Social Gaming: Coming Soon to a Workplace Near You

Posted on September 12th 2011

One of the senior leaders at an office where I once worked ordered solitaire removed from the staff computers.

When I smoked, one of my smoking triggers was a long phone call. When it became clear, after five minutes or so, that this was wasn’t ending anytime soon, I automatically reached for my pack of smokes. I quit smoking twenty years ago, but I still get that urge. Instead of smoking, I kick in a mindless game of solitaire. I don’t care if I win or lose; I just want to shuffle cards around so I’m doing something with my hands.

I explained this. I suggested that it might not be fair to assess productivity based on catching someone with solitaire on their screen. Employees shouldn’t be playing solitaire, she told me; that’s not what they’re paid for. And that was that.

I wonder what she’d make of a new study that shows “casual games” make most employees feel “more relaxed and less stressed out,” and more than half said that led to feeling “more confident, more energetic, more productive and/or mentally focused.” Nearly three-quarters said they weren’t playing to waste time or be entertained, but to “improve their mental state.”

Okay, so the research was paid for by Popcap Games, the makers of Bejeweled, among others. (I have spent untold hours improving my mental state with Bejeweled.) But the findings are consistent with other research from the likes of Melbourne University and National Singapore University, which employees who could access social media from work were between 9% (Melbourne study) and 33% (Singapore study) more productive than employees whose access was restricted.

The reason for the productivity increase isn’t hard to grasp. Employees who can take breaks to do something that is both entertaining and requires focus are able to reset their concentration and do more work and better work than people who simply trudge through all of their tasks one after another after another. Paramedics working long graveyward shifts in the Monterey Bay area are able to play games on their smartphones as a way to stay awake. It’s policy.

From a generational perspective, much of the current and incoming workforce grew up with games as part of their lives. Recognizing this, some companies are going beyond just letting employees take a brain break with Angry Birds. PC World reported on (among other examples) Executive Command, which teaches teamwork and strategy to managers with Empire Earth II.

Like a lot of today’s most popular games, Empire Earth II isn’t played in isolation. It’s social. So are some of the hottest sellers, like Call of Duty, and the hot online games, like Farmville, Mafia Wars and other titles from Zynga.

Games are coming to the workplace. Not just for fun, but as a highly effective way to boost productivity and meet goals. Leader boards will become as commonplace at work as they are with Foursquare. Be honest; you do notice where you on the Foursquare leaderboard whenever you check in, don’t you?

Games aren’t new to the workplace. I remember NorTel Networks used an intranet game to educate employees about the transition from a hardware company to a digital company. (That worked well, didn’t it?) Earlier, there was a bank that deployed video games distributed on floppy disks to teach employees about computer security. And predating the computer-enabled office, it wasn’t uncommon to see clever communicators distribute a board game as a means of getting a message across (usually printed in the employee magazine).

But all this was before we were communicating to and working with a population for whom games are a routine part of their lives. According to an eMarketer study from July, there are 61.9 million social gamers in the U.S., a number that will grow to 73.6 million by 2013. Here are the numbers of casual, social, online and mobile gamers now and in two years:

If the fact that games can have a positive impact in the workplace hasn’t convinced you of their place inside the enterprise, consider another study, this one from Latitude Research, which explored the changes in the nature of gaming. One key finding was that a traditionally online activity was moving increasingly offline. According to Natalie Stehfest, who led the study:

As technology becomes more seamlessly integrated with our lives, everyone will be a gamer, and the world around us will become the ultimate playing field, technology will allow us to measure—and, ultimately, improve—ourselves in the context of our daily activities and surroundings. Many people making small changes can have a large impact in society, and this study suggests that the new gamers are ready to ‘level up’ and be challenged in this way.

Participants in the study wanted motivational games the fit more seamlessly into their daily lives. Some games accommodate that desire, focusing on improving diet or exercise routines. Games are also used for everything from learning an academic subject to get housework done. And, the study notes, social activites that require a special effort—like crowdsourcing—occur naturally in a social gaming environment.

Games will play a role in everything from employee communication to project teams and human resources activities. There are three terms you’re going to be hearing a lot of: gamification, game layer and game mechanics. Don’t shrug them off or dismiss them. The introduction of gaming into the workplace will be every bit as disrputive as social media has been. Games will become as routine as instant messaging.


Shel Holtz

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