From kids playing doctors and nurses to teenagers playing Call of Duty: Black Ops and old ladies playing bridge, games are an integral part of human development and interaction.
Today, the games industry is worth an estimated £70bn. The companies that invest huge sums of money creating games can't leave their success purely to chance.
Modern research is gradually uncovering all the ways in which games influence a person's behaviour - and how that behaviour can be harnessed and controlled. Good game design is all about influencing human behaviour. As a business owner, the ability to influence both your staff and your potential customers is paramount. Here's how you can use game design to boost productivity and sales.
1) Levelling up
Management consultants will talk about how money is a key motivator for any employee. People want money and if you want them to work harder you should reward them with more money. But then why are your employees spending so many hours practicing a musical instrument, or learning yoga, or going to the gym? It's not for any kind of monetary reward. It's because, for many people, a bigger motivator than money is a sense of progression.
I may never make any money playing guitar, I may never even play in front of another soul, but after three hours practicing on the weekend I can play a song I could never play before. I have levelled up. Games understand this.
The best example of the power of levelling up is a genre of game called Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game or MMORPG. In these games, the dynamics are often absurdly simple: click on an enemy to attack them. If your character is stronger than the enemy you win. Think Top Trumps but much more immersive.
Yet in popular examples of this genre - such as World of Warcraft - people will play for hours at a time. Why? Because when you defeat an enemy you get a small amount of points. Collect enough points and you level up, allowing you to unlock new abilities and improving the way your character looks.
How can you use this in the work place?
Customer loyalty cards are similar to the levelling up dynamic. You give people points for shopping more regularly and allow them to get the occasional free item. But this doesn't tap in into the progression dynamic as well as it could.
If you want to really lock someone in psychologically the benefits they receive should be both permanent and in levels. So say, if a customer buys ten of a certain product, they receive 5% off the list price of that item for ever. They now have sense of progression. They are now a better shopper and reaping the benefits. Also every time they go to buy the product from a different source they will have lost the experience they invested in your product, they are no longer that better person.
Make lots of different 'quests', like purchasing products, that allow shoppers to gain more points towards levelling up. Some quests can be quite arbitrary. Tell your customers to turn up at an odd time of day when business is slow, or come to your shop wearing a certain item. Make it fun, give the customer a sense of progression and make them feel they are improving as a person. This will make them happy while buying your products.
A similar thing can be done with employees. Allow employees to earn points through doing certain activities - some of which can be productive, some just interesting distractions. Make the collection of points fun. A board with some stars next to people's names might seem a bit silly and patronising. But imagine if you got a designer to make a website featuring pictures of all your employees and a bar which lights up in different colours as an employee gets closer to the next level. It could even play a fun sound effect when they level up.
Don't take it too seriously. It's just a game. But everyone loves games.
2) Random drops
If you haven't heard of the Skinner Box then you're in for a treat. BF Skinner was an American psychologist and social philosopher who did a key piece of research on how you can train the mind using stimulus and reward. He experimented on rats in cages using a single lever and a food dispenser.
First the system was set up so that whenever a rat pulled the lever a reward would be produced. The rats worked this out and would pull the level whenever they wanted food. He then changed it so that it took three pulls on the lever for the rat to get a reward. The rats again learnt this quickly and would pull on the lever three times and get their food. So far, so obvious, but then he did something interesting, he set up the mechanism so that the lever would produce the reward at random. Sometimes food would appear after one pull of the lever, sometimes after 100.
What happened? The rats behaved like addicts. They would sit next to the lever all day pulling it endlessly. When food came out they would eat it then go straight back to pulling that lever, all day and all night.
Games understand this very well. In World of Warcraft every time you kill an enemy, you receive a fixed amount of experience points but you are also given a random item. Most of these random items are of poor quality but occasionally they will drop something really good. This keeps players coming back, killing endless enemies, in the hope that the next drop will be that special item they are looking for. If they were just told, 'Kill 1,000 of a certain enemy and you will get the item you want' many people would lose interest.
The random element is key: every time you kill an enemy there is the excitement that maybe this item will be the thing you're desperately seeking.
How can you use this in the work place?
Rewarding employees is an established practice. Your staff want to feel that when they put in effort they will get the benefits. But generally bonuses are handed out as once-a-year chunks of money. A more interesting system might be to use the random drop principle.
Get a collection of boxes and put a different item in each one.
Make sure that one has a great prize hidden inside - maybe a
getaway to some exotic location or a week's extra holiday. Other
boxes could have smaller prizes: one night of expenses paid
drinking, for example, or a token allowing a person to leave two
hours early one day at work. Every time an employee levels up or
completes a particular task well they get to open one random box.
This will probably work out a lot cheaper than paying traditional
bonuses once a year and will result in work being a lot more
exciting for employees as they compete to see what is in the next
3) Only reward, never punish
With the growth in popularity of online games and in particular Facebook games there has been a massive surge in the amount of data games companies collect on their players. There are many different things that games designers can learn from this data. The discovery that I'll talk about here is one of reward vs punishment. In MMORPGs, where people pay a monthly subscription rather than an upfront fee to play (or just pay for valuable in-game items) it is imperative that people are not put off and are encouraged to keep coming back.
The first major MMORPG was called Ultima Online. It featured a very tough penalty for dying. If your character was killed he would not only lose some experience points but all the items he had collected could also be stolen by other players. To non-gamers, this might sound trivial, but often players had spent months collecting these items.
What do you think happened when players experienced this penalty? After particularly costly deaths, players would often cancel their subscriptions and cease playing. As the MMORPG genre developed, it moved more and more towards systems where people are rewarded for doing well but never punished for doing badly. That demotivates people and makes them resent the game.
How can you use this in the workplace?
This is an idea that has been around in management for a long time and is especially advocated in Dale Carnegie's How to win friends and influence people. Never criticise people's performance; only reward good performance.
Your employees should level up as they complete tasks but their levels must never be taken away. This may seem hard to understand at first - but lots of studies have shown how much better people respond to positive comments and how negative comments only serve to reduce productivity. Even if someone makes a bad mistake don't punish, just make sure they know they would have been rewarded had they not made the mistake.
There is an exception, however. The hardcore gamer. This is a subset of game player who thrives on the challenge and sees any failure as an opportunity to improve. For people like this make a special case: give them better rewards but also take away levels for poor performance as it will only serve to drive them more.
Daniel Slater is a game developer at Square Enix. He will be
writing regular columns for Smarta on game theory, design and
strategy. Check back soon for his next update.You can email
Daniel Slater here.