The “Gamer Generation” is here. According to the Washington Post, in 2006 at least 40% of Americans play video games on a computer or a console. The largest demographic is 18-34 year-olds, many of whom are working as our friends and peers as software developers and testers. There is a great book, Got Game, which describes the impact of games on the workforce of today and in the future.
Many businesses are wondering these days how to use simple concepts popular in video games and apply them to work.
It’s happening already. From a construction site with a sign posted with “days since last accident” to the car dealer with salespersons leader board scrawled out in chalk. Simple competition helps work get done in all kinds of industries. The success of sales contests is a great example of how well competition works.
“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and—SNAP—the job’s a game!” —Mary Poppins
A company called Seriosity has made interesting use of video game concepts at work with their application of virtual currency to email. To help with information overload from an overflowing inbox, email senders can “spend” virtual currency (Serios) to help prioritize their messages. Spending to denote the importance of a message is not a whole lot different than buying new golf clubs with virtual money earned in a Tiger Woods game, buying new tires in a car racing game – or using gamer points to upgrade your armor in an RPG (Role-playing Game). Wired Magazine had a great article on the use of WOW as a leadership training game. Playing games at work is more than just a quick game of online Hearts with one finger on the “boss key”. Games at work can have real impact.
With other industries using productivity games, what about software development? How can productivity games help testers improve the quality of the products they test? One of the more famous test techniques is the bug bash. Teams pick a certain date, and everyone bangs on a certain area of the product to find bugs. At the end, prizes are awarded while everyone enjoys pizza and drinks. That sounds a lot like game, doesn't it? It’s also a perfect example of a simple productivity game.
As the world of software gets more complex and the test matrix grows, there is no shortage of opportunities for testers to do more testing. Quality is always “improved”, it’s never completed, fixed or finished. Therefore, testers must choose from a variety of techniques and activities to pursue tasks with the highest return and value. In 1990, Harry Markowitz won the Nobel Prize for his work on Portfolio Selection (that he began in the 1950’s). The theory, familiar in financial markets and mutual funds, is that a portfolio of diverse assets with varying risk and returns actually reduces risk in time uncertain conditions. Testers can benefit from the work on portfolio selection by varying the techniques they use to find defects. However, some techniques are more expensive, more difficult, or less attractive than others. Some teams, in some situations, can rely on the altruism and volunteer efforts – organizational citizenship behaviors – of their members to take on the more difficult tasks. However, that doesn't always work, and other incentives may be required. That’s where productivity games can help.
When a project needs a bit of a push towards a certain behavior, building a game around it can help. For example, if a test team wants to improve the usage of unit tests by developers, encourage the team to “eat their own dogfood” or run automated tests on personal machines overnight, then creating a game will help people’s motivation can motivate people to participate in those activities.
Productivity games differ from traditional games in a few distinct ways. The goal of a productivity game is to attract players. These games don’t need winners as much as they need players. In many cases, productivity games don’t even need prizes. Productivity games can be simple. There’s no need to invest in expensive graphics or 3-D modeling – people play the game to compete around a work activity, not because of the appeal of the user interface. A simple leader board might be all that’s needed.
Using games at work is a powerful and effective method to influence change in organizational behavior, and therefore requires care in the design and use. It is possible to overdo the use of games to a point where they are counter-productive or ineffective. Successful game design is best achieved through experience and experimentation, and the goal should be to keep things interesting enough to always attract players. A game where one player leaps out to an insurmountable lead is not effective, because that will discourage others from playing. When a team wants to encourage testers to invest in fault injection techniques, setting up a leader board with bug totals found via fault injection techniques will attract attention of other testers, often just by word-of-mouth. You should encourage team-wide competition, smack talk, and public embarrassment as a means to draw attention. Games should be short in duration. Many testers remember the Dilbert “I’m gonna write me a new minivan” from 11/13/95. This is what results from a poorly designed productivity game.
Productivity games are great at motivating people to do things and change behavior. And as Uncle Ben said to Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”. It’s critical to have specific goals for the games, and to understand the impact before deploying a game – it’s pretty likely that people will play, at least initially, and the impact may not be what you intended. Keep the duration of games short in order to be able to adjust. And finally, keep the games focused on volunteer or “extra” activities. A game designed around an individual’s job or portions of everyone’s regular job can introduce unusual feelings when it comes to rewards and performance evaluation. It’s easier to steer clear of that than to try to figure out the right balance.
Shigeru Miyamoto, who designed Super Mario Bros., talks about games as “miniature gardens”, metaphorically representing the cultural values, humanity, and challenges of everyday life the way a miniature garden might represent a real one.
The whole idea, for me, is about the exploration of a hakoniwa, a miniature garden. It's like a garden in a box, where if you look at it from different angles, you can see different plants and arrangements. And you have that sense of surprise and exploration. There's always things you can find. 
Games are a lot like testing. Software quality assurance and testing efforts represent a proxy for real users in much the same way that games are a proxy for the real world. The challenges that Mario faces with fire-breathing dragons and knife throwing turtles are balanced by the allure of coins and princesses. A testing organization has a good idea of the tools available in their portfolio to improve quality and eliminate those “fire-breathing dragons” for their customers. Productivity games allow teams to offer coins and position rewards around their equivalents of Markowitz’s “diverse assets” at their disposal, in the form of defect detection and removal techniques, to improve quality.
For the players, productivity games offer people the ability to learn, solve problems, and earn a reward. They offer a way to challenge players to compete, to explore and discover, and to establish a surrogate identity or status via a leader board. There are many fundamental motivations to play a game. “If you build it, they will come ." A good productivity game designer can build a game around “work that needs to be done that no one wants to do” – and like the lone teenager who plays Halo for weeks on end, people will take on that work. Experiment and explore – the results can be surprising.
I’d be interested in any comments about Productivity Games that you might have.
When Work becomes a Game
Serious Games Initiative
Got Game - How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever
Chapter 5 – Productivity Games - The Practical Guide to Defect Prevention
2008 Serious Games Summit presentation
Miniature Gardens and Magic Crayons: Games, Spaces, & Worlds
HBR Leadership’s Online Labs
NPR: Software lets users assign value to email
Game Tycoon blog (How Video Games are transforming the Business World)
Productivity Games Blog
Special thanks to Joshua Williams for his help with this post.
 Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Wired Magazine Interview http://blog.wired.com/games/2007/12/interview-super.html Field of Dreams, 1989
Very interesting!! Thanks.
Video Games & Creativity:http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/05/26/video-games-can-aid-creativity/2353.htmlA Theory of Alpha/theta neurofeedback, creative performance enhancement, long distance functional connectivity and psychological integration: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19082646?ordinalpos=2&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSumThe effect of music therapy on mood/anxiety...I/P...TBI:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19027186?ordinalpos=4&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSumElectrocortical, autonomic, and subjective responses to rhythmic audio-visual stimulation:http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T3M-3YB5785-T&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=15c0978702e1f57e28f98b72cc3a243fImpact of a Workplace Stress Reduction program...http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/107555303765551589Example game I found online involving sensory and creativity stimulation: http://www.playauditorium.com/#indexDisclaimer: I have no association or financial interest in the game or any of the studies cited.
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