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Turning Work Into Play: Gamifying Your Comms

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Turning Work Into Play: Gamifying Your Comms

by Nishwa Ashraf, Strategic Communication Management, September 2011

Games offer immediate feedback, can encourage collaboration and engage people for performing a task and learning new skills to progress

Upon returning home one day, she discovered that her apartment had been ransacked, and her father’s journal stolen. Her father, Ferdinand, had traveled the world as a cartographer before his death and kept a journal of his adventures, which he shared with her when she was a child. Curious about why anyone would want such a private journal, she went through his papers and realized there was more to his writings and drawings than she had noticed as a child. Being very familiar with the book, she is able to recreate some of it from memory, but some portions – like the pictures from the places Ferdinand visited – are beyond her ability to recall. However, as she pieces her memories together, she realizes the journal is filled with puzzles and clues. Her name is Isabel Travada and she needs your help, as she retraces her father’s steps and comes closer to solving the mystery of the journal, the man who stole it, and why.

No, you’ve not just stumbled on the synopsis for the fourth installment of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, but instead the introduction to an internal “game” successfully used at Cisco Systems to encourage collaboration and provide product education among its geographically dispersed global sales force.

Gamification – also known as “serious gaming” – is most often defined as the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications. Or, in other words, “turning work into play”. It’s been around a while, with the military, medical and IT professionals having used serious gaming in their training processes. But more recently, the phrase has been lobbed around as the next frontier in increasing engagement, building loyalty, encouraging participation and ultimately driving revenue.

A Gartner report earlier this year suggests as much. The analysts predicted that by 2012, 100 of the top 135 global Fortune 500 companies will have used serious gaming in training, by 2014 more than 70 percent of the global 2,000 organizations will have at least one gamified application, and by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations will gamify their innovation processes.

Gamifying internal processes

In the consumer world, we’ve already become accustomed to gaming mechanics, coming across points, levels, challenges and leader boards in our everyday lives. From the loyalty cards at Starbucks, the bidding and user ratings on auction site eBay, to the badges earnt for “checking in” to places using Foursquare, and the flash sales during Amazon’s “Black Friday” week.

Judging by the growing interest we’re seeing, serious gaming is clearly something many companies are very eager to leverage internally.

The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is one such example. Idea Street is an online ideas-management platform that encourages employees of all grades, roles and locations across the organization to share their ideas for change.

Instead of submitting an idea to a closed suggestion box, like a typical staff suggestion scheme, Idea Street puts ideas out in the open so that employees can vote and comment on the suggestions of others. Employees are free to submit ideas on anything that may improve their day-to-day working lives, how their organization operates or serves its customers, stakeholders or suppliers, which they are then rewarded with “DWPeas”. More DWPeas can be earned for further developing either their own suggestion or those of their colleagues, and points can be spent on investing in proposals that are felt to be promising, or buying help from the innovation team in the shape of templates, tools and other support to take ideas to the next stage.


➤Gamification, or “serious gaming”, is most often defined as the use of game play mechanics for nongame applications, including professional training. It has recently been put forward as an innovative channel for increasing engagement, building loyalty, encouraging participation and ultimately driving revenue.

➤Gaming can be used to discover what employees are saying about topics that matter to them and brings an opportunity to immediately respond to and connect with your audience. It encourages collaboration and offers an interactive environment where people are used to having to learn new skills in order to progress.

➤Communicators will see the most benefit when used in conjunction with other channels.

Additionally, as frontline staff are sometimes unfamiliar with the high level strategy of the organization, their ideas for change may not be adequately framed. Idea Street allows for the setting of broad corporate challenges in order to align the employees’ efforts with major strategic goals, encouraging quick and effective action toward these goals.

Therein lies one of the many benefits of gaming. “Internal communication has an important role reflecting to the senior board what the organization is saying about topics that matter to them, but in organizations with large numbers of staff [DWP employs 100,000 people], the ability to hear what they are saying and respond in a timely way is challenging,” says Yvonne O’Hara, head of internal communications, DWP. “Gaming is one way of doing this, along with more traditional feedback routes such as audio calls, video conferences, face-to-face and moderated chat facilities.”

Susan Strayer, senior director of global employer brand and marketing at hotels operator Marriott International – another company that has introduced gaming to its channels [see box, below] – agrees: “Gaming brings an opportunity to directly connect you to your audience. If you’re doing a roadshow or delivering a presentation, there’s often little opportunity to interact with your audience.”

Measurement and tracking on tap

Strayer also praises serious gaming for the instant measurement and tracking it provides. “Unlike other channels, it can be connected to a series of metrics so you can actually see the applicability of your message in terms of how it’s being played out. So if I deliver a presentation, I can tell you how many people came, but what I can’t tell you is if they were engaged, if they’re following up with that presentation, or if they even understood the message. There is no way to track their participation afterwards, which is something that gaming can do.”

Yahoo! is a good example of this – the internet corporation hired consultancy The Network to create an interactive ethics game, “On the Road With the Code” [see box, opposite]. Yahoo! had previously tried to communicate the message via other channels, but the feedback it received was that employees did not connect to the way the information was being communicated to them. “But in gaming,” says Luis Ramos, CEO of The Network, “they saw a way their employees could engage in an experience that would match the Yahoo! culture and personality.

“Within less than 30 days, nearly every employee across the world had been certified on this code, with a completion rate of 99 percent – the highest percent of achievement they’d ever gotten.” In addition Yahoo! also saw more than a doubling of questions and activity for compliance issues, demonstrating that employees knew and understood and were now applying the code in their everyday lives.

Ramos adds that even if a player doesn’t understand the concept, if they play the game and make a mistake, or fail the task, it’s still beneficial. “The instant feedback that lets them know what they did wrong is often as valuable as getting the answer right in the first place, because that immediate feedback helps them remember the next time they face the situation.”

