Gamification is the application of game thinking and dynamics within non-game contexts, such as business operations, by engaging employees (players) to participate in solving business problems and completing work tasks in a fun, fulfilling and learning-based environment. While gamification has a “flavor-of-the-month” buzz around it today, and is subject to traditional business hype cycles, it is becoming an increasingly popular trend within business operations management and one that is being actively explored for possible use in project management practice. The statistics don’t lie:
- The Association for Project Management conducted a study in 2012 which found that 3 billion hours world-wide are spent each week by people who are participating in some form of gaming.[i]
- A similar study conducted by Jane Gonigal in her book, “Reality Is Broken,” found that, in the United States alone, there are 183 million active gamers.[ii]
- According to research conducted by M2 Research, the gamification industry will grow from approximately $500 million in the United States in 2013 to an estimated $2.8 billion by the end of 2016[iii]
The reason behind these impressive statistics, quite simply, is because people love to play games. Games provide a sense of personal accomplishment along with the sense of community that comes from being part of a team. Games also trigger natural instincts for competition and the positive emotions that come with the excitement that the potential for winning provides.
Gamification, while a relatively new term, traces its conceptual roots back to the first airline frequent flyer rewards programs. Established by airline marketing teams to increase brand loyalty, these programs used an accumulated point or miles-based system of award levels, which allowed participants to gain access to awards, perks, recognition and financial benefits not available to non-participants. In fact, one of the main findings from these early game-based systems was that the level of effectiveness of a program was greatly increased when the points or rewards had tangible economic value to participants. These programs proved that gamification can trigger basic, subliminal human needs and desires that include status and achievement.
In general, modern-day business usage of gamification seeks to increase employee engagement in daily or project-based work tasks by granting rewards and/or recognition via the use of points, achievement levels and/or accomplishment badges. The rewards are granted on any number of factors such as on-time (or early) task completion, accomplishment of more tasks than planned within a certain time-box, consecutive number of bug-free software code releases or reductions in defect rates. Gamification essentially helps to keep workers motivated and inspires them to achieve the best end results possible.
The collection of points and badges, or progressions through various game levels, is tracked on scoreboards or leaderboards, showing participants how they compare with their peers. Making the rewards for accomplishing tasks visible to other participants, or publically displaying leaderboards, encourage individuals and teams to compete, as the natural competitive nature of human beings provides a strong bias for action and increased performance.
While competitive elements already exist in traditional work environments, adding the new wrinkle that gamification introduces can have both positive and negative results. Positive effects of the competitive nature via gamification include increased engagement, enhanced motivation, stronger collaboration and heightened performance within teams. Achieving these positive results, however, requires a transparent and consistent process of allocating rewards, tracking progress, providing feedback on results and a tiered system that effectively motivates people at every level to sustain engagement across the entire population of participants.
Caution is advised, however, to remain aware of the potential negative effects that may result from gamification, such as driving unintended “win at all costs” or dishonest behaviors. Badly designed or conducted gamification programs can lead to participant isolation, tension among competing teams, feelings of injustice and a lack of motivation for individuals or teams that rank in the lower half of the game’s leaderboard. Another potential negative effect associated with gamification is if the game never ends. Long running or never-ending games reduce participation and eventually “poison the well” for future game-based activities.
So how is the gamification phenomenon applicable to project management practice? Projects and games share many common traits. Projects are managed by setting goals, breaking down the work needed to achieve the goals, defining roles needed to complete the work and establishing a set of metrics that are tracked following a defined lifecycle with milestones that show progress toward the end goal. In similar fashion, games also set goals for success, assign roles, establish rules, tasks and processes, encourage creative problem solving, reward success and progress, and follow a defined lifecycle that ultimately leads to the achievement of the goal, also known as winning the game.
