It’s Game Time:

Using gamification to revolutionize workforce management


The Business of Family

Alex Haley once said, “In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” As I reflect on my professional life thus far, it always links back to the first business I was ever a part of – my family. 


To some, it may sound strange to refer to my family this way. But for us, it makes perfect sense. My father was an entrepreneur. As a father of 12, he instilled the idea of working for yourself and controlling your own destiny into each of his children. So much so, that we’ve all followed in his footsteps in one way or another. He led by example and took big risks – like immigrating from Lebanon to Buffalo, New York with my mother in the 70s. 


When I was five my parents separated, and my mom became our primary caregiver. As a single mother of six, she of course expected us to chip in to keep the family going. She delegated responsibilities that played to and nurtured each of our individual strengths. 


For me, that strength was leadership. I was responsible for making sure my siblings stayed in line. I was also the one they came to when something went wrong. Whether it was a broken VCR or thermostat, I had a knack for finding the solution.


My mother was the first person who recognized that strength in me. She constantly encouraged me to be my best, instilling a strong work ethic. To this day I still find myself working hard to make her proud. She gave up a lot to care for the six of us by herself and her commitment has inspired every venture in my life. 


Whether it’s family or your employees, there’s a level of pride that comes with being responsible for the wellbeing of those you care about. But of course, that responsibility comes with a lot of pressure. When it comes to a business and the fate of yourself and your employees is in your hands, it can be scary to risk failure. But I firmly believe it’s our greatest failures that ultimately lead to our success. And while every day I strive for better, it’s the lessons I’ve learned from failure that have gotten me to where I am today.


A Leap of Faith

My first great failure came at a time when failure wasn’t widely viewed as a precursor to success – or at least not in my eyes. I was in my early twenties and decided it was time to step into the family shoes of entrepreneurship. With nothing but a vision, I partnered with a 3D designer to help evolve the business model for a product called Neoworld. Similar to the aspirational fantasy I was living in, Neoworld was an online world with 3D renderings of real places. Much like Google Maps today, Neoworld gave web-goers the ability to virtually walk around a part of any city from the comfort of their computer monitors. 


The product was ahead of its time, and it really worked. We had dreams of building out every street from Elmwood village in Buffalo to the Champs-Élysées in Paris to create shopping experiences, virtual travel, and more. We did everything we could to make Neoworld a reality but just couldn’t get the traction. 


It got to the point where I was dipping into my change jar to pay my bills. My dreams of becoming my own boss and running a successful business felt so out of reach. I felt like a failure. But the fear that eventually my change jar was going to run out drove me to move on and find a new job. 


On the cusp of the dot-com bubble, I began working for a web design company. The company was focused on creating web solutions for clients – building out interactive web applications that were more than just a brochure in website form. While I feared at the time that I would be stuck working for someone else for the rest of my life, this job helped me develop business relationships and really understand the needs and goals of a business’s online presence. 


When the dot-com bubble burst, the company naturally went under. It was terrible, unexpected news at the time – I had just started to find my groove. But in retrospect, it was the push I needed to try again on my own. With no job to rely on, I used the experience I’d gained to start my own IT consulting company. And to my surprise, my clients wanted to come with me. 


The process was slow at first, but with time I finally started building the career I had always pictured as my own boss. I had a passion for creating solutions for my customers and taught them how to use emerging technology to their advantage. 


Navigating Partnerships 

After about eight years in the IT consulting business, a friend asked me to assist them in setting up their new company in the accounts receivable management (ARM) industry. I initially came on board as simply a consultant, ensuring everything was in order from an IT perspective. However, I quickly recognized that they needed more than just my IT expertise. I began advising the business from a management perspective and eventually became a partner. 


Here I learned that partnerships can be tough. But they don’t have to be. When you enter a partnership, especially one with an existing friendship or working relationship, it’s best to go in with an exit strategy. 


As time goes on and a business becomes more successful, priorities change. For some, this can mean continuing to grow the business. For others, this can mean it’s time to focus on finally striking that work-life balance. But no matter what, your contribution to the business must align with your values.


Deploying an exit strategy doesn’t mean failure. Partnerships have a shelf life and life goes in different directions. Establishing a plan helps ensure that relationships and businesses can last beyond a partnership.


The “Talk Off”

I had to learn this lesson in navigating partnerships quickly. As the accounts receivable business grew, the other partners became less and less involved and it hit a point where I needed to step up and take over the day-to-day operations of the business. 


Making the switch from working on the back end – vendor relations, IT, and payroll – to workforce management was a major adjustment. I soon realized that the ARM industry has a culture like no other. 