DWP’s Idea Street has seen an uptake since its launch, with over 6,000 staff having volunteered to participate in the site, more than 1,700 ideas generated and over 70 accepted for implementation. From these, conservative estimates (excluding ideas that were already being reviewed) identified return-on-investment benefits of £20m accrued by 2014/15.

Despite the benefits gaming provides, David Cotterill, head of innovation in corporate IT, DWP, emphasizes that gaming as a channel should be added to part of the communication mix rather than a panacea to everything. “Games offer immediate feedback about progress, can encourage collaboration, can engage people with intrinsic motivation for performing a task and provide an environment in which people are used to having to learn new skills in order to progress. But these things work best when introduced in conjunction with other channels, not in isolation,” he says.

Rachael Hamilton, head of production, at RamJam – the digital agency that designed and created a game for PricewaterhouseCoopers entitled Operations! to promote worldwide communication and lessen the need for employees to travel – adds that it can be used as part of a wider campaign. “As soon as people start playing and interacting with the game, it creates a kind of buzz where employees ask one another ‘have you played this yet?’ or ‘have you done this yet?’. You can capitalize on this excitement by following up with an email update where, for example, you can ask ‘Have you unlocked this level yet?’.”

Still not convinced?

If you still think games are the sole domain of teenage boys, think again. It’s applicability stretches to all types of knowledge and learners. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 67 percent of US heads of households play games, with the number even greater in Asia. The average age of a game player is 35 and 47 percent of PC gamers are older. Forty-three percent of PC gamers and console gamers are women.

It’s clear we still need to shift our mindsets from seeing games as entertainment for digital natives to something that can be enjoyed by learners from all generations. That’s not to take away from its reach to younger segments of the workforce, who have grown up playing games and been part of a culture of online commenting, rating and loyalty programs their entire lives.

“A big thing that internal communication has to overcome is the generational gap between senior leaders in the organization and this up-and-coming workforce,” says Ramos. “Senior leaders come from a different mindset and if they don’t use a lot of technology outside the workplace they might not understand why someone would want to do this; but the younger generation learns and engages in different ways. Showing good examples of results to leaders can make a strong argument that this can be one of the ways you communicate to your employee population. That’s especially true if you have a younger or technology-savvy audience.”

Developing the concept to the point of initial launch, and then pitching to leaders was how buy-in was gained at the DWP. “You have to do the usual things like aligning to their [leaders] strategic priorities, having a prototype site so they can visualize the concept, and showing examples of success elsewhere so you reduce the risk,” advises Cotterill. “After that, it helps if you have a creative idea that engages.”

Everyone has played a game at some point in their life, so there’s nothing intrinsic in an organization’s structure that means people somehow lose the ability to enjoy games, but it may feel counterproductive and counter cultural at first, he adds. “You need to ask the question: ‘What kind of organization do you want?’. If the answer involves engaged staff being passionate about their work, then introducing game mechanics may have a role to play. After that it’s about trialing different approaches and seeing what works.”

Like all trends, the inevitable question will crop up: is it a fad or here to stay?

“Experiences in designing approaches using game mechanics is relatively new for most enterprises, so there will undoubtedly be some successes and failures along the way, but it’s a trend that is here to stay,” says Cotterill.

As a channel that provides interaction with the message itself, and with the next generation of workers more exposed to and comfortable with technology, gaming will prove to be a valuable tool for communicators. This game is only just getting started.


Yahoo! is known for balancing high tech with high energy and attracting the brightest in the industry. The internet giant has also earned a reputation as an ethical company, thanks to the loyalties of its devoted “Yahoos” and a set of core values established by its founders that continue to drive what they do and how they do it. When the organization set out to explore fresh ways to communicate with its global workforce and address the kinds of ethical situations they encounter on the job every day, Yahoo! partnered with The Network, a provider of governance, risk and compliance solutions. Together they created a customized campaign, “On the Road With the Code”, which integrated the Yahoo! culture with a compelling message about ethics and ethical decision-making.

Using proven visual storytelling techniques and animated gaming sequences, the web-based ethics training module included interactive scenarios to generate a high level of involvement. The course featured useful yet fun gaming tools such as a rousing rendition of “Conflict or No Conflict,” a parody of a popular TV game show.

The campaign enhanced awareness of the Yahoo! code of conduct and behavioral expectations, while transforming traditional ethics messaging into something personally relevant to staff worldwide.

The training module was translated into five languages for use by every Yahoo! office around the world and boasted a 99 percent completion rate in a culture where mandatory training was a new concept. Yahoo! reported that employees provided positive feedback about the campaign and that questions directed at the ethics and compliance office increased, reflecting an enhanced level of awareness and compliance.


Marriott International has a culture of putting people first, and providing opportunities for career growth for its 129,000 employees worldwide. With as many as 50,000 jobs to fill globally by the end of 2011, Marriott has tapped into social media gaming to help generate interest in hospitality careers. Many of Marriott’s staff are hired via referral, with social networking coming into play in a big way.

My Marriott Hotel is similar in concept to the popular Farmville and Cityville games. Available in English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Mandarin, gamers can create their own restaurant, buying equipment and ingredients on a budget, hire and train employees and serve guests. They’ll earn points for happy customers and lose points for poor service. Ultimately, they’ll be rewarded when their operation turns a profit.

“As Marriott expands in growth markets outside the US, and as we seek to attract more millennials to our workforce, we must find new ways to interest them in hospitality careers,” says David Rodriguez, executive vice president of global human resources. “This game allows us to showcase the world of opportunities and the growth potential attainable in hospitality careers, especially in cultures where the service industry might be less established or prestigious.”

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