GDC: Getting Integration Right - Productivity Tools & Games in the Workplace

Busy first day, so some delay in reporting. I'd like to first mention an interesting session from Monday afternoon on the nature of integrating games into existing information tech.  This “Entertaining the Enterprise” session was organized around a fairly simple premise: “When a worker is at their desktop, they want to get stuff done.  How can games help with this process while not getting in the way and still be recognizable as games."

First to discuss their experience with this topic was Jennifer Michelstein of Microsoft, who discussed the development of Ribbon Hero as a tool for increasing user engagement, discovery, and depth of use with Microsoft Office applications. The game challenges users with feature-specific tasks related to a given Office product (e.g., re-shape an inserted image in Power Point).  Challenges are couched within a narrative about former Word assistant Clippy and skinned within various historical settings.  Players earn rewards (points, affirmation phrases, and animated balloons) and learn “fun facts” related to the challenge’s particular setting (again, unrelated to the Office application feature itself). Michelstein concluded her talk with some lessons learned: reduce player choice alternatives, reward rather than penalize, and “follow the fun” even if it goes against intuition.

Next, Li-Te Cheng of IBM discussed his past experiences trying to integrate game elements with the work place (virtual work spaces, corporate meeting avatar use, etc.). Citing Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design as an influence, Cheng described his “Lens of IT Integration”, in which one should ask

  1. How can your game reach the people you care about? You can reach out to particular individuals based on roles, teams, locations, motivations, organizational culture, etc.
  2. Why does your game help with work?  Does it help people do things (design, code, build, write), measure things (analyze, experiment, assess) or communicate things (sell, report, email, blog)?
  3. What tech does your game connect with?  Private or public? Cloud or client?  What tech devices/interfaces?  Who manages the tech policies?  How will your game be deployed?

Finally, Alex Moore, CEO of Baydin, shared the insights gleaned from developing “The Email Game”, a game devised to assist us in chipping away at our every growing inbox count.  Originally envisioned as “Tower Defense meets Email”, the game has gone through multiple transformations since its first rollout.  The initial design merely added minimalist game elements (progress meter, timer, score, blinking red screen to signify poor inbox-cleansing rate) to an inbox through Gmail.  While the timer and points alone dramatically influenced behavior (leading to impressive decreases in inbox count), this version lacked the aesthetic appeal needed for large-scale adoption.  So, a new version was designed with an improved skin and less jarring visuals (red blinking restricted to score space, not the entire screen).  This lead to improved results, with game usage cleaving, on average, 5 hours a week from one’s typical time devoted to imbox cleansing. Yet, Moore cited that players became fixated not on time saved but points earned, wanting some means by which to apply earn points.  To this end, an immersive narrative world was then wrapped around the entire application, complete with a mechanism by which points could be given meaning.  However, this was met with a universal response from users: Get this out of my way so I can get my work done.  That is, this fuller game package was now getting in the way of what workers were actually trying to accomplish.  As such, the current version has dropped the immersive component and replaced points with an affirming smiley face that grows increasingly happy or sad based on user inbox status (a hugely effective device, it turns out).

What was most interesting about these presentations was not so much the stories of how the different projects unfolded, but, rather, the perspectives they helped shaped in the respective presenters regarding how one might best integrate games into the corporate workplace.  Microsoft’s Ribbon Hero appeals to the basest gamification senses – it slaps scores, levels, and bells and whistles onto basic non-game activities (and in some ways the benchmark for success was just to produce a less deterring learning tool than Clippy previously was).  Meanwhile, Cheng’s perspective working with IBM seemed to be a bit more nuanced and generalizable – successful integration requires consideration of the people involved, the work they do, and the technology underlying that work; only by paying attention to these pre-existing conditions (which are not uniform for all companies) can integration prove itself to be seamless and non-disruptive.

Particularly insightful, however, might have been Moore’s realization that what Baydin was producing in The Email Game was not actually a game, but instead a productivity tool with game elements included.  Indeed, their current design resulting from several iterations highlights that the real value prop is actually about making people more productive rather than ensuring they have fun. Moore noted that they anticipate more subtle, deeply integrated persuasive techniques may prove more useful.

Altogether, a thoughtful yet somewhat surprising set of presentations about how – and, in one case, whether – to integrate games into work.  It may be somewhat revealing that it the companies known for their information tech tools (MS and IBM) are a bit quicker to highlight how games elements may advance their tools, while the company lead by an actual gamer (Baydin) discussed the distinction between productivity and fun.  Indeed, in recognizing that productivity and fun may sometimes be in conflict – and in their willingness to actually DE-gamify an application – Baydin offered a somewhat refreshing and welcomed display of reflection an restraint compared to much of the gamification / integration hype that has pervaded countless other corporate projects in the last year.

That’s all for now.  More coverage soon!

GDC: Getting Integration Right - Productivity Tools & Games in the Workplace by Jim Cummings, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>