The workforce for which I was becoming increasingly responsible operated with a culture that lacked accountability and dependability. While the small office was tight-knit and becoming increasingly successful, as the organization grew, it began to subscribe to the classic ARM culture of cliques and chaos. There was constant drama that hindered productivity. Promotions were based on popularity. And focus was misplaced on production rather than revenue or the bottom line. 


As my role with the company evolved, I began to spend more time with the agents. I would set up one-on-one discussions with agents who were failing to perform at company standards. These conversations were often riddled with excuses and reasons why it wasn’t their fault that they weren’t meeting their potential. 


Next thing I knew I was completely convinced it wasn’t their fault. I had fallen victim to the “talk off.” This term usually refers to when a smooth-talking agent has a successful conversation with a debtor and closes the deal. But in my case, it’s when a smooth-talking agent has a successful conversation with their boss. It’s an art that members of the ARM industry must master. And it quickly became a problem when I had a team blaming each other for their lack of performance.


Playing to Your Strengths

After many attempts to change the culture of the team by any means imaginable, I realized it was time to take a page from my mom’s business playbook and finally play to my strengths. I was the leader after all – and I needed my employees to see it that way too. If I could fix the VCR when I was 10, I could certainly solve this problem. I just needed the right inspiration…


Inside any collections agency, you’ll find a whiteboard displayed on the call center floor where everyone can see it. As deals are closed or money is collected, agents get up from their desks, walk up to the board, and update the numbers. This not only helps everyone understand where the company stands on production for the day, but also provides an opportunity for employees to be recognized when they accomplish something and walk to the front of the room – naturally stirring up a little friendly competition. At the end of the day, these numbers are recorded and filed, and the whiteboard is erased. 


One night when I was filing the day away, I looked down at the years and years of records and thought to myself, “if only I could harvest all this data.” And that was my “aha moment” – my answer was in the numbers! If I had a way to track my employees’ progress over time, I could fend off any talk off with cold, hard data.


Harnessing my background in IT, I began to build a database. As soon as I started building reports, the answers started coming. The rebuttals for the excuses were stronger than ever because they were backed by indisputable performance records.


Eventually, this database expanded into a product called eWhiteboard. This web-based program was a business intelligence tool designed to replace the traditional whiteboard. Instead of recording the numbers at the front of the room throughout the day, data was entered directly into the eWhiteboard platform, which the entire agency could access. 


This provided a more organized system for tracking daily productivity, but its best feature was the ability to track productivity over time. eWhiteboard was a fully equipped business intelligence dashboard that could be filtered any by employee, performance metric, or date. 


The implementation eWhiteboard suddenly held our team to a higher level of accountability. It was micromanagement without the micromanaging. The system was completely transparent and performance data easily could be accessed by anyone at any time. The internal “talk off” became obsolete. If I called an employee into my office to discuss a performance problem, there was no denying the numbers when there was a clear pattern of poor productivity. 


Game On

Around 2010, I got into a friendly debate with my brother John. At this point, we were both agency owners in the ARM industry. John managed his team in the typical fashion for a call center – he had star employees to whom he provided the best leads. This is a common leadership style in the collections industry, your best collectors have access to the best leads and opportunities for success. I challenged this subjective style. I felt that the best collectors might only be the best because they’re given the best opportunities. Providing preferential treatment to popular employees opens the door to be accused of unfair leadership and might mean missing out on top performers who leadership doesn’t favor for one reason or another. 


It was also around this time that I realized I needed to do something to get my employees more engaged in their daily work. Now that data was being entered digitally, our employees lost the opportunity to walk up to the front of the room and change their numbers. The culture of the call center really revolved around the recognition of this exciting moment on the floor. eWhiteboard was a huge asset in managing performance data and the team’s productivity, but lack of engagement was overshadowing the entire operation. 


In an effort to engage employees and keep them interested in their performance, I decided to introduce some elements of gaming to the eWhiteboard system such as leaderboards, public display boards, and avatars. The leaderboards were an easy place to start because they’re arguably the most common element of gamification and a great way to ignite a little friendly competition in the workplace. Employees want the recognition of being at the top of the board and those who find themselves on the bottom will ideally use it as the wake-up call they need to improve their performance and keep up with the rest of the team. Once a team member closed a deal, their avatar and information would appear on the public display board, much like that walk to the whiteboard at the front of the room.


But my data could be working harder than simply stirring up some competition. An important part of any organization’s growth when they start leaning on data is to identify what data is relevant. For my company, we needed to determine which metrics were driving our business objectives, so we reverse-engineered the data to determine eight key performance indicators or KPIs.  


