It's time to reinvent management. You can help.

Game Design Principles and the Way We Work

by Ross Smith on November 14, 2010


ross-smith's picture

Game Design Principles and the Way We Work

In 1961, Martin Graetz, Stephen Russell, and Wayne Wiitanen wrote a PDP-1 program to create a game they called SpaceWar! – oft-cited as the first video game. In 1972, Nolan Bushnell famously created PONG to rock our world. Space Invaders showed up in 1977.  PacMan entered the lexicon in 1980, about ten years before a couple plumbers named Mario and Luigi became famous in Donkey Kong. My personal fave, Robotron 2084 arrived in 1982, just before another great one - Madden football - in 1984. Many people may remember playing DOOM  (at work!) in 1993, Tony Hawk Pro Skater in 1999, and the more than 5 billion online matches have taken place since Halo stepped up in 2001. These old school games are all great – and there are thousands more that literally changed the way we enjoy life – and collectively, they have shaped our world and clearly, made it more fun!

11 million people a day now play Farmville. More people have downloaded Bejeweled than lived in Europe when King Henry VIII was born in 1491. In October, FIFA 11 sold 2.6 million copies in its first five days of availability.

I invite you to take an hour sometime and go back in time to play a game of PONG, Breakout, or Ms. PacMan, and you’ll find that many basic game design principles are timeless – these games are still really fun - even though computer horsepower has increased dramatically and “better” options with more graphics are available.

The investment in game design has varied across these popular games, but it is a critical component of all successful games released today—and holds some powerful lessons for how we can “take the work out of work” in any context.

TechCrunch recently had a story on SCVNGR , which builds a mobile game with real-world challenges, and uses a design play deck to help create great games. The deck of cards lists nearly 50 different game mechanics that can be mixed and matched to create the foundation for different types of games. TechCrunch republished the accompanying document here.

Out of curiosity, let’s take a look at how a few of these gameplay mechanics map to "real" work life—and also look at how many of the great MiX contributions fit nicely into the same design categories…what a surprise! <grin>

1. Achievement

Definition: A virtual or physical representation of having accomplished something. These are often viewed as rewards in and of themselves.

Game Example: a badge, a level, a reward, points, really anything defined as a reward can be a reward.

Work Example: Employee-of-the-Month award, parking place, Certificate of Appreciation, Coffee Coupon

Mix Story Example: - Foldit: Citizen Scientists "thinking together" to find a cure for cancer

And to harness the gaming spirit of competitiveness, there are increasingly difficult levels of play, from beginner on up. As a protein is restructured, a score is calculated based on how well it is folded and displayed on screen. Players strive to get high scores on each puzzle, and make it to the top of overall player rankings.

3. Avoidance

Definition: The act of inducing player behavior not by giving a reward, but by not instituting a punishment. Produces consistent level of activity, timed around the schedule.

Game Example: Press a lever every 30 seconds to not get shocked.

Work Example: Produce high quality work and you don’t have to come in on the weekend. Answer the phone in 3 rings or less and customers won’t go away.

Mix Hack Example: The one key to making a giant leap upward

Our basic strategy today for leading people can be described in just five words: "Do This, Don't Do That." We lead our employees with rules, laws, policies, procedures, manuals and scripts. And we do this because we hope it will bring us some level of efficiency and control. This sometimes works — for a short while. But in the long term, it always backfires. Your people soon figure out there's no reason for them to think. They shut their brains off.

 6. Blissful Productivity

Definition: The idea that playing in a game makes you happier working hard, than you would be relaxing. Essentially, we’re optimized as human beings by working hard, and doing meaningful and rewarding work.

Game Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk wherein she discusses how World of Warcraft players play on average 22 hours / week (a part time job), often after a full days work. They’re willing to work hard, perhaps harder than in real life, because of their blissful productivity in the game world.

Work Example: When involved on a great project, time flies by unnoticed. “Flow”. Theory Y.

Mix Hack Example: Celebration of Innovation – Interfacing Boundaries of Play and Work

Few will deny that they have enjoyed work more when fun is found somewhere in its process. And many admit to being more productive when creative design is part of what they do. In fact, the same brain circulits stimulated during play - are also activated and strengthened during highly successful innovative initiatives. So why then, do long faces tend to trump joyous moments at work?

In spite of the compelling case for flat out fun at work,  business organizations have been slow to build cultures where play fosters innovation across diverse arenas. Innovation loses when senior managers remain locked in the past, in ways that rob the enjoyment innovators typically bring to their work. It doesn't have to be that way.

 Mix Hack Example: Giving Emotions a Chance!

In practice, an employee will get a certain role because she wants to see the world. Even though her functional skills may not be up to mark, she will put in the extra effort to learn those since she is very emotionally satisfied with the role. This would result in higher engagement leading to empowerment and eventually performance since the employee would feel obligated to return back the favor. This would also result in more innovation within the organisation as the employee may have a different functaional background leading to newer ideas and questions!

13. Cross Situational Leader-boards

Definition: This occurs when one ranking mechanism is applied across multiple (unequal and isolated) gaming scenarios. Players often perceive that these ranking scenarios are unfair as not all players were presented with an “equal” opportunity to win.

Game Example: Players are arbitrarily sent into one of three paths. The winner is determined by the top scorer overall (i.e. across the paths). Since the players can only do one path (and can’t pick), they will perceive inequity in the game scenario and get upset.

