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Game playing gets results for big companies

Applebees's is one of a growing number of big companies who are using games to motivate and retain employees.
Applebees's is one of a growing number of big companies who are using games to motivate and retain employees.

Game playing in the workplace? There was a time not that long ago where such behavior would get you fired. Now, thanks to digital design and an increasingly tech-savvy workforce, some of the largest corporations in the world are not only allowing game playing on the job, they are actively encouraging it.

The key word here is “gamification,” a recently coined term that describes the use of games to motivate people, encourage them to learn new skills and become more innovative. As a generation that was raised with computers at an early age begins to move into the workforce, companies are realizing that they have to find new ways of communication that will get results.

This was the key message behind many of the speeches and presentations delivered last week at the GSummit in San Francisco. With the “G” standing for “gamification,” the summit focused on how game playing concepts are beginning to receive more respect in the corporate world. It was the fifth year the conference has been held and attendance reached nearly 1,000 people over the three days. “This started as kind of a kooky idea,” said Gabe Zichermann, chair of the GSummit. “Would people be interested in using game concepts for their business?”

The answer is yes. Some of the most crowded sessions of the conference featured presentations from companies such as Delta Airlines, Mazda, and a top franchiser for Applebee’s restaurants who described how they were all using games in the workplace.

Delta’s game playing site was designed for their reservation agents. Called “Ready, Set, Jet!” the site was launched 18 months ago and includes over 200 mini-games that focus on job knowledge, customer service, and selling skills.

Agents using the site can challenge other employees, bartering the most precious commodity in their unique profession – time off. “If you can get 30 minutes off, that’s very precious,” explained Ponch Orendain, Delta’s Technology Manager. One agent will challenge another, dangling their coverage of a half-hour’s time as major motivation.

Mazda showcased a very different approach that was geared toward customers. Working with a company called TimePlay, they created the world’s “first in-cinema driving game.” Theatergoers download a unique app to their smartphones which turns their device into a steering wheel. Tracking along with on-screen animation, they then “test drive” a Mazda car on-screen in competition with others in the audience, with the winner receiving a small prize.

According to TimePlay’s Aaron Silverberg, Mazda rolled out the game in Toronto and Vancouver as a pilot. Those two cities reported that nearly 9,000 people showed up at dealerships for real test drives while the pilot was running, a whopping 4000% increase.

At Applebee’s restaurants, franchise owners have been using games to address the thorny problem of high employee turnover. So the RMH Franchise Corporation (one of the largest of Applebee’s franchisees) turned to gamification and created “Bee Block.”

The website is powered by Bunchball, one of the key designers of games for the workplace. “Bee Block” assigns an on-screen profile to every new employee, complete with a virtual trophy case to be filled as they demonstrate loyalty and engagement. Applebee’s has installed monitors in their restaurants where employees can visually check how they are doing in competition with others around the country.

The program started its test phase last November and early results show a 20% decrease in turnover over the past six months.

The results demonstrated by companies who created gamification programs in the workplace were a key reason why the San Francisco conference attracted some big names interested in learning more about what these programs can do. Among those in attendance were representatives from Boeing, IBM, Pepsi, and Hilton. According to Aaron Price, co-founder of Livecube, Verizon sent 18 people to the GSummit this year.

“Gamification is part of a digital business strategy,” said Brian Burke, Research Vice President for Gartner. Whether this wave of interest results in game playing becoming standard practice in companies around the world remains to be seen. But there is no denying the fact that gamification is an important emerging trend in the technology space that is changing the way companies seek to motivate employees today and potentially in the future as well.

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