For each KPI, I created expectations in the form of four rank levels – rookie, pro, all-pro, and superstar. Much like in the EA Sports Madden franchise from which these names were inspired, employees could collect experience points that allowed them to progress through the rank levels and objectively reach this “superstar status.” 


It was here that I began to come around to my brother’s way of thinking. With the ability to track my top performers came a compromise of thought. Now that I had an objective tool to measure performance, I could start treating my top performers like the superstars that they were while providing the same opportunities for everyone else to achieve that status. 


Despite our polarizing management styles, neither my brother nor I were wrong or right. As they say, the cream rises to the top. If superstars are earning their titles, they should be rewarded accordingly. And as employees climb the ranks it should be increasingly difficult to reach the next one, but the rewards should be even greater. This philosophy was an awesome addition to our operations because it gave the employees something to strive for in both the short term, reaching the next rank – and long term, reaching superstar status. 


The Greatest Failure

Eventually, we brought more and more elements of gamification into the platform, including the incentive-based contests that are ubiquitous in the ARM industry. With each new gamified element we implemented, I noticed a positive change in my team’s culture, performance, and morale. We had established a high level of trust due to the transparency of the eWhiteboard system. Our agency was experiencing some of the best retention in the region and our employees were outperforming their peers. 


When employees did leave, they asked their new companies to implement the eWhiteboard system. What was intended as an internal product quickly became so high in demand that I decided to take it to the marketplace. eWhiteboard was almost immediately successful because it identified a gap in the industry. While there were many products for account management, eWhiteboard was one of the only performance management tools available.


But despite the major successes of eWhiteboard, there were also some flaws in the platform. The manual data entry was time-consuming and could easily become corrupted. An accidental typo or failure to enter data accurately could impact the performance data for the entire agency. When there was a problem with the data, employees stopped trusting the system, and it stopped working as a way to hold employees accountable. Collectors are hyper-focused on hurdles to their compensation and each data discrepancy created more distrust in the system. 


I tried my best to educate the clients on the importance of data accuracy. But I soon realized eWhiteboard needed to be integrated into their systems of record so there was only one source of truth that fed into application. I pulled eWhiteboard from the market until we could fully integrate with collections software.


While I was tackling this issue, I started to realize there was an even greater problem at hand. The workforce for which I was designing this product was rapidly changing. Millennials and Gen Z were beginning to dominate the industry. 


Each new generation of workers thinks and acts differently than their predecessors and expects new things from their employers. I needed to create an agile product that could adjust to the management preferences of emerging generations – one that could tackle the attrition and disengagement stigma millennials are known for and other issues in the future. As I delved deeper into creating the ideal program, I soon discovered that eWhiteboard’s failure was about to take me somewhere even greater. 


The History of Work

Since the start of humanity, work has been essential to providing for our basic physical needs. In its earliest form, “work” was confined to simple tasks for survival like hunting and starting fires. Fast forward to today, we can code or cut hair or even fly planes to provide for our families. Our motivations for working have completely evolved and will continue to each and every day. To truly understand how to effectively adapt to an ever-changing workforce, it’s important to understand just how we got here.


According to historian and political scientist Karl Wittfogel, mass labor began taking form with the development of irrigation projects in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Workers were needed to construct these massive projects, and in turn, a hierarchy of “bosses” was created to direct them. Over time, this “work” began to provide for everyone’s needs – creating a surplus of crops and a population to consume them. And for the first time ever, people began to congregate in cities and towns. 


These new centers of commerce brought about specialized professions like physicians, scribes, artisans, and craftsmen. And naturally, from this range of professions grew distinct social classes. Typically, the apex of the social pyramid was the ruler and nobles followed by the clergy who served as government officials, writers, and mathematicians. Next came the traders and the merchants, followed by the craftsmen, and then the peasants and slaves. 


While we may joke about slaving away at our careers today, these slaves or indebted peasants worked under harsh conditions on farms, mines, or large-scale building projects like the Great Pyramid of Giza. They were the lowest class in society even though they were almost directly responsible for its conception. And they are the epitome of just how far employment and our rights as workers have come. 


From these ancient civilizations, we move on to the Middle Ages. Here we see work take its first steps toward modernization with the introduction of technology. Jobs that once took an entire family could now be accomplished by one person simply running a machine with a little help from wind and waterpower. We were learning to work smarter, not harder, and producing more than ever before. 


But even with all this production, we didn’t really see the concept of industries begin to develop until the early modern period. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the concept of money and markets and the developments of new technologies, products, and the factory system paved the way for the Industrial Revolution.


