Thursday 13 December 2012

Gaming the System

A few weeks ago the Schumpeter column of The Economist published a stimulating article on the contributions made by modern video games to the art of management. After some initial comments, I promised a more detailed follow-up on the topic, as I believe there to be considerable value to be found in some elements of gaming not mentioned by the article.

Super Mario Bros., a popular game by Nintendo
Gathering the majority of his evidence from the highly social genres of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) and casual gaming (of the Facebook-enabled Farmville variety), Schumpeter found that dedicated players could be encouraged to spend hours performing fairly boring and repetitive tasks when offered even minor in-game rewards as a pay-off. More avid users, especially those of MMORPGs such as the famous World of Warcraft, would often dedicate many hours of their spare time to managing real communities, or "guilds", of players, allowing them to band together to obtain more rare achievements. Most remarkably, rather than being compensated for their troubles, such people are often willing to pay for the privilege, with some games charging a subscription fee and others operating in-game "shops" from which individuals might buy items. Pricing for such items can range from the cheap to the downright outrageous - one recent game is reported by New Scientist to have a single imaginary "Diamond Chisel" on sale for £50,000 of real money. Needless to say, game developers appear to have uncovered a goldmine of productivity just waiting to be tapped by enterprising companies.

Management experts have made thorough attempts to exploit this through a current trend known as "gamification", which seeks to extract the key ingredients from successful games and apply them to the workplace. Much of what this amounts to however is simply an effort to exploit the human psyche's response to rewards of different kinds, such as the accumulation of "points" and the sense of superiority over peers acquired through success in company-wide league tables. Schumpeter cites a number of key cases of this, such as an error-spotting challenge posted by Microsoft and a set of badges offered to call-centre employees able to complete specific "achievements". While these examples may have been individually successful, point systems and league tables are nothing new, even though they may make use of more up-to-date terminology, such as the "Achievements" system used by gaming services such as Valve's Steam.

Still building upon a similar model of delivering incentives to stimulate continued participation, some industries go further and employ much more sophisticated statistical methods to maximise both productivity and profit. Online gambling is an excellent example of this, as payouts can be carefully timed and planned to ensure the audience remains engaged and eager to keep playing in spite of overall losses. In a lecture delivered at the TED conference in 2010 Tom Chatfield, a "game theorist", explored the practical applications of this technique, which has long been popular among developers of MMORPGs. A key difference between video games and the real world is that the code that makes up a virtual environment can be easily manipulated, allowing programmers to alter the odds of a payout taking place in order to maintain player enthusiasm and keep them in the game. For example, as players tended to get very bored towards the end of lengthy and monotonous "fetch quests", in which they must find a certain number of a particular commodity item to proceed, developers were able to subtly increase the likelihood of such items appearing, allowing them to finish tasks more quickly than expected and to move onto the next one without losing interest.

Unfortunately, such techniques are clearly limited in their application to the real world. Nevertheless, there remain a number of further lessons to be learnt from features fundamental to good game design. Richard Bartle, a designer of early multiplayer games, in 1996 attempted a categorisation of the different gaming "personalities" of players, identifying four elements he believed to be key to engagement. Labelled "Achievement, Exploration, Socialising and Imposition", they refer respectively to the opportunity to "win" and achieve high in-game status, the chance to explore the game world and its limits, the ability to socialise with other players, and finally the ability for players to make a nuisance of themselves, often, as Bartle puts it, by "applying [some weapon] enthusiastically to the persona of another player".

Change of pace is key to the appeal of Valve's Half-life series

For a company to develop an outstanding "gamification" strategy therefore, it must carefully manipulate these different elements. Achievement represents the already fairly commonplace approach of associating desirable behaviour with suitable status and rewards. Able to encourage "ownership" of projects, it plays the vital role of getting employees to associate team success with personal achievement. Exploration is a little more complex in practise, representing the lure of the unknown. Curiositya game recently published by Peter Molyneux, a legend of sorts in the game developer community, demonstrates its successful application when paired with extremely dull tasks. Dubbed an "experiment" into the psychology of users, Curiosity requires players to spend hours tapping away at millions of tiny squares on the face of a giant cube in order to reveal an image beneath. Deliberately mindless and repetitive, its success demonstrates the value people ascribe to the sensation of progress and to the ability to uncover something new, however ultimately insignificant; achievable targets and the hope of eventually moving on to something different can be powerful motivators both at leisure and at work.

