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I recently spoke to Adam Penenberg, who is the author of the new book, Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking (Portfolio, 2013). Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and the assistant director of the Business & Economic Program and heads the department’s ethics committee. He wrote the department’s journalism handbook for students, which received unanimous faculty approval and the ethics pledge, which all students must sign, and teaches hard news reporting, long-form narrative and entrepreneurial journalism to graduate and undergraduate students.
Penenberg has written for a wide array of publications, including Fast Company, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He is currently the editor of PandoDaily. His previous books include Viral Loop, Tragic Indifference and Spooked. He has appeared on NBC’s “Today Show,” CNN’s “American Morning” and “Money Line,” and ABC World News.
In this interview, Penenberg talks about how he first saw the potential of gamification at work, how games can distract employees, examples of Fortune 500 who use games to engage employees, and some insights on the future of gamification in business.
When did you first spot this gaming trend and how has it developed as you’ve written the book?
As with most things, it was happenstance. I caught game designer and Carnegie Mellon professorJesse Schell’s seminal DICE 2010 talk on ways that games were infiltrating vast portions of our lives, which included his far-out prognostications for the future. It led to a feature story for Fast Company, and that, ultimately, led to a book deal.
Early on, I realized that games were virtually everywhere. Airline requent-flier miles are games that reward loyalty. Mega Millions, Powerball, Take Five and other state lotteries? They’re games. Nissan has an in-car gaming system that encourages drivers to compete for best efficiency levels (Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum). Talk about a mobile game. You could look at Twitter as a game, the pay off being more and more followers and greater numbers of retweets the more you use it. Peer at the game-like iconography of your iPhone and you might recognize it as reminiscent of old video games like “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders.”
As a journalist, my favorite kinds of projects involve phenomena that are right under our noses. It led to Viral Loop, my last book, about ways that companies can grow virally, achieving unprecedented numbers of users and customers in a short amount of time. PLAY at WORK is similar in that gates are leaking into almost every facet of our lives. I wanted to better understand that.
Do you think gamification could become a major workplace distraction? Why or why not?
I think there is a real possibility that companies will look at so-called gamification as a kind of soma for workers. Redesign jobs and mundane tasks so that they are more gamelike, and squeeze ever more productivity out of employees. Unfortunately, this is promoting the least interesting aspect of games — usually points. I’m all for companies making the lives of employees more fulfilling, engaging and satisfying, but that means designing game systems that enhance work, and not simply try to exploit workers.
Can you give some examples of how Fortune 500 companies are using games to train and engage their employees?
The list is practically endless. Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Deloitte, Sun Microsystems, IBM, L’Oreal, Canon, Lexus, FedEx, UPS, Wells Fargo and countless others have embraced games to make workers more satisfied, better-trained and focused on their jobs, as well as to improve products and services. Google and Microsoft have created games to increase worker morale, quality control, and productivity. At Google engineers have been able to spend an in-house currency called “Goobles” on server time—often a scarce resource at Google—or use it to bet on certain outcomes as part of a company-wide predictions market. The search brobdingnagian has also gamified its expense system. If an employee spends less[BLC1] on an airline ticket than he has been allotted, the savings can be donated to a charity of the worker’s choice. Microsoft released a game, “Ribbon Hero,” to teach users how to make better use of its Microsoft Office software and has experimented with games in its workplace.
Canon’s repair techies learn their trade by dragging and dropping parts into place on a virtual copier. Cisco has developed a “sim” called myPlanNet, in which players become CEOs of service providers, and adopted gaming strategies to enhance its virtual global sales meeting and call center, lessening call time by 15 percent and improving sales between 8 percent and 12 percent. IBM created a game that has players run whole cities. L’Oreal created games for recruitment, for gauging the skills of potential employees and helping them discover where in the corporation they would most like to work. Sun Microsystems has games for employee training. Meanwhile, Japanese automaker Lexus safety tests vehicles in what it brags is the world’s most sophisticated driving simulator at its Toyota research campus in Japan. FedEx and airlines deploy game simulations to train pilots, and UPS has its own version for new drivers—one even mimics the experience of walking on ice.