Now we all know that the Industrial Revolution was responsible for large-scale industry, mechanized manufacturing, and of course, the assembly line. But beyond this urbanization, the Industrial Revolution brought about key changes to the way that the world worked. Focus began to shift to the rational organization of processes rather than skill. For example, in the textile industry, manual dexterity and alert response were viewed as far more valuable than experience. Soon it was the nimble fingers of women and children running the mills at output rates like we’d never seen before.


However, this surge in production also led to terrible working conditions. These women and children were spending 14 to 16 hours a day toiling away in dangerous, foul-smelling, and unsanitary workshops. Value was placed on machines rather than the people who operated them, wedging a divide between workers and bosses. The lack of regard for employees would lead to trouble ahead.


It was also around this time that American industrial engineer Fredrick W. Taylor began developing and implementing an entirely new working discipline known as industrial engineering or scientific management. According to Taylor, a manager’s primary goals should be to determine the best way for a worker to do their job, provide the proper tools and training for them to do so, and offer incentives for good performance. Finally, something up our alley! 


Unfortunately, much like the sweatshops, Taylor’s scientific approach neglected the human element. His system viewed the process of work as a relationship between two machines rather than a relationship between machine and human. Left without a voice and dissatisfied with their jobs, workers began to form unions advocating for better working conditions. These unions argued that Taylorism caused irritability and fatigue along with physical and neurological damage among workers – and that without the motivation of better conditions, quality and productivity would suffer. 


This sparked a new sort of social science called industrial psychology. Social scientists began to study what made the workplace effective. Between 1927 and 1932, American social scientist Elton Mayo decided to test a hypothesis that more light on the factory floor could improve productivity at a textile plant called Hawthorne Works. Dividing the workforce into two, he told one group that the intensity of light would vary throughout the day and the other that the light would be kept constant. To his surprise, this actually raised productivity in both groups. 


It turns out that the significant variable in Mayo’s experiment wasn’t physiological, but psychological. Due to a little something known as the Hawthorne Effect, productivity rose because managers were acknowledging their workers. In another experiment, groups were subjected to varied wages, temperature, humidity, breaks, and other factors. Again, productivity rose regardless of how the conditions changed. In fact, even when conditions returned to their original state, output remained 25% higher than before the experiment.


Mayo realized that this rise in productivity could be attributed to a change in the workers’ attitudes towards their jobs and the company itself. By asking for their cooperation and opinions in the experiment, managers stimulated a layer of trust and a new attitude amongst employees who now felt like they mattered. It goes to show that a little recognition can go a long way.


As we move toward more modern times, the 1950s stand out as an initially transformative time for the workforce. And it has been rapidly changing ever since. As a result of women diving into the labor pool during World War II, a third of the workforce in 1950 was female. And as the Civil Rights Movement began to take form, more African Americans were also taking on office jobs.


With so many new employees in the office, companies were forced to make room. Offices were soon inspired by factory floors, with executive corner offices looking out onto rows and rows of tightly crammed desks. By the 60s, or what we like to refer to as the “Mad Men Era,” those corner offices were occupied by the aftermath of the “three-martini lunch.” Coincidentally, the cubicle was also born in this era. 


The culture of the 1960s changed the attitude of the workforce in the decade that followed. Workers began looking away from government jobs and toward the private sector. Long hair and loud clothing became the symbol of personal liberation and strong individualism. Employees wanted to be more just another person in the tightly crammed row of desks. 


In 1975 economy crashed, followed by two more recessions at the start of the 1980s. Yet somehow America still managed to close out the decade with 19 million more jobs. These jobs adhered to the 9-to-5 workday, with employees lobbying for a work-life balance. Companies strived for a corporate culture – but perhaps not well enough. By the 1990s, employees began having doubts about the value of long-term company loyalty. Your first job was no longer your father’s lifelong career at one company. People were seeking out the best opportunities, especially with dot-com businesses booming. 


But by 2000 we all know what happened – the dot-com bubble burst. And just as it had once swept the factory floors clean of jobs, technology was now taking the place of administrative assistants, bank tellers, and other low-wage careers. Employment opportunities could be found in the places technology couldn’t reach – jobs involving higher education and high-level social or analytical skills. This became especially true as the country recovered from the 2008 recession and the tech sector became a huge percentage of the US economy. Still today, employment growth among tech and IT is expected to total 13% between 2016 and 2026 – faster than the average across all other occupations. 


What Comes Next?

But what does this all mean for the workplace of today and tomorrow? Trends of recent decades lay a framework for what lies ahead. But can we rely on this framework to lead us into the unknown? Between vastly different generations ruling and entering the workforce, the aftermath of a pandemic that flipped the world on its head, ever-evolving technology, and the emergence of a new class of workers, we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us. 


