Isn’t Business just another game we play?

In July, the strategy discussion explored what appears to be a growing trend, gamification. In fact, by the time I managed to write up the observations from the discussion there were a host of new articles and research posted. So whether you did or didn’t attend the discussion, I hope you will find the following reflections and questions valuable and I encourage you to share your thoughts, reactions favorable or otherwise.

If you have not yet encountered this new word, let me assure you, the word may be new but the concept is as old as Adam and Eve.
Wikipedia defines Gamification as:

“the use of game design techniques[1], game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.”

Overall,  play is big business and the small game companies,by Gamespot’s estimate represent a small but significant fraction of the industry.   Erik Sinclair’s comparison sized the diverse software and entertainment giants (e.g. Sony and Microsoft) ,at least $220 billion in revenue, against the small upstart, dedicated gaming companies (e.g.Zynga, Take2) less than $8billion all in.  The sabre rattling threat these small companies pose in part comes from the changing nature of the US market.

Take the mobile market, Smart phones and Tablets are fast growing with higher penetration rates  among households with higher than average disposable incomes. Online and mobile games revenue estimates for 2012  total $2billion, with 10% annual growth expected.

Add in the realization of changes in the average computer and video game player’s profile and you quickly begin to recognize a different business environment that the small gaming companies are tapping.  A 2011 Entertainment Software Association study reports 72% of US households play games, with the average age of gamers being 37. “Additionally, more than half of gamers play on their phones and other handheld game devices, and women now represent 42% of the gamer population.”

Social games continuing to grow and develop in depth and richness, eventually being able to appeal more to core gamers. Growth rates in this segment expected to exceed 10% annually.

LEGO Serious Play session
LEGO Serious Play session (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is play merely a tactic?

When do we play or more realistically, are we ever not playing? The expressions for serious work often use the same metaphors associated with play.  In a difficult negotiation, the party with their game face on seems more serious, or more determined to win.  The contradictions, cross signals and mixed metaphors are everywhere.

When there’s little time to spare, or the manager feels “under the gun,” the race on, play is shoved aside.  Generally we perceive play as diversionary though in reality the energy, cooperation and inherent competition of play builds relationships and focuses attention on less obvious , but critical elements.

Success at work, requires some degree of impromptu problem solving, or creativity, and often on demand.  Faced with obstacles, challenges or problems, people frequently assume a more serious disposition and cut off creative responses of humor, doodling and imaging. When looking for answers, we try to think or work harder. The added time pressures and stress tend to produce more predictable, less inspiring and less lasting results.  In this context, the move to gamification represents a positive shift and opens the door to greater opportunities, made possible through  tinkering, playful recombination of ideas and averted concentration.

Traditionally, marketers used gaming techniques to engage customers and promote product sales. The relationship between understanding the psychology motivating peoples attitudes while playing games connect quite naturally to motivating people to like or use your product or service.  On face value, the merit of games differentiates them from real life.  Their self-contained outcomes  make them fun, less serious, relevant or central to the driving demands of business leadership and management needs.  Or so we thought.

Play, Great Leadership and Skill Practice

Talking through the articles collectively we realized these distinctions were fuzzy and perhaps false. Games often have consequences for losers.  Severe consequences result from not playing along at work or in school; as is the flip side magnifying the flow of rewards  to those who play well.  The value of a poker face, for example  extends beyond bluffing in a poker game.  Likewise the valuable experiences women gained in team competition with the passage of Title9  has been well documented. Direct data and studies on the impact of gaming on business run the gamut.  Surveys by M2 Research and reports by Gartner on the use of gaming in companies show games help achieve a higher degree of employee engagement and  boost overall  performance anywhere  from 10% to 80%.

In spite of these numbers, attitudes and perceptions around play as diversions, rather than serious experiences, are slow to change, though researchers like Jane McGonigal continue to trumpet the benefits. (FYI,  learn more about the brain science behind gaming in her recent book Reality is Broken is a good read, as are her TED talks.)

The Role of Metaphors

Similarity in metaphors intentionally blur the distinction and may be part of the problem. When describing work activities, frequently we include a discussion of roles and rules which are similarly found in descriptions of play. Ever encounter your boss and their gameface and perceive anything other than their motive to win?  Tadhg Kelly, a game developer, researcher writing for TechCunch describes gaming motives this way.

“Players play to achieve, to do, to build, to create, to explore, to destroy and to win. They need the game to provide them with a fascinating system which enables them to do all of those things, and usually for the game to also provide an absorbing fiction.”

This mirrors the language and findings of Theresa Amabile, from Harvard

“Our research discovered that fostering progress in meaningful work is the most important way to keep people highly engaged at work — even if that progress is a “small win.” “

Doesn’t it sound like the way companies behave? Isn’t there a difference between personal value gained from achievement and the collective value, or returns play generates for the enterprise?

 Setting and Environment

Educators have borrowed from games to make learning fun for a long time and in the wake of legislators seeking to make education matter, many software vendors and game efforts got relegated to closets as they weren’t serious enough.  The findings of brain researchers are now confirming what many have suspected all along.  Games are effective tools that  help, rather than hinder, learning as they encourage people to experiment and discover behavior conducive to a wider set of problems. Making training fun can also prove effective; but it can also prove motivating to learn.  For example, Adobe engages in a great deal of game research to understand how to help users of their software more of its functionality.  The business service arm, LEGO Serious Play, generates significant revenue and trains people to use Lego to develop leadership  skills.   These examples blur the distinction between fostering play for advancing personal knowledge, skills or abilities and accumulating reward.  Simultaneously, these activities breach the physical boundary separating work and play and results further blur our expectations,  attitudes and perceptions  of work.

Zappos may be the extreme case of work as fun, but bringing more play into work align with higher employee engagement and higher performing organizations.

Kelly however notices danger in this trend, and the quick replication of the simple game model in a variety of settings. ” There comes a point in all genres where linear improvement and broadening subject matter becomes obvious to the audience. Their play brains start to realise that they are seeing the same frames again and again, with the same actions and the same constraints.”  This familiarity translates quickly into lost attention, all the positive attributes of engagement fall off and boredom surfaces.

There’s great subtlety in this observation.  Take Tic Tac toe for example, the rules are familiar and yet something keeps many of us playing it over and over. Are the lines between boredom and continuing engagement too fine to draw?

Strategic Opportunities Play Makes Possible

If military strategy is about troop movements for advantage, and business strategy focuses on gaining advantage, specifically competitive advantage, then games offer the perfect parallel frame.  TicTacToe once you’ve played becomes more a contest in strategy and yes, game theory.

Business strategy and game theory have a long shared history, so for many, it isn’t that hard a stretch to recognize the value of using games in business.

David Levine, UCLA Dept of Economics likens economic game theory with psychologists  theory of social situations. He goes on to explain that game theory applies to parlor games such as poker or bridge, but the research focuses on the two main branches that describe how groups of people interact: cooperative and noncooperative.  “Noncooperative game theory deals largely with how intelligent individuals interact with one another in an effort to achieve their own goals.” This is the more classic extension into business, scenario planning complete with estimation of risk are often included in budget exercises as well as more elaborate evaluations of mergers or entry into new markets.

What’s new is the strategic use of social games, which I presume, fall in Levine’s former category of cooperative game play.  Social play is complex and the more independent work becomes from physical settings, the greater our independence of action, freedom from traditional forms of managerial oversight.  Social norms are less binding and on the flip side the value of social games cooperation prove apt replacements if they can lead toward mutual advancement.  The challenge becomes obligated employees to buy in to the social game, or the social network.

Humans naturally are social, its part of our DNA and survival instincts, play extends that instinct.

The strategic value of rewards or loyalty schemes are everywhere. A significant number of applications are designed to promote customer engagement and interaction.  Who doesn’t value their loyalty points or reward cards that a variety of businesses extend to customers to grow revenue and increase the demand for their brand?  These too fall easily on the cooperative side of game theory with their strategic advantages and risks limited by the size of the rewards and the rules made clear on all sides.

Like life, not all play operates in transparent settings. The complexity of a game often increases with greater ambiguity in both the rules and conditions of  imperfect information. In a prisoners dilemma scenario, the rules for winning are clear but the isolation of players raises the stakes. The multi-player social games require cooperation but is entirely voluntary. Customers choose, but what about employees?  Distributed global workforces, such as IBM  rely on cooperation and the participation is contractual in nature.

Organizations such as BESTBUY also leveraged the coincidence of their techsupport teams love of  play in multi-person games and their discovery of its contribution to creating a more cohesive, collaborative and effective team.  In addition, the employees trust their instincts, grew their confidence and proved to be more effective and efficient  solving problems for customers.  Playing does not have the same connotation as practicing, but in many ways it’s more powerful.

Take Aways

Daniel Pink’s book Drive reminded leaders to consider the difference between  intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation’s relationship to employee performance and engagement. The growing gamification trend demonstrates the evolution of new tactics to educate, train and engage employees.  In the process as the lines between play and work blur,  games and their application inside the enterprise extends to every major discipline and includes a dose of strategic decision making. Don’t underestimate the power of  play to alter and adapt behavior especially the comfort level that comes from knowing what’s possible, probable and what’s not.

If you have any other examples or strategic use of play that you’d like to share, or have some added feedback from the discussion that I missed or just want to tell us what you think, please do.  All comments and questions are welcome!

Recommended  Articles and links to review in advance:

1. The Importance of Play to Innovation

(we also encourage you to listen to the TED presentation featuring Dr. Stuart Brown who says there’s more fun in using humor, games and fanciful play. )

 2. Work and Play: The Gamification of Hiring

The Economist


3. The Serious Business of Play.

MIT Sloan Management Review,  2005 47(1), 19-20.

Heracleous, L., & Jacobs, C. (2005).

4. How three companies innovate

NYTimes 3/17/2012

OPTIONAL for those who wish to be serious about the topic consider

Innovation’s Holy Grail, C.K. Prahalad and R.A. Mashelkar

HBR July 2010