The turn of phrase “work hard, play hard” distinguishes work and play as two distinct areas of life. They are separated by a rigid comma that prevents any unwanted spillover. In four words, the statement illustrates the role of play in the everyday life of a 21st century adult.
Both are studiously kept apart and yet, both matter.
A closer look at play and games in the context of work reveals that the distinction between these two spheres of life has been blurred for rather a long time.
Why are games so seductive?
Games pose an artificial challenge, defined by rules and an explicit goal. This succinct description of how an activity is to be accomplished, combined with clear feedback about progress, success and failure, poses a welcome contrast to our typical experience of work (although this is, of course, rapidly changing).
For many of us, the professional environment is characterised by ambiguity and uncertainty with irregular feedback that highlights failures, rather than successes. It goes without saying that such an experience can frustrate and demotivate even the most enthusiastic of employees.
In contrast, playing games is associated with myriad positive psychological, social and emotional effects. Not only can they be superb at attracting, keeping and guiding attention, they can also provide a powerful means with which to evoke positive feelings such as joy, pride and connection between players. At their best, games can engage individuals at a deeply emotional level, motivating them to keep persevering in the face of adversity and failure.
Playing games at the office
It’s no wonder then, that employees at both junior and management-levels have found creative ways to use games in the workplace, from Ancient Egyptians seeking to motivate workers to build pyramids, to white-colour CEOs wishing to boost the performance of their employees.
One of the underlying reasons why games and gameful approaches can be so effective in professional contexts, is that they can transform otherwise boring activities into motivating, rewarding experiences that can deliver desired results.
Gaming is, however, a broad church, ranging from serious games (full-blown games with a goal other than mere entertainment), and gamification (which involves the use of some game-mechanics in a non-game context), to the lesser-known framification (which happens if an activity is made to look like a game without using any game mechanics at all).
Gamification… a dirty word?
While gamification has been found to result in various positive effects, it is not without its detractors. According to one critic, the fact that gamification tends to focus on game mechanics rather than content, reveals a lack of understanding as to what makes games great.
According to Chorney (2013), a great game will involve the player in a compelling narrative, an experience which gamification frequently fails to provide. Game designer Dr. Ian Bogost agrees that gamification is built on an overly simplistic understanding of what games are, instead exploiting this “mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people” (Bogost, 2011).
In a nutshell, good games are compelling because they provide a worthwhile experience to the user. Where gamification is concerned, an experience that fails to connect the activity at hand to the user’s goals may not only be less meaningful, it can even lead to harmful outcomes (Nicholson, 2012).
These criticisms of gamification draw attention to a few important aspects to the design and use of games in traditionally non-game contexts.
How to use it
When you think about ways to implement serious games and gamification in your business, ask yourself the following questions:
- Why are we using a game/gameful approach in this context?
- What outcome would we like to achieve?
- Is the content (not only the mechanics of the activity) engaging?
- What makes this activity relevant and meaningful to the user?
One way to address these considerations is to involve a representative sample of stakeholders early on in the application’s development. The end user in particular can provide important insights as to what does, and doesn’t work when designing such an app.
In summary, games and gameful approaches have huge potential to engage, motivate and delight people in traditionally non-game contexts. However, to do so successfully, they must be carefully considered, designed, and executed.
Whether you want to design a successful game, or deploy an effective gamification approach in a non-game context, you first need to have a clear understanding of both your goals, and those of your users.
Of course, the research necessary to address these concerns (and inform a well-designed application) will require substantial time, effort and resources. But when executed well, the rewards both for the user and the game-maker can so far outweigh the investment, that it’s an endeavour well worth exploring.
Who ever thought that good play could be such hard work?
If you want to learn more about the psychological effects of games and some of the innovative ways in which to use them in everyday life, check out Jane McGonigal’s books Reality is broken and Superbetter (check out the Superbetter game game here).
To learn more about the academic discourse on gamification, check out Detering’s article Gamification: Using game design elements in non-gaming contexts.
If you’re interested in games at work, read Mandatory fun: Consent, gamification and the impact of games at work by Mollick and Rothbard.