Let’s start with that new class of workers. You may or may not have ever heard of “the gig economy,” but you know exactly who these workers are. The term “gig economy” refers to the rise in contract work or “gigs” such as ride-sharing, food delivery, construction, and freelance jobs. And it employs more than 15.8 million Americans. 


The rise in contracted work can be partially attributed to the internet. With the development of online content like YouTube videos or perfectly curated Instagram pages, there has been an increased demand for creators. Job websites and service apps also make it easy to hunt down contract or short-term positions with a low barrier to entry. There’s something for nearly any skillset. Creatives can score a quick website design project on Fiverr. Animal lovers can track down a puppy and $100 for the weekend dog sitting through Rover. And nearly anyone with a vehicle and a decent background check can drive for Uber or deliver food with Doordash. 


These companies like Uber, Doordash, Lyft, and Instacart are what truly define the gig economy. They’ve revolutionized low-income jobs and in turn, expanded the American workforce and created a new sense of economic security for so many. They also provide a glimpse at how these gigs may affect jobs in the future – paving way for other industries to make the shift to contract-based employment. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the gig economy – growing 33% in 2020 to $1.6 trillion. And it is predicted that by 2023, more than half of the US workforce will either be gig economy workers or have worked independently at least some point in their career. 


Of course, contract work isn’t without its flaws. Independent workers don’t have the same rights and benefits as full-time employees, such as healthcare or guaranteed minimum wage. And this can cause some contractors to begin to feel exploited over time, especially considering they earn on average 58% less than full-time employees.


However, with a healthy balance, contract work can also feel empowering. There’s a sense of independence that comes with being your own boss. And you can work as much or as little as you’d like. It can also be a great way to supplement a full-time job. 


Naturally, the gig economy seems like a great fit for millennials – they’re tech-savvy and enjoy independence. But this isn’t necessarily the case. While there are some outliers, and some who have sought the gig life in response to pandemic layoffs, only 3% of millennials work in the gig economy. And of that 3%, only 64% work in the gig economy by choice – as opposed to the 73% of Gen Z freelancers. 


Millennials are perhaps the most difficult generation of workers the world has seen. They think, work, and act differently than their predecessors and hold their employers to a new set of standards, which many companies are struggling to meet. They thrive on recognition and reward. And with a career tenure averaging only 3.2 years, this generation doesn’t subscribe to the idea of lifetime employment. If they are unhappy with their working conditions – be it recognition, wages, management, or hours – they’re quick to jump ship. In fact, 21% of millennials have changed jobs within the last year and 60% are open to the opportunity – a turnover rate costing the US economy more than $30.5 billion each year. 


Millennials are also the least engaged generation, with a workplace engagement rate of only 29%. So maybe it’s no surprise that millennials have a substantially lower net worth than other generations did at their age. Despite 50% “feeling good” about the money they have to spend, less than 40% are described as “thriving.” So it makes sense why they may not be seeking additional sources of income. 


But on their heels is a generation that certainly will. Gen Z, or people who were born between 1995 and 2010, are just entering the workforce and are prepared to take it by storm. Having been raised during the Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street Movement, this generation is more frugal than their millennial predecessors. They can be classified as cautious, practical, and more mindful of the future, with 70% describing their top career motivators being salary and health insurance. And while this doesn’t exactly mesh with the gig economy, they’re also willing to put in the extra hours if they’re rewarded accordingly. Only 37% consider work-life balance to be important and 58% say they’d work nights and weekends for higher pay. Their tendencies in the workforce are far more like those of their grandparents than those of millennials. 


While these generational differences create major opportunities for Gen Z to establish their place in the workforce, they could also spell out some trouble ahead for all. Doubting their ability to recruit, retain, and train them, 28% of millennial managers look to Gen Z with concern. Traditional management will become outdated and expecting this new generation to conform to the old ways rather than evolving management styles will only lead to disappointment and increased attrition.


In addition to the growing pains of a new type of workforce, the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly have a major effect on the future of work no matter the generation. While it will take decades to watch it fully unravel, we’re already feeling its influence. With many employees working or having worked remotely, management styles of the traditional workplace are being called even further into question. Employees feel disconnected from one another and with less supervision, productivity is decreasing every day. 


The pandemic has also been a catalyst to our inevitable total dependence on technology in the workplace – which is a change we should’ve been more prepared for. With 83% of children under the age of six using a screen each and every day, it’s no surprise that by the time they are teens, 50% report feeling addicted to their smartphone. Within the next 25 years, 75% of the workforce will be comprised of Millennial and Gen Z employees who will expect the same technology and stimulation they’ve grown accustomed to in their everyday lives to be an integral part of their workplace – even more so than today.


