Work is a Serious Game

Byron Reeves has been thinking of ways to turn work into serious play. Combining the hugely popular media of gaming with the needs of our existing workforce, he says, will increase productivity while stemming the tide of growing worker disengagement.

"If it's good to be engaged at work, why should we have the tools that IBM and Oracle give us that are stunningly boring?" he asks. "All the things that are true of the software I use when I'm at home are not true of the tools we are given at work. The idea that work is work and play is play and never the two shall meet is melting quite a bit."

Reeves has spent his career as a Stanford University communications professor studying how people use and respond to technology. He is also co-founder of Seriosity, Inc., a software company inspired by game psychology. His recent book, Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete, argues that gaming in the workplace is a good idea.

And why not? Games are already a powerful form of media. Gartner, Inc. estimates that worldwide spending on the gaming ecosystem will exceed $74 billion this year; $44.7 billion of that amount will be spent on gaming software. Reeves's idea is to bring the best features of games into the average workday to make it a more energizing experience.

"There are features of games that are highly engaging," he says. "We want to figure out why they work, what ingredients they have, and then isolate them, recombine them in other areas that can be used explicitly for good."

What Reeves finds most intriguing, though, are online games like World of Warcraft that require highly sophisticated levels of collaboration among tens of thousands of players in a single environment. Such games demands organizational skills that are invaluable in the workplace. Reeves also notes that online gaming makes it possible for many different kinds of people to lead: "Leaders in the real world are taller than most people, better looking than most people, and they talk faster. In the game, those things matter much less."

There is "something fundamentally human" about the way people respond to games, according to Reeves. Some popular games— such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto—are thought to promote violence, aggression, eroticism, or gender and racial biases. Others, like Farmville, are more socially-oriented and driven by a player's desire to invite the most friends to the site.

Of course, the game has to be just right to be an effective workplace tool. "In a serious game, you've got to align the entertainment and the excitement with some sort of productivity or metric that an organization cares about," Reeves says.

Imagine a call center with 10 thousand people advising clients on health insurance claims: a vast space of constant chatter from isolated workers filling quotas and resolving an endless tide of issues. To remove the sense of drudgery, Reeves suggests that call center workers participate in ongoing competitions, the results of which they can see at all times. When they reach a goal, their progress is tracked in seconds or minutes, rather than in quarters or years. They can see how they're doing moment by moment.

They also see where they stand in relation to everyone else at the center. "The transparency is huge," Reeves says. All the information employees need to understand how they are affecting overall productivity is readily available.

Reeves has also found that transparency generates a great sense of autonomy among workers. "It is possible for me to see myself in how I fit into the larger picture. I can see myself, I can see my team. I'm being recognized for a small contribution, but it's there and I get points for it. I can see my place in something that's a lot larger than me."

If Reeves is correct, the complex categories of experience inherent in gaming have the potential to address one of the most classic and elusive problems addressed in the literature on organizational behavior in the workplace.

"People want to know," he says, "Did I make a difference? Am I providing any value here? That's what humans worry about."