Rethinking the Games People Play

How game science fosters employee engagement.

By Jerry Klein, Senior Solution Design Strategist, Maritz Motivation Solutions

We live in a world increasingly obsessed with games. From celebrity athletes performing before worshipful throngs to teenage boys lost in World of Warcraft, games engage and delight all ages. Businesses can capitalize on this trend toward play. Applying the mechanics of gaming to non-game activities can help to engage people in new and exciting ways.

“Gamification” is already everywhere. Currently, 120 million people earn points, level up, and receive rewards from airline Frequent Flyer programs. More than 6.5 million people around the world use location-based social network Foursquare to earn virtual points and badges via mobile phones by “checking in” at retail locations. Facebook’s social games are among the industry’s fastest growing, and they are bringing new demographics to the gaming craze. Many of these games are ancillary experiences to ordinary activities: booking an airline ticket, visiting your favorite coffee shop, or catching up with friends.

The appeal of games lies in the realization that there is a scientific basis to fun!“Gamification,” or the introduction of game-like elements into ordinary experiences, works because of how our brain is wired. Games appeal to our innate desires for competition, challenge, status, and mastery. Game mechanics are rooted in the science of what happens in the brain when game-like elements are introduced into experiences.

Power of Play

Games appeal to our most basic human drives. In their book, “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices,” authors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria from Harvard University describe these drives:

  • the drive to acquire
  • the drive tobond
  • the drive to defend
  • the drive to create.

All of us are driven by each of these motivators. In the past, both economic and behavioral theories largely have been based on the belief that individuals always act rationally to maximize their bottom-line financial outcomes. We now know that people are much more complex. Neuroscience helps us to better understand how the brain responds to various stimuli. Studies have shown that making money and gaining social approval activate the same centers in the brain. Likewise, social rejection and physical pain are processed similarly by the brain. Surprisingly, people will sacrifice personal gain if they perceive the rules to be unfair. So, it’s not surprising that research also shows an organizational culture characterized by fair treatment and cooperation is more likely to increase intrinsic motivation. Maybe it’s time to rethink what motivates people.

How do “game mechanics” help engage people?” Adding buttons and joysticks to work computers? Turning business Websites into online worlds? According to Dr. Michael Wu, principal scientist of analytics with Lithium, game mechanics represent the “principles, rules, and/or mechanisms that govern a behavior through a system of incentives, feedback, and rewards.”

The same system of incentives, feedback, and rewards that govern game play can be adapted to corporate training, helping children learn and motivating employees. In these situations, participants may not even realize they’re playing a game.

“Gamification,” or the application of game mechanics that tap into innate human drives, can help companies build more meaningful relationships and a deeper layer of engagement with their people, their customers, and their partners. Applying game science elements to an employee recognition program feeds the drives that make us human. Because game elements involve a high degree of shared experiences, they help us achieve a sense of belonging. Developing a social networking space for sharing achievements feeds our drive to bond with one another. Providing status through levels or badges earned for achievements taps into the drive to acquire. Sharing successes activates the drive to create by encouraging collaboration and innovation…and ultimately sparks the desire to contribute to improve oneself, the workplace, the community, and the world.

By leveraging concepts from game science, companies can drive attention, participation, engagement, and social interaction in their recognition practices. In an employee recognition program, companies can identify the activities and behaviors that help the company deliver on its brand promise to customers, then recognize and celebrate whenever those behaviors occur. Spotlighting behaviors and their outcomes creates a game-like environment as people share stories and achievements, and earn virtual and tangible rewards.

There are other simple ways to weave game mechanics into a recognition program:

  • We know that the opportunity to “collect things” drives behavior. Earning a virtual good, badge, or trophy along with recognition fulfills a primary desire for self-expression, but also status, achievement, and reward. Companies can create an opportunity to collect a series of badges over time that are based on important behaviors such as key activities that support the company’s mission and core values, or even consistency in recognizing.
  • Along with collecting, people are motivated to achieve the next level. Earning “gold” status or its equivalent gets me a free cup of coffee on my birthday, priority in boarding my airline, and privileges along with a hotel stay. Likewise, in a recognition program, once a person has achieved a “level” for meeting a challenge, such as giving three recognitions in a month, new challenges, privileges, and status can be unlocked.

While much has been written about gamification, applying game sciences to recognition and performance improvement programs is much more than just creating a game. It’s essentially a way of creating a series of interlocking and customizable experiences that enrich a relationship with a brand or company. Gamification is about finding new ways to appeal to the basic human drives that motivate us every day.

At its core, applying game sciences is a social strategy, too. Sharing best practices and successes in a social setting encourages cooperation, provides social reinforcement, and fosters community and team-based engagement. As recognitions and stories are shared, opportunities arise to create positive social contagion. The result is a more engaging and socially immersive workplace experience, which helps people connect and engage with one another in new and positive ways. It’s a concept millions of gamers across the world have taught us—that “play” works.

Jerry Klein is a 26-year veteran of the performance improvement industry and a senior solution design strategist for Maritz Motivation Solutions. In his current role, Klein provides design and consulting services to clients on performance improvement strategies that affect sales effectiveness and employee engagement initiatives.Klein is a member of the Performance Improvement Council of the Incentive Marketing Association. For more information, visit

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.