By Randy Sabourin & Cameron O. Anderson

Managers understand and appreciate the hard work and long hours their employees put in. Often they will thank staff by setting aside a day of play for activities ranging from golf tournaments to laser tag. But why do we continue to separate play from work? Are they mutually exclusive or can we find a way to connect the two and make play an integral part of the workday?

“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” Brian Sutton-Smith

Employee engagement is a sign of a healthy and growing company. When employees clearly see how and why their work matters, they contribute to the overall goals of the company. But often employees come to work and simply function, dreading the next work day knowing they are coming back to do the very same thing again. According to studies on workplace engagement 84% of managers don’t know how to accurately measure their team members, only 7% of employees fully understand their company’s missions and what is expected of them to achieve these goals and 90% of Gen Y-ers say they desire co-workers who make work more fun (

Yet, other research is showing the increase of time and money people are spending on online games and video games. According to, 200 million people play games on Facebook every month. 49% of gamers are 18-49m, 26% are 50 or over. The scientific journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking reported that 61 percent of surveyed CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives say they take daily game breaks at work. What can managers and businesses learn from the world of gaming to boost employee engagement?

“Games have transformed our culture, how we view the world, how much fun we think we should be having and how we interact with other people.” Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit. (Fast Company, Dec/2011)

Why are games so pervasive amongst adults? Philosopher Bernard Suits summed it up with the simple statement: “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” (Reality is Broken, McGonigal)

Games present a goal to achieve within set rules that force creativity and strategic thinking and provide instant feedback that helps sustain motivation. Playful ways of work lead to creative and adaptive workers and teams. We crave challenges that draw upon our talents and encourage us to continue learning.  We like interacting with others, are competitive and want to be rewarded for achieving our goals. Games provide this. So how do we adapt this model to the workplace in order to retain and motivate talented staff?

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Plato

Creating a gaming environment that addresses knowledge retention and teambuilding while creating a challenge that is perceived by participants as fun is no small task. Clients approach us to create games for events, conferences and more and more as a learning/practicing instrument.  There are 4 major principals that make a business game successful, a goal, rules, feedback and content mix.

The goal is the outcome that the players work toward. It helps focus attention to the challenges presented by the game and gives players a sense of purpose. The player goal is to compete for points or recognition for completing missions. Common corporate game objectives are teambuilding (getting to know everyone), knowledge retention (testing content), inter-personal dynamics & awareness (how the team works together to solve problems) and of course, having fun.

The rules place limitations of how the players achieve the goals. The game zone, the tools and technology, and within a teambuilding context, the reliance of other players to solve challenges are important factors. Creativity and strategy are generated by having to succeed within the rules of the game, much like real life.

The feedback system embedded into a corporate game can serve several purposes. For the player, it is knowing that they are competing with other players or teams; it can be scoring, time left or badges. We find that sharing results across the game also gives players added feedback and incentive.  We promote a final viewing/judging of the results. It is not only as a sharing experience but also acts as a positive status feedback. Feedback to the client on the games achieving the desired goals is also important.

Context mix is all the parts of the game that are played. Corporate games are often designed to achieve teambuilding or test knowledge retention; however, an entire game of testing for knowledge is a test a not a game.  Balance is important from many angles- the balance of challenges that appeal to how we pay attention and get distracted by world. External awareness is a behaviroual attribute that is critical for team dynamics, sales, and leadership, as are analytical and conceptual behaviroual preferences for strategy and creativity, and of course each individual’s inclination for action over deliberation. There is a long list of behavioral attributes that can be integrated into a game format.  We often include our psychometric tool TAIS into the mix as well. (See the Team Dynamics Case Study here)

Learning in a controlled environment like a boardroom has less of a chance of ‘sticking’ with the learner than content learned in real life situations. This becomes a challenge for trying to learn material that needs to be accessed in pressure situations. Games can create a practice environment which includes the performance under pressure atmosphere that can be a challenge to recreate.  We often integrate a role-playing component to a game to heighten the reality and the challenge. Imagine on mission involving using your team’s creative skills to make a video about a scene from history in the genre of dance in one minute, the next mission is creating a value proposition for a new client in front of them, the next mission your team fights a group of Ninja’s, the next mission is in an elevator meeting with the CEO of your largest client. The elevator pitch and value proposition creation was learned in yesterday’s sales training. You are on your own for the historical ballet and Ninja rumble.

We have found that games created for junior sales associates and executive team members follow these same principals. As with any successful learning endeavor one size does not fit all, a collaboration between game designers and learning designers in critical.

Gaming workshops such as this are a proven method of improving employee engagement. The experience effectively combines work and play, consolidates learning and builds teams.

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4 Responses to “Business Gamification for Results”

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  • randy_sabourinIf you've ever wanted to play a Go Game for free - here's your chance - posted on 06/06/2013 18:18:03
  • randy_sabourinIf you've ever wanted to play a Go Game for free - here's your chance - posted on 06/06/2013 18:15:14
  • randy_sabourinHow to be better at mentoring - posted on 04/06/2013 10:29:16
  • randy_sabourin"Why can't people stick with a to-do list?" Inside the quest of productivity app makers to leap from engagement to habit to ritual.... - posted on 03/06/2013 10:16:29
  • randy_sabourinMay Winner of $1000 cash for his awesome idea - Hashtag Teeter-Totter! A giant traveling teeter-tooter - too cool! - posted on 03/06/2013 10:13:59