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What do TripAdvisor, the US army, and a quasi-magical Edwardian nanny have in common?Asks Beth Leslie, from Inspiring Interns.

Answer: they all believe in the power of gamification.

Gamification is the application of gaming techniques to the business world. As Mary Poppins wisely put it: “In every job that must be done / There is an element of fun / You find the fun and snap! / The job’s a game.”

Most people enjoy playing games. That’s why gamification can motivate employees, build a company’s brand and increase customer engagement. TripAdvisor encourages visitors to keep writing reviews by awarding them virtual achievements and titles. The US army uses a first-person shooter game to recruit new cadets.

Turning work into a game may sound childish (or awesome, depending on your perspective) but it could just be the upgrade your company needs:

  • COMPETITION = MOTIVATION
The notoriety of the rank-and-yank culling systems favoured by such companies as Enron means that many people regard the encouragement of workplace competition as a corporate faux pas. But when handled correctly, competition is a good thing: it keeps us on our toes, it pushes us to perform better, and it enhances our sense of achievement when we succeed.

For competition to work effectively, players must be roughly equivalent in ability. An experiment which paired low-performing Air Force cadets with their more gifted peers showed that employees who feel they have no chance of beating their opponents will become embarrassed, demoralised and give up.

In contrast, an experiment by Northumbrian University pitted cyclists against a virtual avatar which was programmed to travel 1% faster than the athletes’ personal best time. The athletes consistently beat it. The competition had spurred them to cycle faster than they ever had before. Indeed, the same team found that competition works best of all when we’re competing against ourselves.

Put it into practice:

In some teams with clear targets or KPIs, a simple leaderboard can work. To make it fair and keep the pressure off, don’t include new employees on it until they are settled into the job.

Alternatively, rewarding top-performing employees each month with recognition or a small gift can be a good morale-booster, and has the advantage of praising success while not publicly shaming failure.

  • FUN = ENGAGEMENT
Almost every job in the world has elements which are repetitive, monotonous, and dull. Unsurprisingly, these are the tasks employees avoid and/or perform poorly at. Unfortunately, they are often integral to the smooth running of a business. This is where gamification can help.

Most games contain some sort of reward: points, levels, trophies etc. Everyone loves to feel like they’re doing well, and rewards act as mini validations. Each time we receive one, our brains release dopamine (the happy chemical). Because the dopamine makes us feel good, we hanker after the next rush and subsequently try to achieve the next point/level/trophy.

We get dopamine boosts regardless of how ‘valuable’ the reward actually is. Consequently, adding reward structure to dull tasks can pay dividends: hence the success of apps like Todoist (which gives users points for completing their To-Do List) or The Email Game (which rewards you for replying to emails quickly).

Put it into practice:

Bosses who are interested in adding gamification elements to specific aspects of their employee’s work are in luck: various companies including Badgeville and Bunchball have developed adaptable gamification software that can be added to work projects.

Just be careful about making any gamification system cross over into a formal appraisal mechanism. If employees see ‘winning’ these games as yet another work task it stops being fun and the entire point is defeated. A system where no one but the employee can see their virtual rewards is ideal.

  • GOALS = SKILL DEVELOPMENT
The most valuable employees are those who are constantly learning and developing new skills. While most workers do this of their own initiative, employers can accelerate the process by offering internal training and supporting external training. And when it comes to working with employees to broaden their skills, gamification techniques can be invaluable.

Achievements are often scuppered by a lack of clear goal-setting. The reason most games are “won” or “completed” is because having a target to work towards keeps people focused, and being able to measure relative progress is a strong motivational tool. Additionally, games are usually broken down into levels because aiming for a sequence of smaller, achievable goals appears easier that aiming for one big difficult goal, and thus is more likely to keep players on track.

Put it into practice:

When you develop training programmes or task your staff with the completion of big projects, consciously segment it into a series of steps, and frame the completion of each step as a success in its own right. Never underestimate the psychological power of a sense of achievement for pushing people onwards.

Having some sort of easily accessible ‘progress bar’ (it could be as simple as sticking a picture of one up on the wall and colouring it in) can help keep teams on track by showing them how far they’ve already come and by keeping the end of the project in sight.

By Beth Leslie, graduate jobs writer for Inspiring Interns.