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Blurring the lines between work and play

CMU researcher shows how game principles can influence workplaces

Contact: Heather Smith

​We've all heard the warnings about "all work and no play." Now, a Central Michigan University researcher says incorporating games — if done right — can make a workplace more productive, happy and engaged.

It's called gamification. Whether it's the thrill of racing past a finish line or the satisfaction of reaching the top spot on a leaderboard, companies are creating gamified workplace experiences.

"As long as we're assuming that people like playing games, which is not a tough sell, you can create a situation where your employees feel like they're playing a game when they're actually doing their job," said Karen Robson, an assistant professor of marketing in CMU's College of Business Administration. She describes gamification as applying game-design principles in nongame situations.

Robson, who studies consumer innovation, uses a helpdesk software called Freshdesk as an example. The program transforms customer calls into a game for call center employees, letting them compete to earn ranks, badges and leaderboard status based on speed and customer satisfaction. 

"Employees aren't necessarily as concerned about helping the company as they are about getting paid, but when it's fun for them — and that fun is benefiting the organization — that's where the real potential of gamification lies," Robson said.

Making a game of it

gamification-main.jpgFor managers and business professionals, Robson suggests three steps before testing gamification in the workplace.

First, understand your players. Different types of players desire different experiences. Some players are highly competitive and want to "win" against other players, others are more interested in achieving a personal best, and then there are players more interested in the social experience or exploration of the game.

Next, structure the game carefully, but be flexible. As soon as the gamified experience begins, you may need to change or adjust rules to better fit into the organization — don't set rules in stone from the beginning and monitor the game to make sure it stays effective.

Finally, incorporate "leveling up." A game gets boring for players who reach the top. Add additional levels and tasks of escalating difficulty to keep players engaged.

Learn from previous attempts

Not all gamification attempts succeed. Robson says a lack of managerial oversight can diminish a game's effectiveness.

"Any time there are rules, people will try to 'game the game,'" Robson said. "That's where the managers' involvement is important: You want them overseeing the game to make sure people aren't trying to cheat."

Another way gamification can fail is if the reward isn't something your customers or employees want.

"People hear this term, 'gamification,' and they think it sounds cool and decide to gamify something without considering the motivations for the players. If the incentive being offered for the game isn't aligned with the players' interests, the game loses its effectiveness," Robson said.

Studies Robson cites suggest around 70 percent of the world's largest public companies will have at least one gamified application in the next two years, but that around 80 percent of currently gamified applications will fail to meet the business objectives.

All the more reason to think through a gamified experience before starting.

Robson's articles on gamification can be found in Business Horizons, a peer-reviewed journal published by Kelly School of Business. 

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