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Gamification: Turning Work Into Play

iPhone Simulator Unity3. Photo: blogs.unity3d.com/

Last month, h+ covered the work of Professor Byron Reeves, who champions the adaptation of gaming technologies for the workplace. Around the same time, David Helgason of Unity, a company that produces game development tools for the Web, mobile phones, and the Wii announced “The Year of Gamification” on the Unity blog (See Resources). For Helgason, gamification is the application of game technology and game design outside “gamespace” and the acceptance of games in non-gaming sectors. Usually, Helgason’s customers use his technology to create games like Zombieville for the iPhone. But lately, he’s noted an increase in customers using Unity to create employee training programs, among other things. h+ talked with Helgason to get a sense of the practical consequences of gamification.

h+: You’ve recently seen numerous non-game uses of Unity, one of which is Quartier Saint-Blaise, a model of Paris that allows people to navigate through proposed urban planning projects. What’s the story behind Saint-Blaise and what other non-gaming projects use Unity?

Helgason: I think it was basically a very high-res data set of Paris, taken from planes. You know… where you fly over a city and continuously photograph it and use some analysis technology to turn it into 3-D with textures and everything. I don’t know the amount of the data, but it’s massive. If you go on our website and walk around on our Island Demo (see Resources), you get to walk around on this tropical island. It’s very lush and beautiful. That piece of terrain is a couple of miles on the side. And those guys, I think, had a thousand of those sectors, a massive data set.

Another example that is really cool is something called the Visible Body (see Resources), which somebody has described as a Google Earth for the body. It’s an amazing product, from a company out of New York (Argosy Publishing). They put a very high-res, detailed model of the body into Unity and very good tools to kind of peel off the layers and see different bones and nerves and blood vessels. They’re licensing that as a tool for medical professionals.

Photo: visiblebody.com/

h+: But it’s not just the use of game technology that you see spreading to non-game sectors. The use of game design techniques is an important part of what you call ‘gamification.’

Helgason: I’ve had a lot of good responses to that point, which is about the use of game design methodologies and making other products kind of game-like in the way you interact with them. Mint has done things in this direction, and somebody commented that there’s a tax-planning tool like this. They’re competing with TurboTax and building game design into the product. It’s funny, because it has to be the most boring field, but I mean that’s the point. You can make it slightly challenging and give people little reasons to sort of play these tax tools — beyond, you know, not going to prison!

h+: What elements of game design go into gamifying these products?

Helgason: Game design can be such a pure interaction. I mean, many games are just interaction. There’s very little behind them. You’re just in the flow of touching something and it moves. It gives you some pleasure and there’s a little bit of frustration or stress and you want to overcome this thing. Not all games are like this, but many are. And that skill set… designing that and understanding it and optimizing it so that it feels really good… getting it right, where people have this pure pleasure from it… can be applied to a lot of things. We can see how powerful this iterative process is. I don’t know if you get addicted to games, but I certainly have… and I know a lot of people who have.

You can… give people little reasons to sort of play these tax tools — beyond, you know, not going to prison!

The serious guys, the military and some of the really big companies like Unilever, have created training packages for some of their employees — and this is where they’re coming from. Not necessarily just the 3-D rendering, the fancy, realistic, virtual world experiences, but also the built-in use of frustration and reward.

Training employees on a large scale, companies have often had this problem: how to standardize and roll out good training programs. So they were doing these experiments that I think were successful.

h+: I know I’d feel better about job training if it felt more like killing zombies, but how do non-gaming businesses react to the introduction of both game technology and actual games to the workplace? Is there resistance to this trend?

Helgason: I hear from people that it can be very all-over-the-map, from very positive to people not understanding what this is all about. Fear and all that.

I was on a panel a while ago, a virtual worlds forum, with a lot of people selling solutions, working with big enterprise, and they spoke of some resistance… but even on the panel, there was a sense that the resistance was going away or that there was less of it now than two years ago.

h+: In some places, you can even find the use of mass market games in corporate training or education. I know of a gaming lounge in New York that rented time on Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, a squad-shooter, to companies for team-building exercises.

Sim City. Photo: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sim_City - MaxisHelgason: Yeah. I failed to mention this [in the gamification post], but yeah, just using traditional games for various uses, that’s obviously true as well.

They did some very large experiments teaching kids with Sim City and The Sims — just playing the games. But these games are extremely rich in knowledge and structural understanding. You can communicate an understanding of a society and how a society works. It was a research project sponsored by Electronic Arts. They rolled out these games and played them in schools, and someone ran around trying to figure out the kids’ retention and how well they could apply this knowledge afterwards. The conclusion was that they taught them really well.

In education, you have these terms. One is what you can remember in a multiple choice test right after you learn, and then how much you remember a week after, a month later, and the third is how well you can apply this knowledge in a completely different area.

It turned out that retention was pretty good, but the application of this knowledge was very strong. I’m not an expert in this, but it makes sense to me. You’re not actually reading the rules of the game; you’re kind of feeling them and internalizing them. People are pretty good at that, and can pick them up quite quickly, even complex rules.

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