Gamification of the Workplace:Gimmick or Great Idea?

Gamification is the process of turning a work process, or skills assessment into an objectified game. Some of the world’s largest firms, notably IBM and Deloitte, use this process to add a less formal, but reward-based range of incentives for employees. Whether or not this approach works is the big issue.

Gamification is becoming so prevalent that sales of business game software are expected to jump from $100 million in 2013, to over $900 million this year. There are now serious studies of business gamification strategies, including behavioural analyses and a large selection of different views in management science-related publications.

Game theory

A game can be anything from a version of The Sims in a business scenario, to playing virtual golf. A somewhat excruciatingly predictable range of expressions, including “unlocking creativity” (wonder how it got locked up in the first place) and “improve lack of employee engagement” (another timeless mystery) are doing the rounds of various online experts.

Gamification, however, despite the bandwagon-jumping, is a perfectly valid idea. People do learn from playing games, and they like winning. It’s a positive reinforcement, particularly if work-related. It is engagement. It is a stimulus where stimulus may not have been present previously.

One of the strongest positives about business gamification is the issue of finding and promoting talent. Last year, the highly respected Aberdeen Group reported that organizations were dealing with talent issues as a top priority, with 49% of those surveyed looking for talent to meet company objectives. 44% also reported issues with lack of skills.

The theory here is that game mechanics can be used in multiple ways:

  • Competition
  • Achievements
  • Status
  • Self expression
  • Skills learning
  • Situation management

It’s pretty simple. Winners have status. Badges are rankings. Achievements are comparative. Some people do better than others. Perhaps it’s not a major breakthrough in basic psychology, but these ideas are obviously useful in context with evaluating skills.

Why games work where nothing else does

A critical issue emerges at this point. It’s also a way of evaluating people where their job roles don’t allow much scope for showing what they can really do. Inflexible job roles aren’t exactly a great way of assessing talent, or the added values people can provide to the organization. The average admin job isn’t yet a ticket to stardom.

A gaming genius, on the other hand, will show obvious potential for doing more than stare at spreadsheets. Many skills simply aren’t part of jobs, and will never be seen by employers at all on the basis of arbitrary KPIs and other off the shelf measures of skills and performance. Gaming does undeniably create measures of these skills where nothing else ever has.

Gamification also relates well to training and other existing HR practices. Simulators are widely used in many forms of training. Gamification just goes a few steps further. Just about everybody plays and enjoys games, so it’s a friendlier environment, too.

Another issue: Games, unlike many other evaluation methods, aren’t boring, mindless, or seen as unfair, favouring particular people. They’re not “busy work”, achieving nothing. To win a game of golf you simply have to play better than other players. The rules are the same for everyone. These factors may well explain the wide acceptance of gamification by employees.

Some businesses report definite practical improvements as a result of targeted games. Results include improved sales, more efficient call management, and a raft of other positive outcomes.

Bottom line- Get your gaming right

The possible negatives are:

  • Games may be organizationally irrelevant, and not reward desired behaviours.
  • They may become ritual, not actually applied.
  • Rewards may be meaningless, another do-nothing result for employees.

In fairness, so far these don’t seem to be serious issues. Games generally aren’t just being used as handout HR assets to test people and sleep on a database somewhere. Deloitte, for example, is taking the process further, using a scalable structured gaming system, which allows players to rise to more complex levels. Given the type of work Deloitte does as core business, it seems they’ve already solved the negatives.

The good news- If your employer suddenly shows an unaccustomed interest in your gaming skills, there’s a potentially good reason for it. Gamification isn’t a gimmick. It’s a method of assessment that actually works. Enjoy your gaming!