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Gamification: Where work meets play

Madison-area electronic games developers are divided on the effectiveness of gamification, but they all agree business could learn a thing of two from games.

A screenshot from ZPOC, a colony based builder simulation game from local electronic games developer Lost Boys Interactive that's set in a zombie apocalypse.

A screenshot from ZPOC, a colony based builder simulation game from local electronic games developer Lost Boys Interactive that's set in a zombie apocalypse.

Courtesy Lost Boys Interactive

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For additional coverage of the local impact the electronic games industry has on Greater Madison, read the June 2018 issue of In Business magazine.

With at least 25 electronic game design studios in the Greater Madison area, you could say the region knows a thing or two about the business of gaming.

Local gaming experts also have some things to say about gamification, or the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity.

The immense popularity of video games has prompted a number of efforts to bring gaming principles to other facets of life via gamification. Business seems like a natural fit, but only if it’s done right.

Games as a medium are great — broadly — at three things: they are great at expressing identity, expressing actions, and expressing systems, notes Dan Norton, founding partner and chief creative officer for Filament Games. “So that means games are great at giving you a role or purpose, a set of actions that you can do and master, and a set of rules that you can grasp and master.

“From that super-quick summary,” Norton continues, “we can map onto business and ask the same question — what aspects of business are relevant in terms of understanding a particular role or perspective? What aspects of business are relevant in terms of understanding a particular skill or skills? What aspects of business are relevant in terms of understanding a system or ecology?”

However, Norton isn’t so sure that gamification is having an impact on businesses, at least not yet.

“When we use the term gamification here at Filament, we usually mean things like scores, badges, avatars, and leaderboards,” Norton explains. “These are all reward systems that games use to support users as they engage in the ‘core’ mechanics of the game — the things that the game is asking the player to actually do and get good at.

“So those reward systems are good, but they’re good in terms of supporting a core piece of interaction, which would be the actual game itself,” says Norton. “When you divorce those reward systems from any actual interaction or engaging activity, you don’t actually succeed in merging ‘playfulness’ with your banking tool or time-logger. Instead, you’ve added a hollow shell to an activity that’s just as tedious as ever.

“The ‘real’ gamification is about examining that core activity and asking questions like how is this activity important? Or what’s interesting about solving this problem? Or why does doing this matter? Then we’d take those answers and build custom gameplay that encapsulates what actually matters about the content. Then, and only then, does the suite of external rewards like scores and badges make sense because they are now used to highlight the anatomy of an interaction that matters.”

User interaction is foundational to all of game design, says Justin Beck, CEO of PerBlue. “Think of the psychology of the design, and even just achievement-oriented stuff — you have to communicate progress. Take the most boring thing, like data entry of insurance applications. You want it completed, so having things designed [for the user] so it’s step one. Okay, you complete that and now it’s two more steps to full completion. That kind of game design thinking applies to everything. Anyone who’s really trying to streamline a process could really benefit a lot from tapping into some of the elements of game design.”

Critically, notes Beck, it’s not just about the dashboards; it’s about the community building built on shared information that can take place inside a team.

“Team-based features inside games creates instant community building and part of that comes from here’s all the different missions, here’s where everyone is ranked, here’s where people are doing well and here’s where people are doing poorly, here’s where they need one resource versus another,” Beck explains. “I think we’re starting to see the corporate world running more ‘open books.’ This goes beyond gaming; it’s more of a cultural thing taking place inside of progressive environments. Companies are becoming more open internally and they’re seeing improved motivation, improved results, and workers can now skip middle steps and jump right to the conclusion because someone along the line can now see more data and say, ‘none of this makes sense, why are we doing this, let’s just skip and go to the end.’

“Maybe it’s more millennials in the workforce who pushed to have access to more information so they’d have it all from the get go, but it’s creating more open environments for business,” Beck adds.

Gamification doesn’t get everyone so excited, however.

“On a personal level, I hate that expression,” states Tim Gerritsen, head of studio, Fantasy Flight Interactive. “It oversimplifies a very complex subject and can be really overused to take what would normally be an enjoyable experience and make it a chore. Not everything needs to be ‘gamified,’ nor should it be. I think where it aids learning, or makes the tedious seem bearable it has real utility.

“However, when overused, it can make potentially very serious issues seem trivial, or have a fake corporate-speak mentality that can make workers feel less connected to their work or business rather than more,” Gerritsen continues. “I’ve seen strong uses of this technique to allow students to improve their learning or children manage chores more effectively, but I’ve also seen it applied in soul-crushing fashion in corporate settings and that’s where I take exception.”

Michael Beall, the director of Gear Learning at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, agrees that the term is often misused. “One important distinction is that game design is different from gamification. Gamification can be part of game design, but it’s more specifically the adding of game-like mechanics to non-gaming environments. I happen to be a big fan of gamification, in that it can be leveraged to promote or encourage learning.

“It all comes down to psychology and understanding that meaningful play, like many things in life, is subjective,” Beall adds. “Once we understand models of player types, like Bartle’s taxonomy of game player types, it’s easy to imagine nearly limitless possibilities for gamification.”

(Continued)

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