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The Gamification of Work

by Ross Smith on February 8, 2011


ross-smith's picture

The Gamification of Work

On Wednesday February 9th at 1PM Eastern (tomorrow!) all MIX members are invited to attend a webinar discussion between Gary Hamel and the HCI Human Capital M-Prize semifinalists. The semifinalists will share a short summary of their idea or story, and Gary will give feedback on developing each entry.

Gamification, the use of game elements, or game play mechanics, for non-game applications, is getting a lot of attention these days. Later this month at the Game Developer’s Conference, the "Great Gamification Debate " will dispute the merits of adding game elements to real life. Check out Jesse Schell’s Gamepocalypse talk, Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken on Colbert, and Business Week’s recent article.

With that in mind, let’s consider the gamification of work…

We know the traditional game elements of competition, leader boards, badges, and level achievements already exist, cloaked in HR terminology: performance evaluation, stack rank, merit raise, ladder level, standard title, employee-of-the-month, performance bonus – the list goes on.

Wait! – don’t we see these same practices in games? Competition, badges, leveling up, leaderboards, and achievements. These two worlds mirror each other far more than we’d like to admit. Doesn’t the Dopamine burst triggered by an XBox "Achievement Unlocked" equal that of a Kudos email from your boss? While one could debate whether some of the aforementioned "game elements" have outlived their usefulness in the world of HR, there’s no questioning their prevalence.

W. Edwards Deming suggested that, "A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management." When you add Deming’s approach to a game, it might look like EA Sports adding Hank Haney coaching to Tiger Woods 09 – "after each round Haney will deliver feedback on the player's performance" and in Haney’s words, "It's like what I do in real life when I coach. I analyze their game and help improve their skills. I analyze how they played and offer some drills and suggestions they can use to get better."

Might other game elements inform what it means to be great at work (and to create a great workplace)? Looking across the MiX suggests the answer may be yes.

There were 85 entries to the HCI Human Capital M-Prize – and last week, the MiX announced the 10 semifinalists. In the spirit of Take the Work out of Work moonshot, let’s take a look at how these management innovators have"gamified" their work.

MiX Maverick Leighton Reed says it best, "game ideas will be the most important force shaping the future of work. Innovations in entertainment media have long presaged the technology and culture of the workplace. Today’s multiplayer online games represent an extraordinary blending of human aspiration and performance with computing and communication technology. Watch for it soon in a cubicle near you."

Here is a look at game elements on display in the work of the Human Capital M-Prize semifinalists:

A Brief Survey of Gaming Elements

Awards, achievements, levels, badges

An award or achievement – new level or badge – is something that’s earned by a player accomplishing something – meeting some criteria. Achievements can reward many different facets of player activity. Two of the semi-finalists use this game element to gamify their work:

How to Start a Movement in Your Company - Most people at our company were heavy coffee drinkers so I chose to use $5 cards.  Now a $5 card represents a glorified pat-on-the-back. 

Atlassian’s Big Experiment with Performance Reviews - Kudos model 150 peer-kudos gifts have been handed out. 75% of staff who displayed outstanding performance were recognised by peers outside any formal process

Role Play and Wish Fulfillment

Allows the players to perform in a game in ways they would not do in "ordinary life"

A True Learning company—free of management - Something is set up by three colleagues who are specialising in learning through game and play. They have developed several inspiring and innovative ways on themes such as leadership, learning and development.

Restoring Faith in the Institution: How Mission Shaped Communities Revitalized St. Andrews - Give people an opportunity to act on their beliefs in a low risk, high return way, working with like-minded individuals in MSCs to contribute their time and talents to something they care about.


Game elements can add role play and fantasy, be fun and whimsical, spur competition, or fire up a desire to beat a high score. There are many ways to motivate, and well-design games tap in to all of them.

A Company Run by Self-Managed Teams - Motivation is not something that can be commanded. You can't tell someone - "be motivated". It is something that is internally driven and which only the right environment and organizational model can elicit. So our aim was to create an environment and model that best enabled people to satisfy their innate desire for autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The Tube: IDEO Builds a Collaboration System that Inspires Through Passion - The Tube encourages individual participation in a number of ways, from establishing a platform to allow employees to showcase their best work, to integrating the salary range process and project resourcing process into the system

Repetition, Building Expertise, Memory

Building expertise through repetition and gaining experience allows players to advance in the game, increase skills, gain power, strength, or stamina.

"Soft" R&D: You don’t have to be a geeky engineer to experience the thrill of inventing - So instead of looking at work as, well, "work," we started looking at it as an infinite game, a martial art that is permanently under development. Every employee is a "Player" in that game which means they have an unconditional responsibility for inventing new "moves" in response to or anticipation of changes in business context.

Commando Mentoring - The intrapreneur then helps them to get their work done more effectively by leveraging their years of wisdom navigating the corporate framework.

Scores, Grades, Point Systems, Virtual currency

Scores and points are the most popular game element. They increase usage, game play, engagement, bragging rights, competition, etc. – but only up to a point. Points and scores can be overdone.

Bonus Fund: Empower Employees to fund initiatives with company-matched bonus money - Once the submission has been posted to the site, the members of the community can express their support (e.g. "like" button). An idea that has more than N number of supporters (N can be 1) is open to the pledging of funds.

Unlocking Content, Tools, Weapons – "power up"

Performing tasks leads to achievements and scores, which might be exchanged for (or automatically unlock) new tools, weapons, settings, conditions, clothes, etc.

Start with a better question to create a better talent management system: the Talent Management Cloud - We can best design and improve the talent management system through emergence, not reductionism. Emergence: Patterns emerge, arise out of, many simple interconnected parts. Reductionism: We can explain and understand complex systems by looking at their parts.

Gamify To Take the Work out of Work

In the renowned "Homo Ludens", Johan Huizinga, describes play as "an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow." (Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga, p. 132)

Wow! Wouldn’t it be great if that’s how you described your workplace? Douglas MacGregor, in Theory X, suggests that "work is as natural as play." Perhaps, we can follow the lead of these HCI M-Prize innovators and "gamify" our work—adding more game elements, beyond the typical player vs. player competition and zero sum, winner-take-all rewards so commonplace in corporations today. Perhaps we could all achieve the success that these M-Prize folks have brought to their workplace.

Finally, a reminder that all MIX members are invited to attend a webinar discussion between Gary Hamel and the semifinalists on Wednesday February 9, at 1:00pm Eastern /10:00am Pacific. The semifinalists will share a short summary of their idea or story, and Gary will give feedback on developing each entry.

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ryan-lallier's picture
Ross, great article. You really summed up the elements of gaming in the workplace. 
Thank you!
greg-stevenson's picture

Shakespeare’s famous line could just as easily read “The world is a GAME and the men and women merely players”.

I participated in Jane McGonigal’s Urgent Evoke game back in 2010. The game was designed to use a game to initiate real action within the world outside the game. The characteristics of real life outside the game were mirrored within the game.  The noble cause that of “Saving the World”, had little effect on dampening the bad side or enhancing the good side of human nature.

Many money making derivations come from the work of Shewhart and Deming, Six Sigma rolling along in modern times. Every derivation has always de-emphasised or ignored completely what Deming said regarding remuneration.  Urgent Evoke whether Jane knew it or not experimented with the game of remuneration. There is more work to do there and it will take a brave CEO to implement what I have in mind to model Deming’s Insight.