Now it’s time for some perspective. We can fear the unknown and look at the projected demands of tomorrow’s workforce as a concern. Or we can look at them as an opportunity. And I believe we have a major opportunity through gamifying the workplace. 


What is Gamification?

In its simplest form, gamification is the application of gaming principles, design elements, and mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems. Think points, leaderboards, badging systems, and levels. And while the term is somewhat new, we’ve been using games to solve problems for longer than you may expect.  


According to research by gaming industry leader Jane McGonigal, games were invented in the ancient kingdom of Lydia as a solution to famine. In accounts from Greek historian Herodotus, there was once a famine so dreadful that the king established a kingdom-wide policy as a distraction from starvation – one day everyone would eat, and the next, they’d play games.


Although the tic-tac-toe board on the kid’s menu doesn’t seem to distract your toddler for as long as it takes to fry up some chicken tenders, for the Lydians, distraction with games actually worked! The citizens were so engaged on game days, they were completely distracted from the harsh reality that there was no food to eat. They played along this way for 18 years, helping their civilization outlive the famine.


The rest of the story goes that at the end of the famine, the king decided to play one final game. He divided the kingdom into two teams. The winning team was to be awarded a glorious adventure – leaving the kingdom behind to find a new land where the Lydian civilization could thrive. 


Now while that happy ending may sound a little too Disney, it appears to be true. Studies show that Lydian DNA can also be found in the ancient Etruscans – meaning that this group of ancient gamers may have gone on to form the Roman empire. Additionally, there’s a 20-year global cooling pattern that matches up with the timing of this famine. So games truly may have preserved and created an entire civilization.


How It Works: Philosophy and Psychology 

But why does gamification work so well? Well, McGonigal believes that today, although we’re no longer fighting off a 20-year famine, we still use games to escape suffering. Anything that’s not satisfying our lives in the real world we’re getting from video games, apps, and gamified systems. 


We go to game worlds to feel like we can conquer anything. In game worlds, a win is always within our reach. And that win is so much more than money or prizes – it’s a win that taps into our core human drives. Gamification expert Yu-Kai Choi defines these core drives as the following:


Meaning: the desire to feel that our actions have a purpose

Accomplishment: the drive to achieve and overcome challenges

Empowerment: the desire to choose your own direction and try a variety of solution to a problem

Ownership: the desire to own things and have possession 

Social influence: the drive to interact with, help, learn from and compete with others

Scarcity: the drive of wanting things you can’t have 

Unpredictability: the drive of wanting to know what will happen next

Avoidance: the drive to avoid pain or negative consequences


Choi also says the history and effectiveness of gaming elements like points, badges, and leaderboards are in their ability to use these core drives. For example, points make us feel like we have meaning, purpose, and a sense of progression. Badges tap into our need for accomplishment and reward. And leaderboards appeal to our need for social status and influence. 

Another industry expert, Gabe Zichermann breaks it down even further with his SAPS model for user rewards. SAPS stands for status, access, power, and stuff – essentially encompassing all the core drives. According to Zichermann, these are the things people want in life, in order. And when we achieve them in the game world, dopamine is released in the brain. It produces an intrinsic reinforcement that causes us to go back and repeatedly seek that activity over and over again.


Generation G

It’s for this reason that Zichermann believes that gamification is our future – and I agree! He’s coined the term “Generation G” which refers to the 126 million millennials that grew up with video games as their primary form of entertainment – a generation that is conditioned to expect the psychological rewards of the game world in real life. 


In the words of Zichermann, “what this all points to is a future that looks pretty different from the world we live in today. Generation G and those driving the gamification meme forward, are advocating for a different world. It’s a world in which things move at a faster pace than they did for you and me. It’s a world in which there are rewards everywhere for actions that people take. The rewards don’t always have to be cash rewards. They can be meaningful status rewards, meaningful access rewards, meaningful power rewards. A world in which there’s extensive collaborative play. This is one of the things that Generation G does so much differently than even my generation. I remember going to school and teachers struggling to come up with exercises that we could do as a team, that would be graded as a team. In the end, those group exercises always boiled down to an individual score, which distorted the way that people behaved. But Generation G plays a lot of games that are purely collaborative, in which there is group value. This will also affect our world in untold ways.” 


In his Ted Talk on gamification, Zichermann tells the story of Ananth Pai. As a successful businessperson who worked on process engineering, Pai saw an opportunity to improve the learning process at his children’s school in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. He went back to school to get a master’s in education and took over a class at White Bear Lake Elementary, replacing the standard curriculum with a video game-based curriculum that he had designed. His curriculum involved separating the kids by learning styles and giving them a Nintendo DS and computer games that taught math and language. And in just 18 short weeks of learning through Mr. Pai’s curriculum, his class went from a sub-third grade math and reading level to a mid-fourth grade level. 


