Gamification nation

December 9, 2013: 12:09 PM ET

It's well known that we are a game-obsessed culture. But Adam Penenberg's Play At Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking reveals how big companies are increasingly using the technology to gain a competitive edge.

By Caroline Fairchild, reporter

131206160951-play-at-work-adam-l-penenberg-240xaFORTUNE -- Anyone who reads Adam Penenberg's Play At Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking will walk away with a somewhat startling realization: Games are slowly taking over corporate America.

If you don't believe him, just take a look around.

When you get to work in the morning you may sign into your computer and see a virtual avatar of yourself appear on the computer screen. After getting back from lunch you may have an email from your boss offering a reward to the employee that comes up with the best idea for the next product launch. At the end of the day you may notice a status bar on your LinkedIn page telling you that your profile is just 75% complete -- a push from the website's designers to add more information.

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These are all examples of "gamification:" the integration of addictive game-like components, like rewards and goals, into non-game situations. Of course, games have been gaining ground for quite some time, but what most people don't realize is just how prevalent they are within corporations.

That's where Penenberg comes in. A journalism professor at New York University and longtime investigative journalist (he's perhaps best known for revealing the journalistic fabrications of Stephen Glass of the New Republic in 1998), the author shows how successfully bringing game design into the workplace can not only increase worker productivity and job satisfaction, but also inspire breakthrough thinking and achieve better results. At first, making daily work tasks feel as thrilling as an exciting level of Candy Crush or Angry Birds may sound like a fantasy. Yet many companies all over the country are already proving it can be done.

Microsoft (MSFT) improved product quality and worker happiness by turning the mundane task of testing for bugs into a game where workers receive points when they solve a problem. The company applied the same concept to the job of translating Microsoft's operating software into 36 languages. Each time a player reviewed a part of the software in a different language, he or she would receive a point and advance to different levels. The company previously had trouble getting workers to help out with this task, but more than 4,500 employees participated once it was turned into a game.

Other companies are using games to improve quality control and boost worker morale. In order to decrease the time people spend waiting in line, for example, Target (TGT) rates cashiers on their speed -- and has their total score affect promotions and salaries. UPS (UPS) lowers the number of packages employees accidently drop by training drivers with game simulations that test things like how they should walk on ice when their hands are full. Some companies, like L'Oreal, create games for recruitment and to gauge the skills of potential employees.

Penenberg's book comes at a time when American companies are desperate for solutions to keep an ever-unhappy workforce engaged. In 2010, the Conference Board discovered that only 45% of American workers were satisfied with their jobs and half found their jobs interesting, the author writes. To put those numbers into perspective, 70% of employees found their work interesting in 1987. Games, Penenberg told Fortune, may hold the key to finally keeping the endemic of workplace unhappiness at bay.

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In fact, harnessing the power of games can tackle problems even larger than worker productivity and engagement. Penenberg writes about the multiplayer online game Foldit that was created to advance science and solve real-world problems. As a result of the highly interactive game, a self-described "lowly lab technician" and her team discovered in 10 days the key to a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus in rhesus monkeys -- a problem that eluded scientists for more than 10 years

Ultimately, writes Penenberg, when roughly 97% of 12-to-17-year-olds play computer games and some 70% of the heads of American households admit to being gamers, games are simply too popular and too effective for companies not to incorporate them into the daily lives of their workers. By next year, research firm Gartner projects that 70% of 2,000 global organizations will use gamified applications for training, health care, marketing, and employee performance.

Toward the end of the book, the author posits that in the future companies very well may turn an entire job into a game. He outlines an example of a call-center employee named Jennifer who works from home. She logs in every day to a pirate ship computer game along with several co-workers on her team. Jennifer's team is competing against other teams, and as she successfully answers calls her team's virtual ship moves closer to an island. The first group of employees to get to the island is rewarded with a real prize like free holiday travel. Jennifer is not only motivated, but the game gives her a sense of accomplishment and community.

And that's not child's play.

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