Play games at work! You might hope that's the message behind the new book, 'Changing the Game: How Video Games are Transforming the Business World' - but there's rather more to its central thesis. We cornered David Edery and his co-author Ethan Mollick by the watercooler for some pointers...

Games for everyone?

Edery – Microsoft’s Worldwide Games Portfolio Planner for Xbox Live Arcade – and Mollick’s exhaustive exploration is a world away from ‘Lunch is for Deathmatches’. Changing the Game is actually a thorough exploration of how companies can inject some of what’s special about games – interactivity, fun, structured rewards, and communities, say – into staid workplaces and business models.

Where and when did the idea for Changing the Game first originate?

David Edery: Credit for the general idea of doing the book itself belongs to our editor, Martha Cooley. Martha contacted me after discovering some articles that I had written about the social and business impact of video games, and proposed the idea of the book. I didn’t think I’d be able to write the whole thing by myself in my spare time, so I asked Ethan to be my co-author – we had studied at MIT together, and Ethan has analyzed games as part of his PhD research, in addition to helping some non-profits and the military with game development. Fortunately for me, Ethan agreed to do it.

How much is your message about making everyday business more fun for consumers, versus making offices more entertaining places to work?

David: Approximately one-third of the book covers the many ways that games can be used for marketing and advertising purposes. That includes consumer-centric advertising, but is just as applicable to B2B situations. Another third of the book is dedicated to the ways that games can be used to train existing employees and to recruit new employees.

The final third of the book is the most speculative and (to me) the most interesting: it covers the ways that games can be used to increase productivity and morale at work, how they can be used to make businesses more innovative, and how they can be used as vehicles for crowdsourcing, focusing collective intelligence, and harnessing the wisdom of crowds.

Ethan Mollick: I think you bring up an important point by raising the role of fun. Employee training, recruiting, and even routine tasks can all be made more entertaining using games. But even when you can’t make a task – like tracking down software bugs – completely fun, using elements from games can make the task more engaging, and can encourage people to compete in ways that are both more interesting and more productive. We discuss these elements of games and how they can be applied in the book.

Can you give us an example of how Microsoft has used games internally to increase employee participation or output at some task?

David: The Windows Defect Prevention team created an extremely simple game called The Beta1 Game; to play, all you needed to do was install an early ‘beta’ version of the Vista software. Doing this would earn you a ‘b’. Voting on the version would earn you an ‘e’, and running your version overnight would earn you a ‘t’, and so forth.

Everyone who participated in the game could see the letters earned by everyone else who participated. Beta1 doesn’t sound like much, but it quadrupled participation in the Vista testing effort.

The Defect Prevention team followed up with Beta2, which expanded on the original concept by awarding points for a wider variety of activities, instead of five fixed characters. Like Beta1, it had leaderboards, but it also had prizes and random drawings. It too quadrupled participation.

What kind of problems can be solved by games that have hitherto been badly tackled by conventional business?

David: Well, you could argue that businesses typically do a bad job of motivating employees in general, so that’s a rather huge and central problem that games can help address. In particularly, businesses could be particularly well-served by learning from the ways that games use positive and negative feedback loops to motivate and focus players.

But there are other problems, ranging from technical challenges (“computers aren’t good at identifying random images; let’s get players to do it for us, for free”) to organizational challenges (“improving teamwork skills is difficult; let’s use a video game instead of another marginally-useful trip to the ropes course to work on that…”)

Games are a very powerful and totally underutilised tool that organisations of all kinds – not just businesses, but non-profits and governments too – can use to tackle these challenges.

Ethan: And games encourage communities of people to work together in amazing ways. Alternate Reality Game players solve complex mathematical problems; modders create commercial-level software for free; and user communities quickly discover every secret and bug in even the most complicated game.

We talk a lot about ways that business can learn from the way game communities innovate. And, as David mentioned, we explore how new distributed computing efforts are using games to encourage people to perform difficult tasks. For example, understanding how proteins fold to form different shapes is critical to curing many diseases, and even to inventing alternative fuels. By turning protein folding into a game called ‘’, researchers are discovering that people can solve protein folding problems better than computers in some cases.

Do you think traditional games developers are best placed to advise and implement these sorts of ideas in business, or will we see the Serious Games sector grow and break free of its roots – just as the centralised computer IT departments familiar from the 1970s long ago stopped dictating how most 99 per cent of employees use computers, for example?

Ethan: I think we’ll see a mix, since it is still the early days of these sorts of efforts. Some traditional game developers, such as Breakaway Games, have produced really interesting games for businesses and the military.

On the other hand, e-Learning companies such as Enspire Learning are making their products more game-like. And there is a good chance that developers based in universities (and other non-business, non-military areas) may bring something amazing out of left field and change the industry entirely.

There is no doubt, however, that the kinds of games we discuss in the book require a mix of skills that are not entirely native to traditional game developers, so if they want to play a role in these rapidly growing markets, they should invest as necessary soon.

Have games companies already lost the initiative as web companies have learned to better hook up and keep hold of their customers? (That is: isn’t Facebook a sort of game?)

David: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that game companies have “lost the initiative.” EA’s Pogo seems to be doing an OK job of maintaining a very large and lucrative audience of casual gamers, and they never stop evolving their metagame.

Xbox Live is doing great with gamerscore, achievements, and now avatars, and we’re definitely not finished evolving our experience for the better. And of course, you can’t forget the many developers of casual and enthusiast MMOs, not to mention the developers of adverworlds like Webkinz; these companies have employed more than a few clever tools to keep their users engaged!

That said, websites like Facebook are clearly doing a fantastic job of keeping their users engaged by enabling them to express themselves and by connecting them in multiple compelling ways with their friends. There is certainly something to be learned from that.

For a long time, I’ve suggested game developers should consider employing their talents for engaging a user to make everything from ATM transactions to shopping online more compelling, which I presume is one element of what your book discusses. Do you see any evidence game developers are interested in these areas? Aren’t they too busy making or aspiring to make games?

Ethan: Excellent question. Take a look at Spore, which (whatever its other merits) offers a fun-to-use creature editor that is also incredibly powerful. Or a game like SimCity, which can inspire middle school kids to juggle the dozens of variables involved in city management. Imagine applying the same gloss found in SimCity to accounting programs, or to CAD/CAM software – it would not only create new products, but also allow many more people to use these sorts of tools.

The military has been thinking about this for a while now, and has been getting help from game designers in refining the UIs of new combat systems. I know of at least a couple of game companies that have been thinking about this opportunity, but there is less interest than I would hope, for exactly the reason you mentioned. Most game developers simply aren’t interested in making games that have goals beyond pure entertainment.

Is there money in all this?

David: We wouldn’t have written the book if there wasn’t. Consider the following: spending on corporate training exceeded $46 billion in 2006 in the U.S. alone. Advertising spending exceeded $270 billion in the U.S. alone. As much as we in the video game industry like to crow about how quickly we’ve grown and how big we’ve become, our numbers don’t hold a candle to these numbers.

And the remarkable part is, there’s very, very good reason to believe that video games are a better training and advertising platform than the vast majority of mechanisms currently used for training and advertising!

This, despite the fact that games currently represents just a tiny fraction of total training and advertising spending worldwide. So yes, there’s money in this. Quite a lot of money.

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