Pai’s experiment is proof of just how effective and crucial gamification is to Generation G – and our future. Gamification is already everywhere, and if we don’t climb on board now, we will be left behind. In 2020, the gamification market had a global value of $9.1 billion. Over the next five years, it is predicted to grow 27.4%, reaching $30.7 billion by 2025. 


Gamification in the Real World 

An interesting example of gamification in action today is MIRA Rehab. The company was born when its founder, Cosmin Mihaiu, discovered just how much physical therapy patients hate doing their “homework.” Finding PT boring, frustrating, and confusing, patients often neglect to keep up their exercises at home. With a noncompliance rate of roughly 70%, it can take a very long time before patients start seeing results.


Mihaiu wondered what would happen if patients could play their way to recovery. So he and his friends developed software that transforms traditional rehabilitation exercises into video games using a Kinect device. Through the software, patients fly a bee through the sky or guide a submarine through the ocean to complete their exercises. These programs can be adapted for almost any condition – from children living with cerebral palsy to seniors exercising to prevent a fall. And as a result, MIRA has now been used in more than 70,000 personal therapy sessions all over the world. 


Major companies across the globe have also successfully implemented gamification. Filling the activity rings on your Apple Watch and earning stars for free rewards at Starbucks are both great examples of subtly implementing elements of gaming to engage your audience. Or when Chipotle wanted to push its ethical food sourcing message, the company released an app-based game and an animated short film you may remember called “The Scarecrow.” In the first month of the campaign, The Scarecrow sparked 18.4 million conversations across 17 social platforms. The app became the number one adventure game in the App Store. Most importantly, it helped Chipotle secure itself as the top fast-food brand in the US above Taco Bell.


Gamification in the Workplace

So where do we go from here? We’ve established that gamification is inevitable. We’ve demonstrated that it’s effective in the real world. But how do we apply it to the workplace? 


In studies conducted by cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier, we can see the positive effects of using video games for employee training. Her lab conducts studies using trainings that involve games. At baseline, participants are asked to come into the lab to perform some tasks. Following this initial assessment, they’re asked to complete some homework – to play about 10 hours of action game-based trainings over a distributed practice (e.g., 40 minutes a day for two weeks). Once the participants are done with the training, they come back a few days later to complete the tasks once again. After two weeks of training on video games, the participants perform better – and their improvement is still present even months after completing the initial training.


Bavelier explains that when we play games, they make changes to the brain networks that control our attention. These brain networks are much more efficient in people who play action games. Recent studies show a 60% increase in employee engagement and a 50% increase in productivity as a result of gamification training features. And 83% of employees who undergo gamified training are more motivated at work. 


But this engagement and motivation will soon fall off if gamification isn’t implemented properly. I truly believe that for gamification to be successful in the workplace, it’s up to our managers. Gamification in the workplace isn’t simply adding elements of gaming like contests or company leaderboards – we’ve been doing this for years. Gamification in the workplace is about applying the traits of gamification to our management systems. 


According to Jane McGonigal – there are four defining traits of games. There’s the goal, giving us a sense of purpose; rules, making the game challenging; feedback, telling us how close we are to our goal; and voluntary participation, establishing common ground where everyone accepts the goal, rules, and feedback.


Now, what would happen if a manager applied these traits to their leadership? Establishing the “rules” would create a clearer path for employees to reach their goals. They’d know which tasks they were capable of and the parameters of what it would take to achieve them. Feedback would also be instantaneous and constant. And our employees would be there voluntarily, achieving more, always on the verge of a big win. 


The Role of the Manager

But to do this correctly, we must first understand the way the management system works. In 1990, Henry Mintzberg created the Mintzberg Model, outlining the roles of a successful manager. According to Mintzberg, these roles can be broken down into three categories – interpersonal, informational, and decisional roles. And within these categories are the 10 hats each successful manager must wear: the Figurehead, the Leader, the Liaison, the Monitor, the Disseminator, the Spokesperson, the Entrepreneur, the Disturbance Handler, the Resource Allocator, and the Negotiator.


While each of these roles are certainly important, I like to break this down a little further. The responsibilities of a manager can be simplified into four distinct areas – discipline, performance management, motivation, and culture.


