What if work could be more like our favourite games?

This question has been inspiring growing interest in bringing "gamification" to the workplace, which means using games and game mechanics to help shape workplace behaviour.

The idea that businesses might leverage the enjoyable, even addictive, power of games to engage and influence both consumers and employees has a powerful appeal. You can see this in the growing number of blogs (Gamification.co and ZDNet), books and conferences.

This appeal has been further enhanced by the emergence of gamification software vendors, such as Badgeville and Bunchball, who make it relatively easy for an enterprise to get started with gamification. Technologies now exist to help gamify existing applications, processes, and interfaces by weaving in game mechanics such as reward points, leaderboards, badges and the ability to ‘level up’.

Enticed in part by the on-ramp these vendors have created, many companies are exploring gamification, and some such as LiveOps have made gamification of work a core part of their service delivery model.

The same techniques that keep Farmville players working their plot may have real application in the workplace as well, but how broad and deep are the potential impacts? Is it limited to providing employees with small nudges to perform chores like turning in surveys, filling out expense reports on time, perhaps even moving customers through a checkout line a bit faster? Is gamification something that can address deep-seated and complex behaviour change?

The answer to all these questions may well be yes, but it will take an expanded repertoire of techniques specifically designed to address a broader swath of the behaviour-change lifecycle. One key insight from the literature on persuasion and behaviour modification on a range of topics from cancer to computing is that behaviour change often follows a schematic pattern of stages, and that each stage presents distinct challenges. The stages in this behaviour-change lifecycle each pose different kinds of challenges that must be understood if we’re to create game-based approaches.

Here’s a five stage version of the change cycle which we have adopted from the literature:

  1. Raising awareness: Understanding exactly what the as-is behaviour patterns are, and recognising that there is opportunity for improvement.
  2. Building buy-in: Committing to the commitment of time, energy and resources needed to execute the change.
  3. Learning how: Understanding the mechanisms and techniques that underlie the target behaviours.
  4. Initial adoption: Trying out the target behaviours, getting used to executing them.
  5. Maintaining and refining: Perfecting the new behaviours through extended practice so that they eventually become self-sustaining.

Most gamification we have seen so far focuses on stage four and, to a lesser extent, five: promoting the initial adoption and maintaining target behaviour patterns. Stages one to three are often all but ignored.

This is fine in situations where raising awareness, building buy-in and understanding the basic mechanism of the target behaviours are not crucial issues, but in many more challenging behaviour-change scenarios, the early phases play key roles in an effective programme.

Consider some examples: An employee who uses a condescending tone with customers may not even realise they are doing so, which would mean that raising awareness of the problem is a first, crucial step toward sustainable behaviour change; an employee who is too blunt or cursory with colleagues may not buy into the need to provide more tender-loving care, because there is no explicit connection made between that behaviour and the morale or retention problems that it causes; an employee who does not understand the mechanisms for carrying out a new business process will be unable to respond to incentives to execute the new process - regardless of how well game mechanics are used to provide that incentive.

One game mechanic that can be effectively used for achieving buy-in is cause-and-effect game simulation. These simulations can help raise awareness of the impact of the user’s existing behaviour patterns and the need for change. A simple example of such a simulation is Stone City, commissioned by Cold Stone Creamery, in which employees learn to scoop the right portions of ice cream. An aspect that we see as critical to achieving buy-in, and thus to sustaining motivation beyond the confines of the game, is the game illustrates the long term repercussions of incorrect portioning behaviour on the profitability of the company.

Simulations can make long-term consequences, which motivate change, visible in a compressed timeframe. Outside the enterprise, games such as World of Warcraft motivate hours of detailed work, planning and skill building, by making clear connections between that work and a big mission that players find gratifying.

The concept of gamification is currently enjoying a successful stint as a kind of ‘child star’ but now it is time to see whether it can transition to equally-successful work in adult roles. The true potential is not fully known, but we expect that as more organisations recognise the need for a more extensive toolkit, exploration of more advanced gamification will produce a range of effective, and affordable, techniques to produce complex and sustained behaviour change.

By Alex Kass and Manish Mehta, Accenture Technology Labs