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Turning Work into Play with Online Games

For many, work is a daily grind. We procrastinate and avoid doing tasks we’d rather not do, and often find it difficult to get excited about tasks and projects assigned to us. While it’s great to have a job in difficult economic times, jobs can be boring, hard, repetitive, and stressful.

Dr. Byron Reeves — professor of communications at Stanford University and researcher into the psychology of media — has a prescription for boredom, repetition, and stress at work: turn work into play with online games. He makes his case in his newest book Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete, published by Harvard Business School. Here’s a video of one of his recent presentations entitled “Work Sucks — Games are great”:

With increased global competition, employee productivity and engagement have become more critical to businesses. Reeves argues that the user experience provided by game technology offers a “tantalizing solution” for business. This goes beyond online training tools. He advocates implementing elements of games such as World of Warcraft or virtual worlds such as Second Life to solve a host of business problems with “morale, communication, and alignment all while honing skills like data analysis, teamwork, recruitment, leadership, and more.”

The G-20 council for international economic cooperation is made up of the finance ministers and central bank governors of 19 important industrial and emerging-market countries (plus the European Union). Google CEO Eric Schmidt made news at the recent G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, suggesting that multiplayer video games provide good career training — particularly in technology — where workplace collaboration stimulates innovation. “The game world is good training for a career in tech,” he said. “It teaches players to build a network, to use interactive skills and thinking.”

Dr. Byron Reeves. Photo: metanomics.net

“Everything in the future online is going to look like a multiplayer game,” said Schmidt to this international audience. “If I were 15 years old, that’s what I would be doing right now.”

What is it about online games that makes leaders? For one thing, there are many opportunities to lead. “Online games are very iterative,” states a recent IBM report entitled “Virtual Worlds, Real Leaders.” “Leadership happens quickly and easily in online games, often undertaken by otherwise reserved players, who surprise even themselves with their capabilities.” Online games such as World of Warcraft can involve an overriding goal for a team of players — there are a series of raids or missions that make up the journey, each of which requires leadership of player groups of varying size. This gives many players the opportunity to “try on” leadership roles. The study asserts that there is no reason to think that the same cannot be done in corporate settings of various sizes, missions, and markets.

Playing online digital games is proving to be an effective and engaging way for employees of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) to get trained on some pretty serious topics. At a recent show-and-tell event in Toronto, CSA unveiled several online interactive modules that harness the power of digital gaming to make workplace e-learning come alive. “The interactive CSA e-learning tools you’re experiencing today are the culmination of two years spent in development,” says Lance Novak, vice-president of sales at CSA.

Byron Reeves’ research suggests that online gaming can provide workplace benefits well beyond e-learning. He took the form of an avatar recently for Professor Robert Bloomfield’s popular Metanomics series in Second Life to talk about game design and corporate pain points, the use of virtual currencies to help employees set goals, participant-driven communication skills to facilitate team-building, and leadership:

Does Dr. Reeves recommend putting online gaming and virtual world activities on a résumé? “I think I could imagine things that I could put on my résumé that, even right today, would be useful in applying to a job at Accenture or at IBM, at very substantial places,” he commented during the Metanomics presentation. “That would probably come from both of the worlds of games and Virtual Worlds. So if you say, ‘I’m a guild leader, and have been for the last nine months, of a 200-person guild that spans three continents,’ you’ve said, ‘I know how to make a website. I know how to motivate people. I know how to arbitrate a lot of foolishness with respect to who gets what when they do this.’ I mean you’ve actually communicated a lot to people that I know, because I’ve met them, who also play in those Worlds, who would share that recognition, share the knowledge of what went into that kind of recognition. So I don’t think that’s for next year or next decade. I think that could actually be useful now.”

Is the corporate world ready for legions of dwarves, gnomes, night elves, orcs, and trolls competing for leadership roles?

He points out that the same thing can be true for a virtual world. Your resume might say, “I run a business in a virtual world, that has this revenue and this number of employees, and I negotiate independent contractor deals. There’s just so much that gets done [in a virtual world] that’s just right on target with what happens in real business.”

Is the corporate world beyond Google and IBM ready for legions of dwarves, gnomes, night elves, orcs, and trolls competing for leadership roles or cooperating to win guild gold? Given universal broadband communications and ever-faster network computers, perhaps even competition itself among the G-20 nations may start to happen in 3D virtual space.