Work Example: The annual performance evaluation and fixed rewards budget

MiX Hack Example: Risk Capital as Commons - Distributive and Networked Governance

Create more freedom to innovate and greater accountability by distributing the responsibility to manage risk capital as a "commons" throughout small groups within an organization that are networked to each other. This addresses some of the key communication and risk-appetite issues in managing a complex organization.

14. Disincentives

Definition: a game element that uses a penalty (or altered situation) to induce behavioral shift

Game Example: losing health points, speeding traps

Work Example: “performance improvement” programs, docked pay or loss of bonus for slip ups

MiX Hack Example: MIX M-Prize: How to plan and run meetings that engage people's minds, hearts and spirit to get more done, in less time, with more fun.

One elephant in the room is bad meetings. Managers spend approximately 50% of their time in meetings and they consistently report that 50% of that time is wasted. So, 12 weeks a year of zero productivity from the people who are among the most highly paid in the organization? Build a simple solution that progressive leaders and managers everywhere can use to systematically tap into talent and improve meeting results.

17. Epic Meaning

Definition: players will be highly motivated if they believe they are working to achieve something great, something awe-inspiring, something bigger than themselves.

Game Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk where she discusses Warcraft’s ongoing story line and “epic meaning” that involves each individual has motivated players to participate outside the game and create the second largest wiki in the world to help them achieve their individual quests and collectively their epic meanings.

Work Example: Company Vision Statement (if done well)

MiX Hack Example: >> supercharging performance with purpose-driven progress

Purpose is what people gather around, so we put it in the middle. Whether it's the purpose associated with the organization's reason for being or the purpose associated with finding better office coffee, there's always a purpose. Comprised of a description, time frame, status, and related purposes, it is simple to setup and evolve as it needs to. Rather than becoming a container for items however, it becomes a node to which people can attach whatever moves it forward. Purpose is powerful.

MiX Hack Example: 3-D glasses: A must-have in the management innovator’s kit

To address a specific management challenge—whether it’s as big as re-conceiving of your organization’s purpose or as small as improving a specific process within your organization—first think through what in your mind should be the right space, time and method settings. What kind of 3D picture of reality do you need to see to solve for the challenge at hand? Now, code in the settings that are one order of magnitude bigger than what you think is right. Yes, it might lead to unnecessary work or it might lead to major break-through ideas and new friends

28. Modifiers

Definition: An item that when used affects other actions. Generally modifiers are earned after having completed a series of challenges or core functions.

Game Example: A X2 modifier that doubles the points on the next action you take.

Work Example: Training programs, tools and process re-engineering, internships, tuition assistance

Mix Story Example: 21 Types of Fun - What's Yours?

Fun Profiling: A way to analyse and redesign your work:

  • Analyse your motivation by thinking about fun non-work activities and ask: What energises me?
  • Invite your colleagues to do the same. (Notice: How does their fun profile differ from yours?)
  • Now analyse your work, or a particular item of work, using the same framework.
  • Based on the difference, it becomes obvious why the work is not as fun as it could be for everyone.
  • Re-design your work to incorporate activities that you and your team find more energising and fun.
  • Optional step 6. You can now halve everyone's pay, or bring in volunteers who will do it for nothing ;-)

31. Pride

Definition: the feeling of ownership and joy at an accomplishment

Game Example: I have ten badges. I own them. They are mine. There are many like them, but these are mine. Hooray.

Work Example: Attaboy/girl mail from the boss, public kudos, movie credits, customer satisfaction/press coverage of my work

MiX Hack Example: Business Singing

…establish choir and conduct singing sessions on regular basis. Benefits include:

  • Genuine friendship is developed between members;
  • Level of self-esteem and happiness goes up!

MiX Story Example: Player mindset for everybody: Working out at the empowerment gym

Player mindset and workouts designed to develop it are practical ways to build self-empowerment. Leaders can do a lot to increase trust and reduce fear but so can the employees. When both sides take on unconditional responsibility, they start a positive feedback loop. Although TANDBERG’s organization is far from perfect and is always a work-in-progress, they have to a large extent managed to keep their cake, and eat it, too. They kept a fairly flat organizational structure without losing speed. People do call up the CEO, and the other way round. And when leaders “misbehave,” it’s perceived as a call for some Player action, rather than the call to join the Disengaged and the Disempowered.

42. Status

Definition: The rank or level of a player. Players are often motivated by trying to reach a higher level or status.

Game Example: white paladin level 20 in World of Warcraft.

Work Example: Transparent job titles, corner offices based on seniority, lunch room or parking privileges

MiX Hack Example: What Marks an Intelligent Assessment

It's time to step back and radically rethink the power of intelligent evaluations to jumpstart high-performance minds for an innovative era. To generate novel inventions, by igniting support through reviews for designers, is to set the stage for new business opportunities that most workers crave and yet few organizations achieve.

If you’ve seen this TED video, on how creativity gets clobbered in pretense of learning– you’re likely  ready to reconfigure unfair reviews into more intelligent evaluation designs. Into reviews that promote innovation and pull ingenious people together for the greater good of all!

MiX Hack Example: Managers, you need to become great Game Designers !

Games are finally recognized as a very powerful dynamic to improve productivity and ease change management while keeping people happy and committed. In a society with fast pace of change, game designers have great solutions for enterprises.

You need to register in order to submit a comment.

alexis-nicolas's picture
Hi Ross,
Great Article and great descriptions ! And by the way thanks for referencing one of my hack !
Work is so close to game, and only to be aware of that can improve work and well-being, this is so awesome !
Games with ethical outcomes, this is just life ! Ethical hackers, this is just all of us !