Socialising simply represents a healthy level of interaction with other people in the same environment. While not easily applicable to all workplaces, it perhaps explains the popularity of careers such as the military. While demanding a high level of personal risk for comparatively little financial compensation,  these careers are nonetheless popular choices on account of the high level of social activity and camaraderie they offer. Imposition is the most difficult of the Bartle's categories to apply, being by nature counterproductive, though it does appear to have a part to play in the level of impact employees like to feel they have on the teams in which they work.

In an article on the topic released last month, PA Consulting added Challenge to these four, noting that an element of risk and a chance of failure heightens engagement and encourages speedy learning - awards that are too easy to achieve quickly lose their value. The importance of careful fine-tuning is also noted: unfortunately, if it is to become more than a mere management trend, gamification cannot be deployed as a one-size-fits-all panacea. Each aspect must be understood individually and applied to each case by a competent manager who is familiar with his staff. As Bartle notes, different values appeal to different kinds of player, and poorly applied strategies, such as an inappropriate suite of social features in a game otherwise aimed at Imposers, for example, will at best confuse players and at worst detract from the experience and undermine its effectiveness.

An "experience", after all, is what video games seek to create, and is what remains at the core of their appeal. As a result, Variation should be added to this list. This is another gaming fundamental, crowning popular classics from Metroid to Minecraft and from Half-Life 2 to The Sims. Variation represents a change in both pace and the character of work being done. For example, shortly after a heated gun battle in Half-Life 2, a first-person shooter, players will usually encounter either a period of relative quiet, in which they may renew their supplies, or a fast-paced vehicle battle offering a change of perspective and difficulty. Constant crescendos of activity rarely encourage high performance, and success is often best achieved when it contributes to either advancement elsewhere or an opportunity to recuperate, however brief. Likewise Minecraft allows players to either explore a virtual world, gathering materials, or to use their materials to build their own structures and items: achievement in either category is made much more enjoyable by the benefits it lends to the other, and a highly addictive level of interest is maintained.

Players gather materials and build their own structures in Minecraft
Variation is also what fuels escapism, a sub-category that is also responsible for much of gaming's appeal. Role-playing games, such as the recent classic Skyrim, thrive on players' desires to experience and enact contrasts with their own lives, taking on roles as diverse as Norse warriors or futuristic generals. While difficult to apply in itself, this approach does have some worth in fields such as management consulting, in which the ability to understand situations from a radically different point of view can be very useful. Researchers from McKinsey, a consultancy, this month spoke of the value of what is described as "war-gaming", a technique used to evaluate future developments in an industry. When "war-gaming", teams take on the roles of key competitors and develop a detailed strategy from their new position, identifying previously unknown threats or opportunities in the process.

Finally, there must be a sense of Fairness to drives players' progression through games. Game worlds, by their nature, operate according to an established set of rules. For a game to work, players must be confident that the time they they take to complete tasks will have an adequate pay-off in the form of advancement. Bugs in the game's programming therefore, along with other mistakes and oversights, can harm or destroy a player's immersion in the game, undermining their motivation to continue. If a player is unexpectedly killed, for example, or through a game crashing loses a rare item that took a long time to obtain, the environment ceases to be fair and the user will often stop playing.

Fair treatment in the workplace is not an uncommon desire and hardly deserves the aura of management alchemy that the title of "gamification" bestows upon it. Nor are any of these other elements especially new or revolutionary in themselves; they simply offer a new categorisation of well-known features that make workplaces more pleasant places to be. A recurring theme in gaming is that players are encouraged by achievement and the knowledge that their hard work will lead to direct and discernible benefits. Business leaders will therefore find advantage if they are able to divide projects into easily comprehended portions and reward employees with status and a change of pace upon completion of each one: continuous monotonous work towards distant deadlines leads only to a crisis of motivation. Essentially, good game design is similar to good management in that it requires a sound understanding of its target audience and their limits. Managers should be familiar enough with their staff that they are able to explore these limits while providing a well-rounded work environment that fulfils their individual needs. Gamification simply recognises that people have a desire to work towards making their lives more interesting. Companies stand to gain from building upon their awareness of this.

This post is a response to "More Than Just a Game" from the Schumpeter column of November 10th 2012 edition of The Economist. Credit also goes to Louis Burrows, a game developer, for providing me with some of my data.


  1. Interesting. Might we syndicate this Article to Everything Express? RC

  2. Please do - I'd be delighted!