In recent years, discipline has become a much larger responsibility for our managers. HR has become less of an employee resource and more of a compliance department. This means we must rely on our managers to set fair and precise objectives within the company – which is much easier said than done. In addition to managing the rules, our leaders must also manage their personal feelings and relationships. Are there exceptions to the rules for top performers? Where does it end? Or does it spiral out of control? And what about benefits like PTO? Can we provide people with all the vacation time they want to keep them happy and still have enough staff to keep things running smoothly? 


Some of this also falls into performance management. In addition to setting objectives that are fair and precise, these objectives must also be challenging, yet attainable. Like we’ve learned through the study of gamification, achieving goals that are just above our skill level produces an intrinsic reinforcement that causes us to go back and repeatedly seek that satisfaction. This role is all about holding the team accountable for productivity – and doing so objectively. 


To make this happen, the motivation role cannot be neglected. Managers must find new ways to excite and inspire their employees each and every day. Much of this stems from rewards and recognition. The human brain craves recognition, it thrives on it. When we receive recognition, it stimulates the hypothalamus (the part of our brain that controls our metabolism and stress levels) and increases dopamine production (the chemical that causes happiness) to improve the quality of our work and productivity. In fact, 40% of employed Americans say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often. But rewards and recognition are only effective when they’re actually earned.


Your workplace culture will go downhill fast if it appears preferential treatment is being given. Managers must measure, maintain, and enhance the company culture for all employees – including those they don’t necessarily have the most in common with. This is becoming increasingly critical. As a reminder, within the next 25 years, 75% of the workforce will be comprised of Millennial and Gen Z employees. And millennial managers are already concerned about their abilities to recruit, retain, and train them. Managers must get creative and find ways to create an environment where everyone who works hard will thrive. 


Throughout these different management areas, one common theme always rises to the top – remaining objective. No matter how things change – generations, working environments, etc. – subjective management styles will destroy the balance of these roles. As humans, it’s not always possible for us to set our emotions aside. Sure, there’s some unique talent out there. But often, a manager is just an untrained, glorified agent. They may be a skilled worker or great salesperson, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can manage effectively.


We can’t expect our managers to be superhuman. So perhaps we need to look at their role in a different way. To provide a fair and equitable shift in the role of the manager, I believe the solution is one that automates the tasks above and shifts the role of the manager to more of a “happiness engineer.” 


This term, coined by Jane McGonigal, speaks to engaging those intrinsic rewards – the rewards that keep our employees engaged. According to McGonigal, intrinsic rewards fall into four major categories – satisfying work, the experience (or at least the hope) of being successful, social connection, and meaning. 


To allow our managers to focus on bringing these intrinsic rewards to the workplace, we need data to help us automate their more traditional roles. Clear, concise data through business intelligence will guide our managers to make objective decisions based on tangible information.


In my business, I’ve seen that this works. In 2008, we developed a product called eWhiteboard. This web-based program was a business intelligence tool designed to collect and display data to track productivity over time. eWhiteboard was a fully equipped business intelligence dashboard that could be filtered any by employee, performance metric, or date. From color coding to performance snapshots, it equipped managers with the tools to make decision-making easier.


The implementation eWhiteboard suddenly held our team to a higher level of accountability. It was micromanagement without the micromanaging. The system was completely transparent and performance data easily could be accessed by anyone at any time. Rewards and discipline were given based on facts. There was no denying the numbers when there was a clear pattern of productivity or lack thereof. 


Once employees were held accountable for their performance, there was a shift in culture. My employees began to think in a career mindset versus simply a job. And we were inspired to take this to the next level. In ZIZO, the next iteration of this platform, we bring transparency to the employees as well, creating their own data dashboard.


Business Intelligence + Gamification= Happiness 

The first iteration of eWhiteboard included a few basic gaming elements which really seemed to help keep employees interested in their performance. With ZIZO, we decided to kick the gamification up a notch – leveraging elements of gaming such as contests, badging systems, variable rewards, avatars, and leaderboards to engage our employees.


The tool does all the motivation by finding creative and effective ways to create a variety of engagement – which is critical to the success of the application. It gives visibility to where a person stands relative to their peers and relative to the office average, providing a level of self-management and direction. The intrinsic rewards of gamification in the workplace make this work style addictive, and employees constantly want to improve. Suddenly demand comes from the employee, not just the employer. 


With gamification doing its legwork to engage our employees and hold them accountable, managers are now able to fulfill their roles as happiness engineers. By creating an immersive gaming experience, our employees will come to play the game of work. Just as people play video games to escape life, people will play the game of work to live in a better world. 


At ZIZO, we see the future of employment not as a work-life balance, but as a work-life integration. With this style of management, we see the potential to integrate your health, fitness, financial, and career goals to bring you the ultimate success. The potential is unlimited, and we’re just getting started. So from here we say – it’s game time.




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