Gamification helps companies to promote innovation, says Kervin Werbach

What is gamification and why do some people call it the new hot business concept?

Gamification is about using game elements and game design techniques to solve business problems. What can we learn from video games and other kind of games to apply in other situations? Gamification has been taking off in all sorts of companies because there’s been a recognition that games are incredibly powerful ways to motivate people and we can extract out some of the elements that make videogames so successful and apply them to the workplace or to marketing or to social impact challenges.

When did you first hear about gamification?

It turns out that we can find antecedents to gamification going back a long way. The term really took off around 2010, so it’s only a couple of years old. But when people started to look at the ideas it ties back to a lot of techniques used for a long time to motivate people based on incentives and fun and some other kind of experiences.

You’ve said that there is a difference between business and games and gamification. What is it?

Gamification means taking games and using them to change business, taking a business process and making it feel more game-like, more engaging and fun and rewarding in the same way that a game is. That is different from taking a game and just putting it into a business. There are companies that use games for example in a marketing context to get people to play a game or on their website they have some sort of advertisement based game that ties into a campaign. That’s all potentially worthwhile but it’s not necessarily changing the business process itself. So gamification means pulling games apart and looking at the structures that make them work: the engagement, the dynamics, the rewards and point systems, the leveling and challenges and so forth and thinking how to integrate them into existing processes.

Do you think this applies to any company, no matter what they produce or do? Can a soda company and a hedge fund use the same innovation techniques?

Any company should think about using gamification, but they should go through a structured process of assessing where it could be more helpful and in what ways. Gamification is basically a motivational technique so companies need to look at what situations, whether internally, in terms of their employees, or externally, for their customers or potential customers, can make people more engaged in what they are doing, that would drive desired business results.

What is the most interesting effect that we can get from using gamification?

There are a lot of companies that are applying it in a lot of different ways. One anecdote that I found striking was from a company that gamified systems for health and wellness. They partner with large enterprises and with insurance companies to help their employees exercise more, eat better so forth. They had a series of quizzes that they came up with for people to find out about what they were doing and find out what they knew about nutrition. Originally they just presented people with information and people just sort of ignored it. With this quizzes, people got so into them that they used up all the quizzes they designed in a week! [he laughs]. Because making it a game-like experience challenge for people as opposed to just something informational unlocked this deep psychological need that we have for fun.

But let’s face it: some companies are dull, and nobody seems to like working there. What would be the most efficient way of engaging employees?

Sometimes it’s making it more fun in the colloquial way but sometimes that means creating a sense of purposes and challenges, creating competition among workers, creating situations where people have some challenge to overcome, a sense that it’s connected to their well-being. You can’t take a dull job and make it better just by adding a little game magic. People are not going to play the game if there’s no reason to. Games are not just about pure play, they are about puzzles, about learning and problem solving, so it’s more like thinking about your workplace that way. And you can have a workplace that from the outside may look fairly dull, where it’s not necessarily people who are paid a lot of money or doing very sofisticated, intellectual work, but they take pride in what they are doing and they feel that there is a challenge in doing it well, and people who do it well get a reward or some recognition.

You’ve worked  a lot with public institutions as well as the U.S government in gamification techniques. How do you apply it to public policies?

There’s actually a lot of work going on. What the U.S. government has found is that in areas like research, where they want to motivate people from the private sector to come up with solutions to difficult problems, creating a contest actually turns out to be a better way than giving out a grant. For example the research arm of the U.S. Military was trying to develop a technology around self-driving cars, which is important for military uses and civilian uses as well. Instead of saying: let’s put out a bid and get companies to apply or give someone a million dollar grant, they realized that if they had a contest and say: the winner gets a million dollars or a hundred thousand dollars, they would get the participants to spend far more money than that chasing the prize and they would get far better results. That’s an example of a game-like system. There’s also work about getting games to motivate kids to be healthier, eat better or personal finance, to get low-income people to know better about their finances… Many people in the U.S. government are looking at these questions and building coalitions with private companies. In the health sector, for example, there are lots of companies interested in people to be healthier because it creates more productivity and less insurance costs.


What about these times of a huge economic crisis like the one Europe is going through?

Is it worth to spend money on gamification? Absolutely. One of the things that games do is they promote system’s thinking. Games are problem solving activities. And to win a good, complicated game you have to appreciate the system as a whole. I think that in areas like how to get people to understand how the financial system works games are tools that can be used as simulations to get people to appreciate interconectedness because it’s not just your piece of it, it has results. And so I think there’s lots of potential – not that games are by any means solve the financial problems in the world but they get people to think about things in a kind of systemic way, which is what we need.

You say that gamification can be used in any type of situation. Which game would be useful to get people deal with the economic turmoil?

[He laughs] It’s too broad a question to ask. You need to look at every set of circumstances. Is the challenge to get people to think systematically about problems, to get the big picture or to motivate them for work? That’s a different set of techniques. And gamification is not building a game for every problem, but to look at any process and think how to add different kinds of game elements to make it more engaging or more rewarding. When people are unemployed it’s not that gamification is going to give them a job but may be there is an opportunity of engaging them in some training that will allow them to get one in new areas.

Do you think gamification can have the same success among European companies than in the U.S.?

One of the powerful things that games do is they encourage people to experiment. Not to overgeneralize, but one of the challenges that European companies have often had is that compared to the U.S. there are not as often cultures that are as friendly towards risk-taking and experimentation. Using games to get people to have a sense of trying something and if it doesn’t work, try something else. A game can reduce the fear of failure and in some U.S. companies it has helped to promote a culture of innovation.

To wrap up, give us three tips for a CEO using a “pro-gamification spirit”…

I would advice him to look at the games CEO play. We all play games. I know a lot of CEOs that play golf, they play cards, they might not play the most current emerging videogames but they play lots of games and engage in lots of activities where the reward is the experience. They are not doing it to make money, but because they find it fun. So I’d make him think about that. Then I’ll advice him to spend some time with his employees and see what they play and ask them why do they find it fun, why do they spend that much time on it, what does it feel in the game that makes it addictive to you. And then think about how you might pull some of that experience into your company.

About the Author

Ana Fuentes
Columnist for El País and a contributor to SER (Sociedad Española de Radiodifusión), was the first editor-in-chief of The Corner. Currently based in Madrid, she has been a correspondent in New York, Beijing and Paris for several international media outlets such as Prisa Radio, Radio Netherlands or CNN en español. Ana holds a degree in Journalism from the Complutense University in Madrid and the Sorbonne University in Paris, and a Master's in Journalism from Spanish newspaper El País.

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