy between video games and business (which I might discuss in a future post). One of the newest buzzwords in the world of business and HR is “gamification”, which will be our topic of the day.

Now, while games were once only there to provide pleasure and relaxation, the business world has (finally) seen some merits in the mechanics of video games. A couple of years ago, no one would have believed that you could use games and simulations for organizational development. Wether your goal as an HR professional is to increase/improve company morale, deliver professional training or motivate employees, gamification is a great way to spark one’s competitive advantage and foster learning and development in your organization.


But what exactly is gamification? It’s a popular buzzword nowadays but a lot of people or “experts” use it without really knowing what it is.

Gamification typically involves applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. It can potentially be applied to any industry and anything to create fun and engaging experiences, converting users into players. Some examples are unlocking badges for visiting new or unique locations on Foursquare, or earning points and unlocking special rewards in various virtual spaces.


To make this even more clear let’s take a look at the crossover between a video game, say World of Warcraft, and business. Tasks, achievements, businesses (Guilds) people and rewards (Loot) exist both in the world of work as in World of Warcraft. But why isn’t work as compelling and rewarding as a video game with so many similarities? Well, it’s all in the way video games are structured. Video games make the player feel important and special. At work, however, we sometimes struggle with what’s so important or special about what we do (remember that a job is only meaningful and motivating if there’s feedback about results, some degree of independence and makes good use of an individual’s abilities) .  Small wonder that employees can’t wait to hop in their cars to rush home and play games.

The idea of why we’re so compelled by games isn’t due to any one thing though. It’s the unique mix of competition, an escape from everyday life to be a hero and the fact that games let us practice our skills. Those factors put together make for the perfect drug for our brain.

What really motivates people is really the act of learning and the feeling that you’re getting something out of the experience, be it the satisfaction of solving a puzzle or gaining a level. That’s why relatively simple games like Angry Birds gets downloaded millions of times. While you have this very simple concept of catapulting a bird across the screen, you get to practice it and get better and better at it (and use this skill in more challenging situations). And in the end you get to see the result in the form of score points (Note the similarities between this and a meaningful job). Those are the games that last through the years, like Tetris or Pac-Man.

For a job to provide that same sensation as flinging a virtual bird at green pigs, it needs to provide a continuous challenge. Something that is lacking in so many jobs. The tricky thing is that the challenge should neither be too hard to be discouraging, nor too easy to bore – we should be challenged just beyond our ability.

Games get all this, modern video games especially because they’ve been carefully crafted by experienced game designers who distill the tricks and techniques that act like drugs on a brain, even to the point of addiction (with sometimes gruesome consequences).

Game designers know that their game has to be good and compelling because a boring game will quickly be discarded and vanish somewhere between the wall and the bookshelf. So, if a boring job isn’t producing the kind of work that helps your business grown, perhaps the world of work has something to learn from the realm of play.

You’d think that money and rank get people excited at work (and to a certain point they do) but we see that a sense of achievement and getting things done are better motivators. Yet manager often have a draconian view on things, whether it’s banning Facebook or working from home. ‘If you’re having fun, you can’t possibly be working!’

So how exactly do you gamify a job, task or process? Well, by adding a game layer on top. That sounds very simple, but it all comes down to building engagement. This can be achieved through targets, competition, chance, puzzles, achievements, teamwork, etc.

For example, a US design company that created time tokens for meetings and distributed a set amount of these tokens to its project managers each week for ‘buying’ time from other employees. The aim of this game was to increase the effectiveness of meetings by reducing the amount of time people spent in meetings. Each employee was also given a single token that could end an unproductive meeting on the spot. This game-style system turned a bloated office practice into a game of time management based on careful use of a scarce resource – time- that actively encouraged employees to become engaged with the process of being more productive.

However, most obvious examples of gamification are on the customer side of a business. Just think about Frequent Flyer Miles or the effect of social pressure in the case of Groupon.

Next, the social component of the gamification process might just be the key ingredient. It’s not enough to level up or earn a trophy, we need to be able to share our glory with the public bu sharing on Facebook or showing a new piece of gear in the busiest city on World of Warcraft. I guess we would call them our peacock feathers.


Enough theory now, what about the practice? Is the average office ready to turn boring, dead-end jobs into epic quests for personal achievement? Probably not.

Ideally, I’d vouch for bringing a couple of game designers or people with an affinity for gaming into the HR team. Have them brainstorm and design some ‘games’ for your workforce and test them out, see where they lead you and how they might be applied to the benefit of your organization.

Furthermore, this stuff is not easily learned and you don’t really want to learn this ‘on the road’. You’ll want to have someone with experience provide some guidance. Too bad those people are pretty rare. After all, gamification covers various fields like psychology, sociology, IT, etc.

To conclude, gamification is here to stay and you’d do well to embrace it. Yes, it will take time, money and a certain open-mindedness but the result at the end of the line will be amazing if handled correctly. To me, this is the new world of work. Not some policy that allows you to work at home one day every month or fancy new office spaces, but exciting jobs that actually mean something to the people in them. That  is the real challenge for HR nowadays, and something I would be thrilled to work on someday.

Niels Van Hellemont

PS: There’s plenty more to say on gamification, but I didn’t want this article to be overly long so I might write more in-depth and in segments on this subject later.


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