For most of history, there has been a strict separation between work and play. But just as enterprise technology is becoming more social, it's also becoming more fun. Today, the software in our workplace is easier to use, more visually appealing and more rewarding. It engages us more and appeals to our competitive instincts. It also encourages us to engage with others.
The benefits of gamification have become widely accepted by the largest IT companies around the world. Industry research firm Gartner Inc. predicts that by 2015, more than 50 per cent of enterprises working on innovative processes will be using some form of gamification. Every day, we're seeing a new game somewhere.
Or maybe we aren't. Sometimes, the game is subtle. Our reward for playing might be as simple as a longer list of contacts on a social network. Other times it's more explicit - certain extra privileges, even virtual money. But behind the fun of widgets and points counters, there's been some serious thought.
Old concept, new application
Gamification in enterprise software is actually the application of a fairly tried and true concept, says Chuck Hamilton, social and gamification lead at IBM Corp. The idea of incorporating game elements into commercial products, for example, is ages old. It's only the technology - and the terminology - that's changed.
"When people talk about gamification," Hamilton says, "the game part gets them mixed up or a little bit confused because they think it's all about building games when in fact it is building and using the tactics that are often used in games in a more subtle and business way."
Many of us already use products that have gamification "embedded," he adds. "A lot of people don't even think about it. For example, the analogy I often make for people is, 'Do you own a points card?' and most people say to me, 'Yes, I do. I own more than one.'
"That's a typical example of gamification being embedded right into our life, where people are encouraged to do certain activities for which they get points."
In the future, Hamilton predicts, we're going to start seeing games crop up in many more parts of our working lives, whether it's instant performance feedback or a human resources evaluation.
All work and no play makes for a dull workplace
Hamilton says larger companies like his own will perhaps benefit most from "playfulness." He was one of a handful of people at IBM who originally pitched the idea of incorporating gamification into the company's products. The goal was to get the nearly half a million IBM employees, spread across some 170 countries, to work better together.
"You have to have a really hyper connection," Hamilton says. "You have to get them interested in connection and talking, you have to reward them for their own activities. We can't always be in front of them in a physical sense, so we have to create a number of little virtual tactics just to build community and attract kind of a playfulness and connectedness across the company."
IBM hasn't developed any one specific game, he adds, but game elements are found in many of its enterprise products. For example, IBM Connections, formerly Lotus Connections, is a social media platform that is "very playful," he says, with chat, networks of colleagues, and so on.
Indeed, when we speak about gamification it's often closely tied to social media, another area in which the business community has realized it has to play a role. And in some social networks, the game aspects are not hidden at all. One of them, a Canadian startup known as Empire Avenue, is modeled after a game people have played for centuries: the stock market.
Buying and selling social
Empire Avenue is a social gaming platform similar to Klout in the sense that it measures an individual's or organisation's global influence. This influence is quantified in the form of a share price, and each entity on the exchange has its own stock ticker. You can make money (called "eaves") by being social - sharing a YouTube video, for example, or by investing in other companies that are themselves social.
Ric Williams, chief operating officer of Empire Avenue Inc., says that thousands of companies, including AMD, Intel, Ford and Appleby's have joined the site. Some enterprises, like Intel, maintain dedicated staff "playing" on the site while others take a more casual approach, letting their employees contribute here and there.
The stock ticker symbols and share prices are only one of the means Empire Avenue uses to promote social business. "I think the stock market idea is just part of the site overall," says Williams. "We're heading more towards a gaming platform where you earn virtual currency for being social."
This includes "missions" in which users can promote content they've created through the stock exchange. It's essentially a form of advertising: you pay people in virtual currency to look at your product.
"Let's say I'm a comic book artist, as an example, or a photographer," says Williams, "and I'd like people to go and have a look at my Web site or my brand new piece of art. I get onto the site and create a mission and if I've got 5,000 shareholders, as an example, on the stock exchange, I send the mission to the shareholders and I select how many people can complete the mission and how many eaves I want to reward people."
The prospect of a big company like Intel paying its employees to play games may sound odd, but it happens every day and it's seen as a profitable way to promote the company's brand. Whether a social platform is designed as a game isn't terribly important: its global popularity is.
"As a technology brand, we touch so many different pieces of the tech ecosystem. Whether it's the cloud, to your laptop, to your phone - we're there," says Bryan Rhoads, media and analytics strategist at Intel Corp.'s social media centre of excellence. "We believe these games and other environments to be places where our customers are. And they're using our technology, so we should be there, too."
The fact that Empire Avenue was a burgeoning social media site with an appealing user platform was what caught Intel's eye, he adds. The company, he says, doesn't consider a social gaming site to be any different than a traditional social platform like Facebook, particularly since the latter have some element of gamification themselves.
"We don't distinguish social gaming. I think there are gaming features in many different SNSs, or social networking systems, around the world. I don't think we break it out specifically and talk about just social gaming. You may be developing content for Facebook that has gamification in it. You may be developing other things that, again, have those attributes."
Ali Ardalan, another media and analytics strategist who works together with Rhoads at Intel, says that the company is starting to view marketing in a new light, one in which a business can engage its customers through a game. This can be part of building a solid relationship with a customer base.
"Can we have more of a live-term experience with individuals?" he asks. "Can they play with us, if it's a social game, in an interesting way? Then, might they, over time, be comfortable reviewing some interesting content we provide them? Might they seek to attend an event with us that has a social extension? Might they share a retail shopping experience with us over time? Are they willing to participate in new programs where we're showing what people are doing with our products?"
Playing for keeps
Many people see value in social gaming. Empire Avenue might use "eaves" as its virtual currency, but the site obviously cost someone hard currency. In fact, it was a Montreal venture capitalist who saw the real-life profits to be made down the road.
Chris Arsenault, managing partner at iNovia Capital, says investing in a social gaming platform as no different than investing in a software company. As far as he's concerned, there is a growing market for social gaming. Still, aside from looking at the "chemistry, competency [and] integrity" of a company, he says, "the second hardest thing for me to do as a VC is trying to determine, 'OK, so what's the value of what we're betting on?"'
Determining that value of a pre-revenue company is a matter of guesswork, he adds. But in the case of Empire Avenue, he's confident his wager will pay off.
Others agree. Intel sees it as a startup with big potential, especially in terms of targeting a younger demographic that Intel wants to reach.
"What I like about Empire Avenue is that it's global," says Rhoads. "You look at the community and it's all over the place. So, yes, it started as a Canadian startup but you can tell that the community is global. That's what we're looking for."It's telling that Intel, a huge, established company, believes Empire Avenue is on to something with social gaming. When you're small, it's hard to get noticed by a giant. Maybe it's because Intel sees a little bit of itself when it looks at the Canadian startup.
"There are many people who buy the Intel stock because of the dividends we pay in addition to being an innovative, growing firm with a vision," says Ardalan. "Empire Avenue works the same way."