How bosses spread gamification in the workplace

31 January 2013 -


Turning business processes into games is becoming widespread as digitisation takes hold. It will transform the way organisations hire, motivate and appraise their employees, finds Sally Percy

You can blame it on Napoleon. In 1795, he was scratching his head, trying to come up with a way to carry provisions over long distances for his soldiers, when inspiration struck. Why not make the problem into a game and offer the princely sum of 12,000 francs for a new way to preserve food? Fifteen years later, chef Nicolas François Appert claimed the prize after devising a method that involved heating food and preserving it in airtight containers – the same basic technology that is used for canned food today.

Of course, Napoleon didn’t know then that what he was doing would today become known as gamification. In other words, using game thinking to make commonplace experiences more engaging. It’s not about playing actual games, but instead it’s taking examples of game mechanics, such as risk taking, role play and point scoring, and using them to achieve non-game objectives, such as innovation, marketing and sales.

While gamification may be a relatively new term, having gained common currency predominantly over the past couple of years, its principles have been around for as long as people have walked the planet. “Humans love play and have been creating games since the dawn of time,” says Gabe Zichermann, a Canadian gamification expert and author of Game-Based Marketing. “Our tools have just got better.”

Applications of effort

Gamification has a strong historical association with the military – for example, bravery medals as an accolade for soldiers who outperform their peers on the field. But the modern rendition of it is strongly influenced by designers in the video game industry who use methods such as leaderboards, rewards and social interaction to engage players. It also owes much of its power to the birth of the internet. “The execution of gamification has changed massively because digital technology has made its principles – for example, leaderboards – easier and more scalable,” says Stefan Bardega, managing partner and head of mobile innovation at MediaCom, the UK’s largest media-planning agency. It’s not surprising, then, that technology companies such as 02 and Facebook are leading the way in terms of using gamification techniques to save costs and improve staff performance.

According to analyst Gartner, more than 70% of the 2,000 largest public companies in the world will have at least one “gamified” application by 2014. And there are a host of everyday workplace activities and behaviours that can be gamified using leaderboard and reward strategies. In fact, organisations often apply game mechanics to drive employee performance without even realising it.

Gamified activities might include sales calls, product development, recruitment, training, data entry, new business referrals and issuing invoices, while gamified behaviours might include loyalty, sickness and lateness. Rewarding an employee with the title “employee of the month” is a long-established form of gamification. It is also possible to gamify an expenses policy by setting a per diem amount for business trips, with employees allowed to keep a proportion of whatever savings they make for the company. And gamification can be integrated into a PR strategy through the use of leaderboards to rank Twitter coverage at conferences and events.

Real-time players

The annual appraisal process is ripe for gamification. Rypple, a web-based social performance tool from the US that is used by companies such as Facebook and Mozilla Firefox, is starting to make waves over here. It has a smartphone app that allows employees to give instant feedback to superiors, peers and subordinates, enabling managers to easily compare the performance of individuals within their team throughout the year. “Annual surveys and annual appraisals are becoming redundant because we are living in a real-time society,” says Gareth Jones, head of product development at the Chemistry Group, an expert in solving people problems in large businesses. “Employers would be much better engaging with staff all day every day.”

If all this sounds a bit too much like Big Brother for you, then you’re not alone. Zichermann acknowledges that the main criticism of gamification is that it’s underhand. Gamification is, after all, a convenient way for companies to build up a considerable amount of information on their employees through a notionally “fun” medium. But he also points out that it’s an opportunity to recognise the actions of others, which “gives you a positive feeling about the world”.

“It’s very closely aligned with the way we’re evolving as individuals and the peer-to-peer movement that is going on,” says Jones.

The hype may go, but the reality is that in one form or another, gamification is here to stay. It’s already a permanent feature of our everyday lives. Whether you’re rewarded with a smiley face on a speed sign for driving below 30 miles per hour or lured to your favourite bar by the promise of “happy hour” half-price cocktails, you’re following in the footsteps of Napoleon. You’re playing the game, even if you don’t know it. “It’s popular because it taps into human nature,” says Jones. “We like to give recognition – and receive it.”

The games they play

How companies have turned work processes into games


O2 uses a game to filter out unsuitable job candidates

In 2011, UK mobile telecoms giant 02 introduced an online game to its recruitment process as a means of sifting out the thousands of unsuitable people who apply for adviser and manager positions in its stores. The game, which takes about five to 10 minutes to play, is the first stage in the recruitment process and all applicants must finish it. Applicants pick a character and then navigate various scenarios that cover customer service, product awareness and relationships with colleagues. The scenarios are subtly designed to ensure there are no obvious right answers.

At the end of the game, those applicants who are suited to an adviser role at 02 are invited to apply for a job online; for the rest it’s the end of the line. Gareth Jones, head of product development at the Chemistry Group, which designed the game for 02, says it has saved 02 hundreds of days of processing time by weeding out unsuitable applicants.


Skype gives special status to most helpful users

Who needs to employ customer service agents when your customers can serve themselves? That’s the theory behind the support network for internet-based communication provider Skype. Users can reward community members who provide good answers with “Kudos” by clicking on the star beneath their post. Skype even has “Super Users” who have a status that is earned through sensible participation on the forum.


Giffgaff pays its customers for improving its business

Mobile network Giffgaff gives cash rewards to customers who recruit new members, design marketing materials and help other customers. Its strapline is: The mobile network run by you. Giffgaff means “mutual giving” in Scottish English and the company relies on its customers to the extent that it has no call centres, no shops and no ad campaigns. As a result it can keep its costs low and pass on savings to its customers.

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