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If you're interested in changing behaviour in your workplace, helping employees or customers to develop new skills, or spurring innovation, you may want to consider the approach known as gamification. If that scares you – given that the word is ugly and sounds as if you would just be encouraging staff to play video games – Brian Burke, a vice-president at technology research firm Gartner Inc., says you should relax.

Gamification is actually not about playing games. Games are about entertainment. Gamification is serious stuff, using game mechanics such as badges and awards to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.

"It's not entertainment. It's motivation," Mr. Burke said in an interview.

He points to the Boy Scouts, which has long used badges to motivate youngsters, and Weight Watchers, which uses a points system and social encouragement to nudge dieters. Both are examples of gamification from the days before the term was even coined. "It provides them with the encouragement, motivation, and clear path to achieve a goal," he said.

Mr. Burke stresses that when using gamification, it is vital that the emphasis not be on organizational goals but on motivating people to achieve their own goals. When those personal objectives are aligned with the organizational goals, you can hit the gamification jackpot.

Behavioural change is the most common use for gamification. It comes in handy because new habits must be created to change behaviour, and gamification can excite us to adopt those practices.

In his book Gamify, Mr. Burke notes that Spanish bank BBVA used gamification to encourage customers to use its online services. The BBVA Game, which has 80,000 users, rewards players for completing challenges that educate them about Web banking, encouraging them to use the service. Points are awarded, which can lead to prizes. It has led to a 5-per-cent increase in BBVA's Web-banking users, who spend 60 per cent more time on the site. Because online banking can be easier than going to a branch, the game is aligned with customers' needs. But it's also aligned with BBVA's needs, because it reduces costs.

Samsung Electronics focused on customers with its social loyalty program, dubbed Samsung Nation. Customers are rewarded with points, levels and badges for watching product videos or commenting on Samsung products. The program has doubled the number of items placed in online shopping carts.

A key to success for behavioural change is to increase complexity over time. The BBVA Game starts by encouraging customers to watch instructional videos and then try simple operations such as checking an account balance. As users become more confident with the help of coaching, they move to more complex tasks such as paying bills.

Gamification can also help people to build their skills. Learning new skills often requires a repetitive process of lectures and practice, which gamification can handle. Or if the skill is best learned in an experiential way – such as being presented with a problem to solve – gamification can provide a vehicle for collaboration with others.

There have long been games that can teach new skills, such as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (a series of video and computer games and TV shows designed to stimulate kids' interest in geography, cultures and history). But Mr. Burke says those are games first, and skill-builders second. Gamification puts the skill-building first.

U.S. organizations such as Capital BlueCross are using it to educate members on the complexities of health care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services applied a gamified solution to educate health-care practitioners on best practices about privacy and security.

A key element of design is to create theory-practice loops. Players are provided with instruction, a challenge, and feedback on their efforts. "Gamification breaks the learning process into small, achievable steps and provides constant feedback and encouragement throughout the process," Mr. Burke writes in his book.

To spur innovation, gamification can encourage people to submit innovative ideas, evaluate proposals and then collaborate to refine the idea into reality. Quirky, a crowdsourcing product-development company that has more than 6,000 inventors as members and has launched more than 400 new products since 2009, uses gamification in this way.

Mr. Burke says the process can be captivating. During his research he found himself hooked as he submitted a name for an anti-theft rucksack – one of 1,400 possible choices – and watched his suggestion bounce up and down in the Quirky rankings.

While he is an enthusiast, Mr. Burke warns that the biggest challenge facing companies is to understand the limitations as well as the opportunities of gamification. "A lot of organizations are pursuing opportunities that are unlikely to be successful with gamification," he said. Faced with a problem, they throw some points at it and hope a solution will materialize. But you need to figure out how a point system might work, how to employ collaboration, and whether what you are designing can hold for the long term as well as short term.

But if you get it right, he believes you can harness the power of game design to great benefit for your organization.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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