Successful project managers understand that equally successful project results come about by actively engaging and motivating project team members. And since the use of gamification concepts are designed to improve engagement and motivation, it makes sense to attempt to combine the two and look for any enhanced benefits that can potentially be leveraged. Ultimately, the use of gamification in project management practice is to inspire team members to utilize a prescribed process, meet deadlines on a timely basis and improve upon project productivity and delivery metrics. Additionally, the use of gamification for project activities can also provide beneficial increases in key organizational and cultural attributes such as:
- Fun, engaging and exciting work climate
- Creativity and problem solving skills
- Team cohesiveness
- Individual and team productivity
- Individual morale and retention
- Quality of work product
Before embarking on a gamification journey, project managers should ensure they understand and document the specific long and short-term goals that the “gamified” process is intended to achieve. Applying gamification techniques without an end goal in mind is a recipe for failure.
Common project management-specific goals that lend themselves to gamification approaches include:
- Maintaining high quality work by tracking defect rates, items returned from testing, etc.
- Maintaining on-schedule project task delivery
- Keeping up with required project administrative tasks like time recording, status reporting, issue logging, etc.
- Improving accuracy of task estimation by comparing estimated effort to actuals
- Cost reduction opportunities by developing creative solutions that reduce original estimates
Beyond point-based or achievement-based games, gamification also includes simulation. Simulations provide significant impact to all organizational teams whether they are project-based, process-based or technical. Simulations involve putting people into realistic, simulated environments that allow them to experience complex situations or best practices, while creating deeper understanding of available choices, potential risks and/or benefits, and expected results versus intended consequences. In fact, training-based simulations are perhaps the most mature example of the use of gamification in project management practice, having been available for a number of years. Possibly the largest benefit that simulations bring, similar to the more reward-based gamification approaches, is that they promote close team collaboration and communication.
Simulations are typically classroom-based scenario games that portray projects in various stages which face specific issues, risks, challenges and/or barriers to successful project delivery. The simulation allows participants to work together as a project team to practice collaboration, communication and problem solving around the various obstacles presented in the scenario.
In some simulations, players are guided through the same situational scenario numerous times, but deploying different approaches or methodologies in each round, such as: applying current organizational processes, then industry best practice processes are used and finally, innovative new approaches are tested. These repetitive scenarios allow the teams to learn the pros and cons of each approach as they relate to common problem sets. Simulations are essentially “live-fire” feedback sessions where the participants capture lessons learned as the impact and result of each potential decision is made.
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Beyond project management methodology or process training, the concept of simulation is completely applicable to scenarios generated from actual projects as well. When projects encounter thorny issues or risks, simulations can be leveraged to test certain risk mitigation options or issue resolution approaches. Simulations can also be used to provide the project team with better understanding of product usage or business process outcomes.
A number of consultancy-based and online project simulations are now available in the marketplace that facilitates design, execution and data gathering from the simulation sessions. These offerings range from project management skill building to realistic training environments for emergency scenarios. Because the concept of gamification is becoming more readily adopted, some larger software platforms like Oracle’s customer relationship management solution known as Salesforce® is now offered with a gamification module built-in.
For additional information regarding Gamification concepts:
General Information & Resources
- Gamification (Wikipedia): en.wikipedia.com/wiki/Gamification
- Gamification.org: badgeville.com/wiki
- SimStudios simstudios.com
- Dashboard Simulations: dashboardsimulations.com
Gray, Dave and Brown, Sunni, Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers and Changemakers, O’Reilly Media, 2010, ISBN 978-0-596-80417-6
Kumar, Janaki and Herger, Mario, Gamification At Work: Designing Engaging Business Software, Interaction-Design.org, 2013, ISBN 978-8-792-96407-6
Burke, Brian, Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things, Bibliomotion, 2014, ISBN 978-1-937-13485-3
Shtub, Avraham, Project Management Simulation with Project Team Builder (PTB), Springer, 2012, ISBN 978-1-441-96462-5
Popular Software Tools and Online Vendors
- Bunchball www.bunchball.com/gamification
- Badgeville www.badgeville.com
- SimulTrain® www.sts.ch/en/products/simulation/simultrain
- SimProject® www.simulationpoweredlearning.com
- Sandbox Model www.sandboxmodel.com
[i] Based on a presentation of findings at an October 31st, 2012 event sponsored by the Thames Valley Branch of the United Kingdom-based, Association of Project Management
[ii] McGonigal, Jane (2011), Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Change the World, Penguin Press
[iii] Based on a presentation by M2 Research at the 2011 Gamification Summit in New York City