5 things you should know about gamification

Games can make you and your employees smarter. There is a wrong way to use them, though.


There are two types of intelligence, says Gabe Zichermann, founder and CEO of Gamification Co.

What people generally think of is crystallized intelligence, the knowledge that’s often tested in IQ tests. The other kind, which is what really helps people innovate and solve problems, is fluid intelligence.

People can increase their fluid intelligence by challenging themselves, thinking creatively, seeking novelty, doing things the hard way, and networking. That’s precisely what a lot of games do, Zichermann told an audience at Ragan Communications’ Employee Communications, PR, and Social Media Summit at Microsoft headquarters.

It doesn’t even matter if you’re good at playing the game or not. Simply the act of playing can boost brain power, he said.

Companies can and do take advantage of the opportunity that games present for connecting and communicating with employees. Gartner Group predicts that by 2015, roughly 70 percent of large companies will use gamification to spur innovation. But that doesn’t mean you can make everything you do into a game.

Zichermann offered these insights and examples to explain how to engage in gamification the right way:

1. Games are changing us.

“Games are rewiring people’s brains,” Zichermann said. “They’re changing people’s expectations of the world.”

Members of the millennial generation have grown up with games and the “intrinsic reinforcement” they offer. Achieving goals in a game releases dopamine in the brain—a hormone that makes you feel good-over and over. This is a reason why younger workers may need more positive reinforcement than older ones.

Older workers are on their smartphones more often, too, playing games of their own. Gamification is a “homeopathic cure” to the distractions of our screens, he said.

2. You don’t have to hide things.

A mistake people trying to get into gamification often make, Zichermann said, is they try to make things like an “Angry Birds for muffler repair.” You shouldn’t take any process and just turn it into Angry Birds. It’s about taking ideas from games, loyalty programs, and behavioral economics and using them effectively to communicate. What is it that ultimately makes Angry Birds fun?

For example, a game called Foldit encouraged players to solve puzzles to help scientists figure out the shapes of new proteins so those scientists could create new drugs. The game didn’t try to hide the science; it promoted it. Players figured out how to do it, even though half had no scientific background.

Organizations are often populated by a core group doing intensive research while an ecosystem of people who only know bits and pieces floats around them.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Zichermann said. “We can get average people interested in these kinds of problems.”

3. It doesn’t have to be complicated or technological.

The most a lecture can raise achievement on its own is 17 percent, Zichermann asserted. If you throw game mechanics in, that number jumps to 108 percent. It’s still necessary to teach, but the game can add a ton of benefit.

Tim Vandenberg, a teacher in a district with lots of at-risk kids in California who is also a Monopoly champion, uses a modified version of that game to teach students about math, for instance. His approach has had great results.

“You don’t need a ton of fancy technology to accomplish this objective,” Zichermann said.

4. Status matters.

Some of the world’s top software developers spend their free time on a site called Stack Overflow answering questions. Why? Because answering questions gives them “creds,” which publicly displays their expertise.

Zichermann contended that games provide players four things: status, access, power, and stuff. And their value to players comes in that order. Status is most important; stuff, including money, is least valuable. People are hard-wired to want status, he said. The higher their perceived status, the lower their stress levels.

Apps such as Rypple can offer people instant recognition for their achievements and have supplanted annual reviews at some companies, Zichermann pointed out. Employees get kudos rather than monetary recognition, and they love it.

“We can create many status systems that allow people to move up” without having to take anything away from anyone else, he said.

5. You can’t force it.

“Anything that’s delivered by edict, it’s not going to be that fun,” Zichermann said.

But if you just put something out there and enable people to opt in, as did Next Jump’s CEO, Charlie Kim, you’ll get amazing levels of participation. Nearly all of Next Jump’s employees work out regularly because of a competition Kim set up, but didn’t require.

Part of why that initiative worked is that Kim allowed employees to team up in groups they chose.

Zichermann said some folks will even play a game that’s exactly the same as the job they do every day as long as it offers “an aspirational version of that job” and isn’t forced.

“If you really love what you do, you don’t actually want it to stop at the end of the workday,” he said.

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