The Games People Play

How principles of gamification can help us win at work.

Plato may have written this down himself, or at least someone heard him say it and recorded it, but he once mused, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Besides being a great Greek philosopher and founder of the Academy in Athens, it seems he was on to something with studying play and the power of games.

The question is whether we can still discover more about a person through an hour of play in the workplace today. We are not talking about playing board games or online video games at work all day long. Nor is it about checking out Candy Crush and winning at Angry Birds on your mobile phone.

The principles of gamification, or game mechanics, can truly help us with learning and improving our productivity and employee satisfaction in the workplace.


Take, for example, a real-world situation at Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, Canada. The hospital was challenged in helping children with cancer and their pain management. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments were painful enough, let alone dealing with the disease process itself.

Doctors and researchers need to track and monitor each child’s pain occurrence, its location, and severity level in order to help with minimizing the pain. The problem is that after all the treatments and pain children with cancer go through, very few children are willing to keep a written journal about pain each and every day. But without a daily record, doctors and researchers were stuck on what to do.


To help track and minimize pain, the hospital needed to find a way to encourage its young cancer patients to fill out detailed daily reports.

Enter gamification. The Cundari Group, a digital advertising agency, designed an app for the iPhone and used game mechanics to invite, involve, encourage—and reward—children to fill in all the necessary pain details everyday.

By tapping into kids’ love of gaming and technology, Hospital for Sick Kids was able to give doctors the data they needed to manage pain better. This allowed children to gain some control over their pain and gave researchers the insights they needed to understand pain from a child’s perspective.


The app was called the “Pain Squad—Special Police Unit” and was focused on hunting down pain in a storytelling manner. Each child was enlisted to be a recruit in the Pain Squad. Twice daily, they received notification alerts on their iPhone cuing them to fill in their pain report.

This drew upon the concept of campaigns used to encourage the children’s participation. The app gave the children a tool to track and monitor individual activities and let them know their current status, sending them information about what they needed to do to achieve the next level.

Children easily input data using a simple touchscreen interface that was fun to use. They reported on whether they had pain in the last 12 hours or not, their pain severity level if present, and where on their body they hurt. They also could indicate which medication alleviated their pain the best. This drew upon their intrinsic motivation because they wanted to overcome their pain.

Gamification supports learning through immediate or delayed feedback. In this case, positive feedback was provided to motivate the young recruits through pre-recorded video messages. The app used actors from leading Canadian police drama TV shows. These inspirational videos welcomed the recruits, encouraged them on each case of recording pain-related information, and gave updates on their progress.

Visual cues were provided through displays on the app and notification reminders letting kids know when they had to file their next report and the various levels they had obtained.

Typically, games encourage a user to progress through various levels. Likewise, the Pain Squad app did just that. It drew upon a graduated structure, rewarding children as they completed their assignments by promoting them to various status levels, such as Rookie, Junior Detective, Detective, Sergeant, Lieutenant, and even the Chief.

Badges for each Police position were used to promote participation and reward children for reaching specific goals. Videos advancing them to the next level with an accompanying badge were added to a child’s personal profile page.

Measurement is an important element of gamification. With the Pain Squad app, measurement features included performance and the eventual completion of ongoing pain reports covering several variables. These reports had to be consistently done every day, providing doctors and researchers with both quantity and quality of data. And because pain medication dosages are given at specified times, the children were required to give careful reports and data at precise times when alerted to complete them.

Achievement of the various levels within the Pain Squad boosted the children’s self-esteem and elevated their reputation for being positive collaborators with their doctors and medical team. It also gave children competition with themselves to complete the reports in a timely manner.

As with any game, there are two principles you must start with in any workplace situation:

  1. You must ask yourself what the end goal you have to achieve is.
  2. You must identify the essential behavioral triggers and motivators involved.

If you are seeing a lack of motivation in your work processes or have problems getting something completed, consider game elements and game theory as a worthwhile solution to pursue.

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer of Rideau’s Recognition Management Institute, a consulting and training firm specializing in helping companies “get recognition right.” Its focus is on showing leaders how to give real recognition to create positive relationships, better workplaces, and real results. For more information, contact or visit

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at: or visit: