Some of the greatest challenges in business today centre around keeping people motivated, productive and loyal. However, we live in times where a plethora of choices and digital distractions makes this more difficult than ever before. In response to this challenge, game designers have been developing incredibly powerful ways to get people to learn, stay attentive, collaborate, and stick with the task until it's done with excellence.

Games are systems designed to keep people highly motivated and engaged to perform tasks and achieve goals. There's been a movement recently to see how Game Mechanics (the elements that make a game playable and interesting) can be applied to more serious challenges like employee retention, customer loyalty, and productivity. From Clicks Club Points and SAA Voyager Miles to Foursquare Badges and Twitter Follower counts, games are creeping out of the box and into our daily lives.

What is a Game?

The key components of games are 1. goals 2.  rules 3.  challenge, and 4.  interaction. They involve mental and/or physical stimulation (hence their role in learning and development). A game can also be distinguished from play which is usually unstructured, and a puzzle which requires a strong mental concentration and is undertaken alone.

According to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, in Rules of Play:"A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome."

With these criteria as a basis for the definition, you can see how school - with it level-ups, grades, and guilds (not their language) is a kind of massively-multiplayer reality game (MMRG). Of course, if they actually thought about it as a game, perhaps the whole thing would be more exciting and compelling for all involved! As an example of explicit game-design in higher-education see Lee Sheldon's awesome "Gaming in the Classroom" syllabus where students get Experience Points (XP) instead of grades.

Elements of Game Design

Games are a kind of narrative, albeit a participative one. Even games like Tetris hold the allure of the Hero's Journey, the Monomyth as described by Joseph Campbell:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

 The enabler of this journey into self are a set of game design principles. The most basic of which is a Schedule of Reinforcement - or how often someone gets a response to a particular action (see 5 Creepy Ways Video Games are Keeping You Addicted). However, there are thousands of other game dynamics that can be built into game design.

I love SCVNGR's play-deck of game dynamics, here's 3 of 47: 

1. Appointment Dynamic: A dynamic in which to succeed, one must return at a predefined time to take some action. Appointment dynamics are often deeply related to interval based reward schedules or avoidance dyanmics.

Example: Farmville where if you return at a set time to do something you get something good, and if you don’t something bad happens.

2. Progression Dynamic: a dynamic in which success is granularly displayed and measured through the process of completing itemized tasks.

Example: a progress bar, leveling up from paladin level 1 to paladin level 60

3. Cascading Information Theory: The theory that information should be released in the minimum possible snippets to gain the appropriate level of understanding at each point during a game narrative.

Example: showing basic actions first, unlocking more as you progress through levels.

More obvious gaming elements are things like leaderboards and points, which can also be used to boost a player's status or earn them virtual goods.

Applications to Life and Business

"Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game." - Donald Trump


Daniel Pink points out in his book "Drive" that money is not suffiently motivational for people to stay working productively. It is rather a combination of satisfying work to do, regular feedback, status, and social interactions that stoke the flames of high performers. These are, incidentally, the same game mechanics that keep people productively present for hour on end on games like Fantasy Football and many others.

In Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk on "How Gaming Can Make a Better World" she discusses how World of Warcraft players play on average 22 hours per week (a part time job), often after a full day's work. She calls this "Blissful Productivity" - an idea that stems from the understanding that people are happier when they have satisfying work to do. She also describes a sense of "Urgent Optimism" that gamers have - a sense that the goal of the task at hand, while challenging, is achievable. These feelings are highly motivational, and are the result of careful systemic craft by smart game designers.

Renowned Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a different lens on these same ideas in his work around "Flow" (that state of joyful immersion in what one is doing, to the extent that time seems to drop away). According to Csikszentmihalyi there are three rather game-like conditions that are necessary to achieve the flow state :


1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.

 2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.

3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

Good managers and leaders may already understand these principles, and use them to keep their teams inspired and involved. Not surprising, since these principles are human truths and have have been part of our nature long before the first Nintendo box was shipped.

However, the science of game design that has emerged has put a kind of science and measurement to the way we motivate people. If we as business people are more conscientious of the game mechanics that we are using in our various fields of endeavor - whether Marketing, HR, Leadership or Finance - then we can conscientiously shape the systems we use to motivate people in way that help people be more productive, involved, and fulfilled.

AuthorDave Duarte