I must admit that when first introduced to the concept of “gamification” I was quite cynical; I figured it was yet another one of those fads that would soon pass. But as I started to learn more about it, I became a bit of a convert and began to see that there really was some value in the idea. Having gone from sceptic to convert, I wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences around gamification, and to hopefully elicit some comments from you. And with Gartner recently predicting that by 2015, 40 percent of Global 1000 organizations will use gamification as the primary mechanism to transform business operations*, now might be a good time to look into this some more.
What is it?
A good place to start before I get into the meatier parts of this blog is to try and explain – maybe even de-mystify – the concept of “gamification”. If you check Wikipedia, you will learn that gamification refers to the use of game design and game mechanics to non-game scenarios; applying gaming principles to business scenarios is one example. For instance, there are some interesting cases where gamification techniques have been applied to the field of genomics. In one example, thousands of players helped to solve protein structure prediction problems by folding structures into stable shapes, and in the process solving a long-standing biological problem (read about it, and other research based examples here).
Of course, working for SAP Education, my interest is primarily around how gamification can enhance learning, and I am genuinely excited about the possibilities it provides. More on this later.
Of course, as gamification is a hot topic these days, there is a lot of bandwagon jumping going on, so there are all sorts of things calling themselves gamification, and you can make your own judgement about some of these. For instance, customer loyalty programmes have been around for a long time, like supermarket “club” cards, and frequent flyer programmes used by the airlines – very important tools to promote customer loyalty – and there are some who will call these good examples of gamification. Similarly, using a leadership board to show sales person performance, and to encourage sales teams to sell more – are these examples of gamification? Personally I’m not convinced…
I have also seen examples of organisations using games for marketing purposes. For instance, 10 years ago the US Army released a game (the imaginatively titled “America’s Army”, recently released in version 3.3) to promote recruitment. There are of course many other examples of organisations using games as a marketing tool, including SAP. So is this gamification?
I don’t expect everyone to agree with the narrow definition as I have laid it out here. I expect that you will form your own view on what is and is not gamification. This refined definition should help in the next sections below, where I discuss the effectiveness and implementation of gaming.
Why does it work?
OK, so there is a big assumption in the heading above – gamification works. This is my position, and there is plenty of evidence to support it. Not everyone will agree at this point, and of course, you’ve got to do it in a way which is relevant and engaging in order to be successful. So let me explain why it works – perhaps I can convince some of the sceptics.
In order to explain, let me use an example of one of my favourite games: Rugby Union. The objective of the game, in its simplest form, is to get the ball over the line. Now if this was a business challenge, you would normally look for the simplest solution – pick up the ball and walk over and put it down on the other side of the line – problem solved. Interesting? Fun? Engaging? No.
Instead we introduce lots of barriers; we deliberately make it harder. We introduce an opposing team, and if you pick up the ball, someone will tackle you and try to take the ball away. Of course, you get your own team so if someone tries to tackle you, you can simply give the ball to someone else. But you have to throw it backwards, taking you away from your goal. And on it goes. We introduce more and more challenges, and make it much more difficult. Why on Earth would we do this?
By introducing these challenges we introduce the need for skill, commitment, creative flare, teamwork – surely these are attributes that we would want in any team, sporting or otherwise. And, by introducing these challenges we make it into an interesting, fun, and engaging experience.
The introduction of gaming concepts into business, and in particular learning, can drive this same sort of commitment, engagement and enthusiasm from employees, improving retention and performance. And in a business environment, the simplest solution is often going to be derailed by one of many challenges, unforeseen or otherwise, so it makes sense to have a team which can adapt, improvise and overcome these challenges. So the big question is: how do we introduce this gamification idea into our working environment?
Turning work into fun
So should we introduce constraints in the workplace in order to enjoy overcoming the challenges, much as we do with ball games in our leisure time? More to the point, is it possible to capture this enthusiasm when teaching people how to use SAP? Better engagement, better retention, better performance – it all fits together, right?
The theory is simple enough. There are two key elements at play here. We want to create something which will appeal to basic human desires (e.g. reward, status, achievement); this is what we mean by “game dynamics”. Then we need to identify the appropriate game mechanics (points, levels, challenges, etc) to appeal to these desires. There is a white paper called “Gamification 101: An Introduction to the use of Game Dynamics to Influence Behaviour” by a company called Bunchball which explains the theory quite well. While I don’t agree with everything they discuss in the whitepaper, it is worth a read if you are interested in implementing gamification.
In practice, there is no one single formula to ensure success. I will share some high level tips here, and if you have any tips of your own, or some experiences you have gleaned, then please do share!
As with any project, if you want to implement gamification, the first and most important thing to define is your objective: what is the purpose? As my interest is specifically around learning, in general terms this is easy for me to define: to create a more engaging learning experience which will enhance the learners’ retention of the learning objectives. For any individual activity, we need to be much more specific than that.
Once an objective is identified, you need to consider which game dynamics are of interest, identify appropriate game mechanics to satisfy the participants, and then motivate them to take certain actions.
To be successful, your game must be compelling. No one will want to play a boring game, and you don’t want to have wasted all your effort. It is also very important that you manage the fine line between your game being a tool to help enhance performance and a distraction from day to day work activities. Your management will not thank you if your game actually causes a drop in productivity! And above all, the game must clearly promote activity and behaviour which will benefit the business. Otherwise, your management might as well just let everyone play Angry Birds.
What SAP Education is doing
SAP Education has a few offerings in the gaming area, but we are always on the lookout for good ideas – so if you have some suggestions, please let us know.
In the first and simplest example, our development team have created a bunch of games that you can deploy electronically to support a particular learning engagement. There are seven different types of games you can choose from, from a simple board game, through to things like Jeopardy and Snakes and Ladders (more info here). From the site you can see a demo of the games. I’ve used a few of these games myself when teaching courses for SAP Education, and they are a fun way to revise key topics.
The second example I wanted to describe is much more sophisticated, and this is the ERP Simulation Game. We get 12+ people in a room, and split them into teams (minimum four in a team), and get them to log onto a special ERP system so that they can actually run a company. In this game, we have sped up time so that one working day in the system takes about one minute in real time. The objective is to make the most profit in competition with the other players. Initially, you have some products to sell; there are some algorithms in the system which will make decisions about who to buy stock from, based on marketing spend and pricing that the teams set.
The scenario builds in phases, with teams running out of stock and needing to initiate production processes in order to produce more, and to initiate purchasing processes in order to acquire more raw products to support production. Combined with various financial reporting functions, participants get a really good understanding of the benefits of an integrated ERP system. It really is a lot of fun!
Maybe you have some gamification experiences of your own you can share. I’d be keen to hear all views. We are still shaping our approach to this in SAP Education, and so your views are of definite value!
*Gartner Webinar, Top Technology Predictions for 2013 and Beyond, Daryl C. Plummer, December 19, 2012.