'For the Win': How Gamification Can Transform Your Business

In their new book, 'For the Win': How Gamification Can Transform Your Business, Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter take a closer look at games and work.  Next Official Blogger blogger Ross Smith got a few minutes with author Kevin Werbach for a few questions:

What is your background?

I'm a Professor of Legal Studies at Wharton, the business school of the University of Pennsylvania, but my focus has always been on how technology changes the world we live in.  After getting my law degree, I was in charge of Internet policy at the Federal Communications Commission during late 1990s, and was part of the transition team that developed the technology agenda for the Obama Administration. In between, I edited a high-end technology newsletter, consulted for tech companies, and organized an annual executive conference called Supernova on the business dynamics of the emerging network age. It was at Supernova that I first noticed people applying innovations from video games to other industries, and it fascinated me.  That eventually coalesced in my work on gamification.

What prompted you to write this book?

I started teaching a course on gamification at Wharton with Dan Hunter, a colleague from New York Law School who is an expert on legal issues in virtual worlds.  In doing so, I discovered there was no resource that offered a practical yet serious guide to gamification for business professionals. Dan and I wrote "For the Win" to pull together the case studies we'd identified (like your great work at Microsoft!) with implementation frameworks and insights from research in psychology, marketing, management, operations, and design. 

We hear a lot about "gamification" - do games belong in the workplace?

Of course!  There is over 50 years of research showing that games are common in the workplace, as a way to relieve boredom or challenge performance.  Games tap into deep human needs.  Why should those psychological mechanisms shut off during a large part of our lives?  What we need are *better* games at work, not just more monthly sales contests.  That's where gamification is valuable, because it draws on digital game design.  Thinking like a game designer helps managers incorporate things like cooperation, progression, and fun into their workplace games in a sophisticated way.    

Can games help employees be more productive?

There are plenty of companies that use games or game-like reward systems to enhance productivity.  The more important question is about game thinking, which is the term we use in For the Win for approaching problems like a game designer.  If you're employing game thinking, you'll focus on designing clear and immediate feedback for employees; leveraging known psychological patterns such as the "endowed progress effect" (we want to finish what we've started); offering employees a range of pathways to match their personalities and give them a stronger sense of agency; structuring work as a progressive journey; and connecting individual tasks to larger collective purposes.  That's where the major productivity gains will come from. 

What is the downside of gamification?

Our book has a whole chapter on what we call "epic fails."  The two biggest concerns are pointsification and exploitation.  The first is the all-too-common practice of throwing badges, leaderboards, and points into a business process, and thinking that alone will motivate people.  It's more likely to do the opposite.  If workers see tasks reduced to abstract external rewards, they can lose the intrinsic motivation they had to being with.  The second danger is that managers will see gamification as a way to take advantage of employees, by manipulating them or forcing them to substitute virtual rewards for real compensation.  For example, the housekeeping staff at Disneyland hotels revolted when Disney put up a leaderboard screen tracking their performance.  They saw it as a threat that laggards would be shamed or fired, rather than something motivating better performance.

Other than your book, where would an HR professional look to find more information about using games at work?

I teach a free online version of my gamification course on the Coursera platform. The next session should start some time this spring https://www.coursera.org/course/gamification
Obviously, your 42 Projects site is a great resource for links on this topic, and the Gamification Research Network site has good academic materials on gamification.  My Wharton colleague Ethan Mollick wrote book called Changing the Game that gives a broader overview of the intersections of games and business, and Byron Reeves of Stanford wrote one called Total Engagement. Beyond those, I'd point HR professions to some of the great material on game design by people like Jesse Schell, Amy Jo Kim, and Raph Koster.  They aren't focused on games at work per se, but HR professionals already have expertise on the work side of the equation.  

 

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