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Dignan: Games Can Engage, Educate Employees
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  10/15/2012

 

PALM SPRINGS, CALIF.—Games are powerful and engaging, and savvy HR professionals and employers are tapping into gaming to increase employee motivation and improve employee job performance.

“Real life is not always satisfying. The game world is almost always satisfying … you wouldn’t play Taboo if it didn’t make your friends laugh,” said Aaron Dignan, keynote speaker at the afternoon general session of the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2012 Strategy Conference held here Oct. 4.

Dignan is the author of Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success (Free Press, 2011) and co-founder of New York City-based digital strategy firm Undercurrent.

The audience laughed when he recounted seeing executives sitting in first-class seats on an airplane, wrapped up playing Angry Birds, as a stack of reports sat nearby, untouched.

“Play got a bad rap in Victorian times,” an era when it was believed that work and play should not mix, he said. But the urge to play is primal, he noted: Animals learn through play, testing their limits and building their skills.

“Play is nature’s learning engine,” he said. Games also are useful at overcoming a lack of volition—what he calls being unmotivated, disinterested and disconnected—and a lack of faculty, or not knowing how to perform a task.

“Games do a real good job of overcoming that [lack of] faculty and that volition level,” he said. “They’re highly structured: If you follow these steps … you will save the world.”

Additionally, games:

  • Put players “always at the edge of their capability” and bring out a state of intense concentration, whether in front of a video game or leaping up to shoot a basket.
  • Activate a person’s “seeking circuitry.” Much like the urge to answer a ringing phone, playing a game sparks a person’s belief that something good is at hand.
  • Allow people to take risks, unlike the typically risk-averse workplace where everyone from the legal department to HR has to weigh in on a decision. “If you screw up” at work, Dignan observed, “you’re gone.”
  • Allow people to work together.
  • Help people grow their skills and demonstrate achievement.

He pointed to Marriott International Inc., which in 2011 launched “My Marriott Hotel” on Facebook. The idea was to generate interest in hospitality careers, especially among Millennials from ages 18 to 27, for the thousands of job openings it anticipated filling by the end of 2011.

Similar to Farmville and Cityville, gamers are involved in the various aspects of running a hotel and earn or lose points based on their customers’ satisfaction with their hotel experience.

“Games are really good at giving feedback,” Dignan pointed out, citing the example of a game that retail giant Target uses to encourage its cashiers to move people quickly through checkout. The cashier scores a G (green), Y (yellow) and R (red) for each customer. A running percentage is kept of how well the cashier is performing overall.

Any good game involves achieving some marker of success, according to Dignan.

He noted that companies such as Deloitte use systems that award badges for completing certain tasks and leaderboards to chart achievements and skills growth. A Google search turns up a case study on the Deloitte Leadership Academy that explains how users earn Rank and Reputation that is charted on online leaderboards as executives complete their courses and make monthly learning goals aimed at becoming experts in various topics.

Dignan urged HR professionals to consider the value of games in the workplace and to employ game mechanics that include objectives, rules, actions, skills, an outcome, feedback and a sense of competition.

The game might involve new technology, such as an iPhone, or be as simple as scrawling the latest shift production output on the warehouse floor to challenge the oncoming shift to beat that “score.”

“If the activity can be learned, if the player can be measured, if the system can deliver timely feedback,” Dignan said, “that’s a game.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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