The Entertainment Software Association estimates that 70 percent of major employers use interactive software and games for training. Research firm Gartner projects that by 2014, 70 percent of 2,000 global organizations will depend on gamified applications for employee performance, health care, marketing, and training, and 50 percent of corporate innovation will be gamified, with American corporations spending several billion dollars on it.
You see? Games ARE everywhere.
What has your scientific research shown you about games?
“A good game,” Jesse Schell says, “gives us meaningful accomplishment, clear achievement that we don’t necessarily get from real life. In a game, you’ve beaten level four, the boss monster is dead, you have a badge, and now you have a super laser sword. Real life isn’t like that, right?”
No, it’s not. A game is, at its root, a structured experience with clear goals, rules that force a player to overcome challenges, and instant feedback. Every day life is usually anything but. Because games offer clearly articulated rewards for each point players score and new level they achieve, they trigger the release of dopamine, a hormone in the brain that encourages us to explore and try new things. Since we like the feeling we get when our brains are awash in it, we’ll do whatever it takes to get it, over and over. We also miss it in the event we run low. That’s when our cravings are dashed and we experience disappointment. You find out you didn’t make the swim team, your boss didn’t approve your raise, or your local bakery ran out of your favorite chocolate chip muffin. Video and computer games, as well as slot machines, are particularly good dopamine generators. In fact, video games uncork almost double the levels experienced by humans at rest. They provide “threshold effects,” in which prizes or level changes are dribbled out to keep us hooked. It’s the same system that drives compulsive gamblers and cocaine addicts.
Our brains are tuned for survival, and our ancestors living in the wild learned to identify dangerous predators passed on their genes to future generations while those that couldn’t, didn’t. As a result, our brains evolved so that we earn a dash of biochemical pleasure through a hormone called dopamine and experience a sense of accomplishment each time we predict the next sequence in a series of events—such as the number of minutes between sightings of a prowling lion. Sounds a bit like a game, doesn’t it?
As Gary Marcus, a research psychologist at New York University and director of the NYU Infant Language Center, wrote in Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, “Our pleasure center consists not of some set of mechanisms perfectly tuned to promote the survival of the species, but a grab bag of crude mechanisms that are easily (and pleasurably) outwitted.” He cites “pleasure technologies” (a term coined by Steven Pinker) such as movies, music and video games as forms of entertainment that effectively trigger our reward systems, “culturally selected,” he argues, “to tap into loopholes in our preexisting pleasure-seeking machinery.”
In other words our brains can be hacked, something that directors of romantic comedies and marketers take full advantage of. And that’s what smart game design does.
What are your top three predictions for the workplace of the future?
Prediction 1. One day many employees will perform their jobs wholly in simulations.
Actually, it’s begun. Surgery, for example, as it is performed today is, at its essence, a simulation—at least from the vantage point of the doctor performing it. More often than not involves minimally invasive, video-assisted techniques and a robot. The surgeon operates by watching a computer screen and manipulating levers while another doctor inserts instruments through multiple small incisions. I actually attended an operation at a hospital in Brooklyn and watched a surgeon perform a robotic prostatectomy, which involves removing cancer from a patient’s prostate.
The doctor sat on a stool, his eyes locked into a 3D, high-resolution viewing scope, manipulating levers like the operator of a bulldozer. The robotic system is called da Vinci, and runs about $2.5 million. Across the room lay the sedated patient, covered from head to toe except for the small area being operated on. An assistant stood over the patient, changing attachments, needle holders, scissors, cautery, and staplers. Ten feet away sat the anesthesiologist, lounging in a chair and playing a game on her iPhone. Soft-rock played in the background: “Hotel California,” by The Eagles. Like the driver in a car, the doctor chooses the music.
