Byron Reeves, Using Games to Change Behavior at Work

Byron Reeves did not start out studying video games, but because they combine the most stimuli, whether measured by psychosocial instruments or technical ones–complexity of graphical stimuli in the display, etc.–games became an ideal object of study for him.  Arousal from self-representations of Avatars was comparably boring, and since 2008 when the Harvard Business review dedicated an issue to what distracts workers at work, Reeves has wondered if and how the work place could be made as arousing as World of Warcraft.

Complex collaborative games already represent 100s of job tasks by analogy (not just fighting and policing and sports, but more relevant leadership and organizational skills.)  One of Cisco’s annual conferences was held in a virtual environment, where employees competed in order to build morale and better teams.  Managers worried that using virtual worlds and games to test new work environments would be too expensive if these high-production values were necessary, but by 2009 players were flocking to farmville through facebook and other social media…If this completely unstimulating game was able to also draw large crowds, maybe companies could make a game with just a few $100K?

Microsoft crowd-sourced translation services to employees who gained reputation by playing a game where their translations were harvested from play.  Target rewarded reputation scores to checkout cashiers who were faster than others.  These efforts to gamify industry were matched by “How to gamify” books on Amazon.  Advertisers were gamifying consumer interfaces for movie premiers but also production tasks at Home Depot, like laying tile.  But do people want to play at work?  Dilbert poked fun at managers offering badges instead of pay raises to employees doing a performance review…

Reeves’ research question is how can we, a little more simply (and cost-effectively), incentivize work?  His own role in gamification was to test how games ( like Railroad Tycoon) encouraged players to imagine how to run a company, or empire, more effectively?  Why not run your own damn Best Buy Store!  In “Best Buy Tycoon”, you gotta build new departments in your department store, in order to get more and learn more about your inventory, plan sales and measure revenues and costs, solve all the customer service problems, etc.  Badges earned in the game can be worn by employees in the real store.  Maybe the lesson of the day is that we would like to sell service contracts on the phone, so a manager could actually teach employees how to do this well in a game, and tabulate progress on the game (in parallel to his progress in the real world.)

A man in the audience asked whether games could really train people to run a business, because the real world is much more complicated than a game.  But universities that grant MBAs are already less complicated than real businesses, so the metric of success would just be any improvement on the current education model and job training regime.  We don’t have to prove games increase worker productivity or sales yet either, but only show that that  the bonus entertainment value engages workers more effectively.  Even this might fail for a while and still be a good idea.  By analogy, Reeves pointed out that if we brainstormed the idea of movies today, and specced out what would need to be done to make a movie, and as a proof of concept actually made ONE movie in order to prove it worked, would we take a failed movie as a sign that the concept of movies was bad?  Its still too early to know how gamification will play in the workplace.

Other questions from the audience: is this a management problem or an engagement problem? Does gamification use the arousal benefit measured in other media of self-representation?  The panel on the right of the Best Buy simulation had the title “Seriosity Office of the Game”  This is how a developer at Zynga could change the goals of the game or even just tune the reward coefficients (for example points achieved for making more accounts in a call center) in order to incentivize the behavior management wishes to improve.  Note to the GAIMS group: if games for learning also use this word “Seriousity” for the measurable benefit of play to achieve a pedagogical goal, this would be a different meaning than the one in the employee training/management context Byron related.

“Seriosity” is a Stanford sponsored Green-Education Game company.  They made the Google Free Energy Game but you can’t actually play unless your home is connected to a PG&E smart meter.  Byron Reeves was able to test the effect of playing the game for 20 minutes on the player’s own green habits.  They also measured the energy use for a 30 day period in 50 households to measure the benefit for conservation.  There was a measurable reduction in use of energy, but only while playing the game. Whole Foods also gamified knowledge about inventories, so that employees play when they clock in and clock out on a touch screen.

The next phase will roll this out to mobile, but the question is how do the undesked learn what Whole Foods wants its employees to learn?  The goal is to assess the relationship between the game and productivity in the work place, but this requires strictly defining the needle you want to move.