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Gamification is to games as jingles are to music

Where games and work are similar, and how gamification can build a bridge between them.

Mario Herger, Blogger

July 16, 2014

5 Min Read

This title quotes from Nick Fortugno, co-founder of Playmatics and designer of the game Diner Dash, and describes how game designers should see gamification. We wouldn't expect from elevator music a a top hit, but easing our way up in a high rise building. The same is true for gamification; it aims at making work more fun.

Now don't get me wrong: work will never become a top fun game. But helping bored or disengaged employees make their work more interesting through everything we learned from games is always a worthwhile cause. For the employees, the employers, and not least us as customers. With high morale come good services and good products.

British psychologist Michael Apter claims that we seek low arousal in normal goal-directed activities, such as work, but high arousal, and hence challenge and danger, in activities performed for their own sake, such as games. Let’s have a look at the differences and similarities between games and work.

Game

Tasks

repetitive, but fun

repetitive, and boring

Feedback

constantly

once a year

Goals

clear

contradictory, vague

Path to Mastery

clear

unclear

Rules

clear, transparent

unclear, in-transparent

Information

right amount at the right time

too much and not enough

Failure

expected, encouraged, spectacular, brag about it

forbidden, punished, better not talk about it

Status of Users

transparent, timely

hidden

Promotion

meritocracy

kiss-up-o-cracy

Collaboration

yes

yes

Speed/Risk

high

low

Autonomy

high

mid to low

Narrative

yes

only if you are lucky

Obstacles

on purpose

accidental

When we take the popular game Angry Birds as an example, somebody watching us playing the game without actually seeing the game would consider this as pretty repetitive. After all, the task of slinging a bird to hit pigs boils down to sliding a finger from right to left. But in a game even repetitive tasks can be very entertaining, while the opposite is mostly true with work. Feedback that we receive in a game comes from multiple sides: there are not only the points, badges, and stars, but also visual and audio feedback. The structures crumbling, the birds and pigs exploding, balloons popping are the visual feast for the player’s eyes in the game.  Not to forget the audio feedback that players receive from explosions, cheering birds, scratchy leather-sounds, and the pigs trash-talking the player when he failed the level. The only audio feedback in business software comes when we do something wrong.

Failure is another interesting area. Games are designed that in many cases players fail. Failing a level, characters dying, loosing virtual goods are natural parts of the game that – as unpleasant they are for a player – give valuable feedback about an approach or game strategy and make the player more skilled. Failure in a game is institutionalized; it is part of learning and becoming better. In some games failure is depicted so spectacularly that players have created their own subculture on most epic failure. This is in stark contrast to work or school. Failing is stigmatized, which deprives us from learning and the experience of risk taking.

Game players have also more insight in how to level up or get promoted than an employee at work has. To reach level 10, the player needs to kill six pigs, or bring the sword to the castle, or come in 3rd place in the race. As an employee, we never know what qualifies us for getting promoted to the position of a vice president or a director. We also don’t really know, how the people on these positions today actually got there. There is no public track record telling me that this person closed deals in the amount of $10 million and if I succeed with that as well, I will also be promoted.

We know very well that the workplace is not a merit-based system. Even if we tell ourselves “you earn what you deserve“ – after all that’s the underlying mantra of a capitalist system – being promoted at work has often less to do with a job well done, but more with how well networked somebody is.

These similarities can bring us synergies if we bring them together. It’s not just a one-way exchange where only work can profit from games. It also gives game designers a chance to have a real-world impact.

Mario Herger just published his landmark book Enterprise Gamification - Engaging people by letting them have fun. In this book he reflects on the gamification criticism coming from game designers, and uses scientific evidence from over 200 papers and 40 books on the effectiveness and workings of gamification, including a criticism of the simplistic approach on using rewards and competition, but making the case for more sophisticated designs.

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