In a traditional operation, the kind portrayed on old TV shows like “ER,” there was a doctor, an assistant, a resident, a nurse, all circled around the patient. It’s very different today. Now a doctor doesn’t even look at the patient anymore. He’s looking at a screen. But he sees so much more and can do much more detailed work with far greater precision and speed.
Predator drone operators also work almost exclusively in a game like environment. Sounds like Ender’s Game, doesn’t it?
I see a day when a person will log into work from home, his avatar interacting with other employees. Companies like IBM are big into avatars, by the way. Then the person will, in a game like architecture, perform his job, receiving constant feedback as if he is in a game. This, too, is already happening. The next time you go to Target notice the checkout screen. On it you’ll see a game that rates the cashier’s speed. According to one report, Target maintains a running average of an employee’s scores, requiring that more than 88 percent of transactions make the speed cut, with a cashier’s score affecting salary and promotions. Target has turned cashiers into players of a corporate game.
Prediction 2. Games will help us accomplish great things.
Through them, you can organize millions of people to tackle a single problem. It takes smart game design, but once you have it, good things can happen. Serious games like FoldIt, which has players compete to fold proteins and in at least one instance may have led to a major scientific discovery. There have been several other projects that stretch from the vast reaches of the galaxy to Earth’s deepest oceans and which require varying levels of participant engagement.
In Galaxy Zoo, conceived to aid astronomers in classifying “deep sky objects”—planets, solar systems, and the like—designers estimated it would take a year for players to classify one million galaxy images. After its first day, players classified some 70,000 objects an hour, and in the first year 150,000 players amassed fifty times that, contributing 50 million classifications. One player named Hanny van Arkel discovered a mysterious blue blob in a far away galaxy that scientists now think is part of a gas cloud heated by a black hole. With MilkyWay@home and Einstein@home volunteers help investigate interstellar space. In Planet Hunters anyone with a personal computer can help classify Kepler Space Telescope light data while in Moon Zoo, users zoom in on high-resolution photos of lunar craters and take note of rocks that NASA might want to further investigate
There are many more. WhaleFM, through its Whale Song Project, has rounded up legions of citizen oceanographers to listen to orcas and assist researchers in matching similar-sounding calls. Out of MIT comes EyeWire, which looks to an online community to map connections in the retina to help neuroscientists learn more about how it assists visual perception. From DARPA came a contest to piece together documents that had been shredded into 10,000 pieces, which the winning team solved by customizing algorithms to suggest puzzle pairings and then having humans put them back together. In “Ancient Lives,” armchair archaeologists channel their inner Indiana Jones without leaving the comfort of their desk chairs to help decode text fragments from ancient Egypt. Phylo, out of McGill University, assists researchers in locating sections of DNA that are similar across species and which contribute to traits such as eye or hair color, and medical conditions (heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure). Pandemic 2.5 is a mobile public health game for predicting and “solving” future anthrax & H1N1 disasters.
At some point, through a game, an important discovery will be made. Its just around the corner.
Prediction 3. There will be a lot of bad gamification.
It’s become big business, and as such it is ripe for abuse. As Ian Bogost, game designer and professor of Digital Media and Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, put it, gamification has the potential to be “exploitationware,” a “grifter’s game, pursued to capitalize on a cultural moment,” and “to bring about results meant to last only long enough to pad [gamification proponents’] bank accounts” before the next trend comes along. In his view it “gives Vice Presidents and Brand Managers comfort: they’re doing everything right, and they can do even better by adding ‘a games strategy’ to their existing products, slathering on ‘gaminess’ like aioli on ciabatta at the consultant’s indulgent sales lunch.”
I think he’s right. Done wrong or for the wrong reasons, gamification is simply a way to squeeze more out American workers. Done right, though, smart game design can help us achieve great things. And that’s what my book, PLAY AT WORK, is about.
For more information about GAMING and GAMIFICATION: www.eFOURlearning.com
Originally posted by Dan Schawbel, FORBES ON-LINE