Gamifying the enterprise

Gamification is increasingly penetrating the enterprise space, but such programs must be carefully designed to be effective – that’s why game design is a crucial skillset for enterprises.

Image courtesy of Patrick Schneider

You don’t have to be an avid gamer to know that video games are a big deal. In fact, odds are you’re a “gamer” whether you know it or not. Gamification – the art of applying game design techniques to everyday communications – is finding its way into all aspects of the digital life, particularly in the enterprise space.

In a sense, gamification has existed in enterprises for years – for example, salespeople compete to get the “top score” each month in terms of how much money they earn for the company.

But the rise of the internet and digitalization, the proliferation of mobile devices, apps, and social media (think of Facebook “likes” as a game score) and the blurring of boundaries between consumer and employee in terms of online usage (i.e. employees using personal devices as work devices) has taken gamification to all new levels across the enterprise – from sales and marketing to product development and HR. And because it’s all digital and connected, employers can easily monitor and analyze the results.

But like everything else in the enterprise, you have to get it right, and there’s a lot that can go wrong.

For a start, the objective of gamification in the enterprise isn’t just high scores and leaderboards – it’s about shaping human behavior to increase motivation, productivity, innovation and engagement (either with enterprise customers or with fellow employees).

If you employees only care about high scores at the expense of everything else, or if your corporate training game is resulting in employees who passed the test without having learned much in the process, odds are your gamification strategy poorly designed.

Indeed, gamification programs have to be carefully designed to be effective – and that’s why game design is seen as a crucial skill for enterprises keen to jump on the gamification bandwagon.

Design psychology

In its purest form, game design is a kind of psychology – the objective is to engage the gamer, get them to participate in the game, and keep them engaged. This can easily be transposed into all kinds of enterprise applications, says Derek Black, Associate Dean of Academics at the Hong Kong campus of SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), which offers interactive design and game development programs that teach students how to apply these skills well beyond the games industry.

“This is about user experience design, the gamification elements, and how do you gamify a certain interaction response,” he says. “So, in essence, many of the surrounding fields are learning from what game designers have historically developed and understood, and we’re kind of coming over and borrowing it into other programs.”

Professor Wan Chiu, who teaches interactive design and game development at SCAD Hong Kong, gives an example from when he was working as a user-experience designer at Hong Kong Science Park.

“When the company I was working for saw that I used to work on game design, they said they had a client who asked if we can provide a training platform,” Chiu says. “[The client] wanted something where you’re not just passively watching a video and taking a quiz at the end, but something where we engage the employee to learn on an active basis, and something independent of the device, so the person can learn anytime they want, any place they want.”

The result was a gamified training platform that enabled the client to receive live feedback via the internet so they could monitor the employee’s training progress, how fast they’re progressing, and what time of day they were more likely to use it.

Mixed realities

Speaking of the next level, enterprises are turning out to be early adopters of augmented reality (AR) technologies, and are showing increased interest in virtual reality (VR) as well. And because both technologies are also gaining initial traction in the video game business, the gamification elements of AR and VR slot seamlessly into enterprise training apps, says Derek Black.

“We’re seeing big growth in AR and VR providing these type of training scenarios where you can go through and simulate a real world situation, and have elements that test people’s understanding how to react and respond to this,” he said.

For example, says Chiu, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council has developed a VR app for training, “because there’s not enough training in Hong Kong to, say, do physical engineering work, like repairing an elevator. So you put on the VR goggles and you’ll be holding a virtual screwdriver and you have to screw something in, and then there’s a virtual bag of little tools and they have to put something together using VR hands.”

Chiu insists that enterprise training apps are the real killer app for VR going forward: “It’s not entertainment.”

Mind your ethics

Chiu offers a word of caution about gamification, and it’s an issue that applies inside and outside the enterprise – it requires a strong sense of ethics.

“The gamification principle is that you can get people to keep doing something that they didn’t know they want to do,” he said, reiterating the fact that gamification is, at the end of the day, a psychological tool designed to architect human behavior.

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on how careful the designer is to think about the potential consequences of a particular app, which is why ethics are a key component of SCAD’s game design courses, says Black.

“Professional ethics questions are geared within every program – we’re talking about sustainability in game design interaction, we’re talking about ethical responsibility, that you are controlling human behavior,” he said. “The element is to understand what is the upstream and downstream consequences of your design decisions.”

This matters especially when it comes to millennial employees, who typically want their work to be meaningful in some way, and are more aware of social issues and unethical corporate behavior.

“Millennials require an authenticity to communication,” Black says. “It’s not just about whether our eyeballs are connected or watching this advertisement, but is the message connecting with us? And I think that that ethical characteristic within that generation is going to drive more and more businesses to actually want to provide that clarity.”