Saul Kaplan: If All the World were Gamified

Need to turn around your company? Trying to start a movement? Want to change the world? Easy Peasy! Just turn it in to a game. Everywhere we turn, it seems there are experts claiming that the best path forward is to engage people with elements of competitive play. The business world in particular has gone gaga for gamification.

I thought games were mainly for kids, and the occasional ice-breaker or temporary escape from reality. Why encourage more of them? As adults, aren’t we supposed to set aside childish things and get down to work on the problems of the real world?

Truth be told, I have always loved games. Stratego was a mainstay among my school buddies. We spent hour upon hour lining up red and blue soldiers to protect our flags. My family’s Monopoly  games were epic battles, beginning with the fight over game pieces. (No, I get the Scottish Terrier!) The side deals we struck and the arguments that ensued still liven up family gatherings. In college I became a professional Risk player. Tell me you didn’t learn about the challenges of fighting a multi-front war from playing Risk. Who among us hasn’t attempted to conquer the world by way of Kamchatka?

Saul KaplanGames ruled – till it was time to make my way in the real world where they didn’t. By the time online games exploded onto the scene, I was so immersed in reality that I managed to ignore them. I’ve never created a level-80 character in World of Warcraft, won the staff of life in Spore, mastered an artichoke crop in Farmville, or knocked over any pigs with Angry Birds. But others have – hundreds of millions of them around the world. Already, 5.93 million years of total time has been spent playing World of Warcraft alone.

One response to this is to despair of all that wasted time. Imagine if only a fraction of it had been focused on improving our education, health care, energy, and economic systems. Another response, though, is to say: if you can’t beat them, why not join them?

Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken makes a strong case for leveraging game design and mechanics to work on the big social challenges of our time. McGonigal suggests that the four defining traits of any game – a goal, clear rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation – can be applied to any challenge. She even says game-playing makes us better people. The book is a passionate articulation of why we should pay attention to what is going on in the world of games.

Reading McGonigal’s arguments from my perspective in the world of work and social system change, it seems it’s the voluntary part we should focus on hardest. Organizations have a lot of experience with goal setting, rules, and incentives. What we haven’t figured out is how to align work with personal passion and commitment. The big aha from Reality is Broken is that we enjoy games and spend so much time playing them because it is our choice. We volunteer to enter their fray. Meanwhile, the problem with work is that so much of it feels involuntary. Certainly no one forced us to take a particular job, but whatever sense of excitement or mission we felt as a new recruit has been lost in the daily grind. We signed on to make a difference by capturing Kamchatka and now find ourselves peeling potatoes.

Applying game design in the workplace can bring back the thrill of putting points on the board, beating the odds, and accomplishing important goals. Leveraging game mechanics can unleash passion, potential, and personal commitment. Games can help transform the weak links of social media connections and conversations into purposeful networks.

But even as we increasingly recognize the potential of games to help us change the world, let’s not get carried away. Shakespeare pointed out  the problem inherent in gamifying all our endeavors. “If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.” So yes, let’s introduce an element of play to make the office more engaging – but let’s not turn Monopoly into monotony.

This post originally appeared here on the Harvard Business Review site.


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