Using video games to improve staff productivity and motivation

In many offices, approved gaming in the workplace is limited to the receptionist’s engagement in rounds of Minesweeper or Solitaire when the phone isn’t ringing.

Admins may sneak off to Pogo during lunch, and the IT guys may stick around after hours for a game of Counter-Strike, but by and large video games have been no more a part of the typical company’s culture than pinochle.

Things are slowly changing, however. A number of companies have found that using video games as a way to reward employees for reaching their goals or increasing their productivity can improve office productivity and morale. During the current economic downturn, rewards for overworked employees can be especially welcome.

Another practice whose popularity is growing is the use of video games as training tools. Numerous public safety and military organizations use video games to simulate field conditions. (For example, the battle simulator America’s Army, developed by the U.S. Army, has become an enormously successful recruiting tool for the military.)

But you don’t have to shoot Nazis to find value for games in the workplace: A company called Executive Command uses the strategy game Empire Earth II to teach managers how to improve their strategic thinking and work as part of a team.

At Regence Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Portland, Oregon, IT department members earn virtual “tokens” for performing certain activities: Resetting a user’s password is worth 2 tokens. Implementing a cost-saving idea earns 30 tokens.

Employees can then “spend” these tokens to play quick, chance-based video games. The games are more akin to slot machines: Tokens are converted into points, which can be redeemed for prizes, including cash.

Motivated by Games

The gaming-at-work approach is the brainchild of Snowfly, a company that provides technology-based employee incentives. According to Snowfly, the arrangement increases motivation and productivity as workers compete to earn tokens and prizes.

The company claims that the system has a 95 per cent approval rate among users. Businesses currently using the system range from a Wyoming bank to a beverage distributor.

Some employers faced with special situations actively encourage gaming on the job. For example, Monterey Bay Area paramedics who work long overnight shifts have management’s blessing to play casual games like Bejeweled on their PDAs during downtime so they don’t fall asleep.

But even in corporate office environments, which have long resisted any mingling of work and play, the taboos are beginning to fall.

In some organizations, gaming has become a part of corporate culture, and virtually everyone participates. At the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, president and CEO Todd Thibodeaux gets in on the action, too.

His 158 employees regularly commandeer conference rooms outfitted with various console games, to shoot a few holes of Tiger Woods for the Wii or to take in a quick game of Forza 2 or Stardust on the PS3.

Back in their cubicles, members of rival CompTIA departments regularly engage in PC-based multiplayer games, trash-talking over the walls.

The company also maintains a “lending library” of high-tech products, including game consoles and software titles, that staffers can take home. Thibodeaux says that the Wii typically is booked for months in advance.

Though the company has no formal policy on gaming, Thibodeaux says that it tends to work itself out, and he actively encourages game playing. “Salaried employees know that their work day is what they need it to be,” he says, “and if they need to squeeze in 15 to 20 minutes of leisure time here or there, they know they can make it up later.”

In Thibodeaux’s view, his company’s gaming policy (or nonpolicy) has “no downsides.” He offers myriad reasons why it works: It’s an amazing team-building mechanism, particularly when people from around the company gather around a console in a single room.

Also, “stress relief really increases productivity, especially at busy times of the year.” It even helps with recruiting, he says, because most other companies don’t encourage their employees to play games at work. Perhaps most important, says Thibodeaux, the policy has never been abused.

Game for as Long as You Wish

Lee Burbage, “internal community chieftan” (sort of like HR director) for the Web site Motley Fool, offers a similar story. The 200-employee company has a fully outfitted game room, with consoles and even arcade games (Robotron is phenomenally popular). Here, matches of Halo keep staff coming back to frag. Like CompTIA, Motley Fool has no precise policy on use of the facilities (the company has a “take what you need” vacation policy, too), and employees can play whenever they want. It’s all part of Motley Fool’s culture of “trust and individual responsibility.”

Burbage firmly believes that gaming helps the staff. The most obvious reason: “People need a break. Studies show that if you just sit at your desk all day, productivity goes down and down.”

He says that gaming also teaches how to think strategically, several moves ahead, and of course it helps with team building, “And hey, it’s fun,” adds Burbage. “After I go play Halo, I come back and I’m happy and in a good mood.”

Though he can’t attribute the phenomenon entirely to gaming, Burbage says that the company’s culture has helped keep employee turnover at a minuscule 4 per cent per year.

That leaves us with just one question: Which department produces the best gamers? Thibodeaux says that his sales department is big into shooters (draw your own conclusions on that one), but all sources seem to agree on one piece of advice: No matter what game you’re playing, never go up against the IT department.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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