6 reasons to get on board with gamification

Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit, tells why games will remake employee learning and boost performance.

Editor’s note: This story and video clip are taken from Ragan’s new distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains more than 200 hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses. For membership information, please click here.

A TV show called “The Aviators” once posed the question: Can a 12-year-old with no formal training land a 737 at a major airport?

Producers grabbed a youngster named Rodney and plopped him down in a flight simulator of the sort that professional pilots use, says Gabe Zichermann, author and chair of the Gamification Summit.

Zichermann isn’t a guy you’d call in midair if the pilot gets sick from eating bad fish, he says. But young Rodney? “Two-and-a-half minutes later, Rodney puts a 737 down on runway 24 Left at LAX in broad daylight,” Zichermann says in a Ragan Training video.

These whippersnappers, with their videogame knowhow, are displaying “fluid intelligence”—the ability to solve problems in novel situations. And this is what your organization needs to need in order to innovate and thrive.

Gamification is transforming business strategies across organizations large and small. It sounds like child’s play, but getting it right takes work.

Here’s why gaming is worth the time and expense:

1. Games boost intelligence.

Those dopes you hired: Hit them on the head with a mallet, and you won’t see any change in their basic workplace smarts, right? As for teaching them, why bother?

Here’s why: Zichermann cites a Harvard researcher who says you can increase fluid intelligence by doing five things: Seek novelty, challenge yourself, think creatively, do things the hard way, and network. It just so happens that games use these techniques.

Mastering a new challenge—like juggling—can actually create more gray matter and the beneficial chemical dopamine.

2. Games make annual evaluations better for both bosses and employees.

You know how it goes at annual evaluation time, Zichermann says. At most companies, the boss comes down like a troll from a mountain cave and hands you a document full of criticism you’ve never heard before. You get the raise (or not) that you already had figured you’d get. Then it’s back to the cave for another year.

But a game called Rypple (acquired by Salesforce) enables employees to offer immediate pats on the back to co-workers who help them out. He also cites the peer recognition game Due Props.

Games are more fun than glad-handing the troll, Zichermann says. Plus, companies get a mountain of behavioral data about their employees that they never had before.

3. Games engage millennials.

So, what’s with those spoiled millennials? They’re constantly in need of a pat on the back. Why, back when we were starting out…

Except that this perception isn’t quite right. It’s not that softy schools and parents have turned out a generation of fragile young things. It’s that games have rewired people’s expectations of themselves and of their workplace, Zichermann says. Those who grew up on video games expect instant feedback.

Gamification is a way to engage this new generation, changing behavior to meet your goals.

4. Games succeed when they give players a higher purpose.

The University of Washington developed an online game called Foldit, in which players modeled proteins in a process called “folding.” Within 10 days, the crowd of players solved a problem that had stumped researchers for years: deciphering the crystal structure of an AIDS-causing monkey virus. Of the 49,000 people who played, only 50 percent had any science or health background, says Zichermann.

Foldit didn’t hide the science, he says. It didn’t ask gamers to plant a garden, or do some other metaphorical activity while contributing to the underlying data.

According to Zichermann, researchers said: “This is hard, but you’re going to do it. We’re going to make this experience fun.”

5. You won’t believe how much work they’ll put into a game.

Being able to write software code is an increasingly necessary skill. But how to get all those no-accounts off their duffs to learn it? The traditional ways of learning it are dull, Zichermann yawns.

But a game website called Codecademy has taught 1 million people how to write code, Zichermann says. That’s more than all the science, technology, engineering, and math graduates in the U.S. combined.

The game is a system wherein both the teachers and students are playing.

“The better the students do, the higher the teachers’ ranking,” Zichermann says. “The higher the teachers’ ranking, the better the students have to do” in order to progress.

6. Games boost performance.

Just ask the competitive Monopoly player in who happens to be a middle school teacher at an at-risk school, says Zichermann. Four years ago, the school had only four students on the California state math honor roll. Today the number is 40 students, with 10 perfect math scores, Zichermann says.

How did they turn it around? If you’re a top student, you can spend the last month of the school year playing Monopoly. The teacher modified the game and uses it to teach collaboration, probability, negotiation, basic finance, and core real estate concepts.

Oh, and a Monopoly board costs just $13, Zichermann says.

Learn how gamification improves employee engagement, revenue, readership, and social media in our upcoming 75-minute webinar and Q&A with Zichmermann.



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