When work becomes a game
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website
Monday, 22 October 2007
A generation is growing up playing immersive online games
Video games are big business and soon they could be big in business too.
A whole generation is growing up for whom video games are a key part
of how they relax, whether it be fragging friends in a first person
shooter or backing up the main tank in a Warcraft raid.
And it is not just youngsters. There are plenty of older folks who
shake off the dust of the working day in many different virtual
Statistics from the the US Entertainment Software Association (ESA)
back this up. It claims that the average player is 33 and has more
than a decade of gaming under their belt.
All of a sudden, say academics and researchers, companies have
realised that all the time employees spend gaming in virtual worlds is
Ian Hughes, IBM’s metaverse evangelist, said many organisations were
considering ways of harnessing the skills and familiarity their
employees have with virtual environments.
This familiarity has driven many organisations to consider virtual
worlds as places where employees can meet, mix and get on with the
“A lot of people are more accepting of that way of working just
because of games,” he said.
“It’s about harnessing that ability to play to get work done.”
The formidable organisational skills needed to run a game team or
guild, organise raids involving perhaps 40 people and co-ordinate
their different abilities to defeat a game’s strongest foes are all
relevant to work, said Mr Hughes.
But it is not just the skills that gamers hone in futuristic or
fantasy worlds that businesses want to co-opt. Some are taking their
inspiration directly from the way that online games are structured.
Screenshot from World of Warcraft, Blizzard
Skills learned on raids in games could apply to work too
Dr Byron Reeves, a professor of education at Stanford University, said
some firms were taking elements from games to overcome the
difficulties of working life in the 21st Century.
“The problems associated with distributed teams, collaboration and
information overload right now are so severe, and the opportunities so
good, that they are willing to look at anything,” he said.
Dr Reeves has founded a company called Seriosity that applies game
elements to workplaces.
It was working with five or six unnamed Fortune 500 companies to
harness the efficiencies of those game mechanics, said Dr Reeve.
One of the programs developed by Seriosity adds a virtual currency
element to e-mail in a bid to help people cope with information
Anyone sending a message adds some of their limited supply of virtual
coins, called Serios, to show how important they consider that e-mail
It was a more finely grained grading system than the low, medium or
high importance flags found in most e-mail programs, said Dr Reeves.
It had other benefits too, he said. It revealed not just the flow of
messages but also started to show who people pay attention to and who
did a good job of getting responses.
Some companies were starting to adopt even more of the elements
familiar from games.
“There are people right now trying to map it one-to-one,” said Dr Reeves.
Level playing field
Convinced that games can help them thrive some companies have turned
work groups into guilds, rewarded staff with experience points when
they complete tasks, giving out titles and badges when a guild
finished a project and portraying objectives as quests.
Virtual worlds could become key to future business life
Some were also considering using a virtual currency as a reward system
allowing workers to cash in their savings for benefits or extras for
their office space. The top performing guilds also get to do the best
None, so far, he said, were tying wages to how people performed in the
quests and against other guilds.
“Mapping levels and points on to wages is the most extreme
application,” he said.
Companies were adopting game mechanics for several reasons, said Dr Reeves.
Partly because workers were so familiar with this structure, he said,
and because people become powerfully motivated when they know how they
compare to their contemporaries.
The main reason was for the transparency it gave to the way workplaces
were organised and for revealing who got things done.
“It exposes those that do and do not play well,” said Dr Reeves.
“There is a leader board and you know the rules.”
It had the potential to turn workplaces into meritocracies where the
most accomplished are easy to spot because they have racked up all
rewards, achievements and levels required for a particular post.
While it may not sweep away systems of privilege or end nepotism it
had the potential to make workplaces fairer and take some of the grind
out of the day job, he said.
“The whole idea here is to get the objectives of the individual
players aligned with the objectives of the organisation,” said Dr
Reeves. “Do that and you have something good.”
Angela Barron, an advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development, said games had long been used in training to expose
personal preferences and prejudices.
Many organisations also used courses that revolve around games to help
make teams work together better or expose power structures among
She said this was the first time she had heard of elements of online
games being used in a similar way.
“I would not have thought enough people play games for it to be a
great motivator,” she said.
But, she said, anything that helped staff develop a better working
relationship and promote team work was likely to be a good thing.