Why work is looking more like a video game

Updated: May 26 2007, 05:30am hrs
Work is not play. But maybe it should be. In fact, Paul Johnston has re-made his company on the idea that business software will work better if it feels like a game. Johnston is not some awkward adolescent, but the polished president and chief executive of Entellium, which makes software for customer relationship management. Businesses spend billions of dollars on such software to try to track their sales staff, their marketers, their customer service anything that connects them with customers. Unfortunately, most of the software is the business equivalent of calorie counting. No one does it gladly. Worse, the software has a Big Brother aspect to it.

CRM software is designed to let your manager peek at you, Johnston says. He notes that even at Entellium, based in Seattle, he has had trouble getting his sales staff to update their data consistently. Reasoning that sales people are wildly competitive, he thought that they would respond to a programme that showed where they stood against their goals or their peers. Hence, Rave, which Entellium introduced in April.

Rave adapts a variety of gaming techniques. For instance, you can build a dossier of your clients and sales prospects that includes photographs and lists of their likes, dislikes, and buying interests, much like the character descriptions in many video games. Prospects are given ratings, not by how new they are common in CRM programmes but by how likely they are to buy something. All prospects are also tracked on a timeline, another gamelike feature.

Rave isnt exactly the business version of Madden NFL, at least not yet. But Craig K. Hall, president of Logos Marketing Inc., a graphics company in Albany, NY, said that it reminded him of video games he has played, like the Legend of Zelda. Hall, 31, says he likes the way Rave pops up information, including news that will matter to clients. He also said its use of sales stages and checklists, also borrowed from the way games progress through levels, had helped him rethink the way his company operates. Theyve done a good job of it, he said.

Most people under 35 grew up playing video games. Many still do the average age of gamers is over 30 and video games have become a mainstream form of entertainment. While twitch games like Doom or Quake, in which a player has to react quickly, remain popular, there are now huge games run in online virtual worlds. World of Warcraft, for instance, has millions of players around the world who must organise themselves into teams to accomplish complex tasks. In some online games like EVE, these teams are actually called companies, and the politics involved would impress the most cut-throat executive.

Executives may find that software is not the most valuable thing they can get from video gaming. Jane McGonigal, an affiliate researcher and resident game designer at the Institute for the Future, said she had done research that showed the qualitative advantages companies gain when they hire gamers, including an enhanced ability to innovate rapidly and collaborate effectively, even across far-flung regions.

Skills you develop in game worlds solve real-world problems, McGonigal said, adding that 70 corporate executives came to a recent institute gaming event.

Gamers also tend to be more loyal to their companies and more likely to want to work with others than non gamers, according to research by John C. Beck, a management consultant who runs the North Star Leadership Group, and Mitchell Wade, chief executive of Choice Humanitarian, a nonprofit group that seeks to end poverty in the developing world. Beck and Wade were co-authors of the book Got Game. (The book is out in paperback under the title The Kids Are Alright.) Beck says children who grow up playing video games typically have to figure the games out for themselves, because adults dont know how to play.

Thats quite unlike, say, children who play baseball, where the adults tell them what to do. One downside to managing the gaming generation is that it associates bosses with level bosses, the obstacle in their way to the next level in a game. (Beck tells managers to avoid this by becoming a strategy guide to their charges, something any gamer can appreciate.)

Beck says he sees a gaming generation gap in companies, but that he expects it to disappear in 10 years or so, as the gamers move up in management. In fact, he says, in the last three years, his reception from chief executives has gone from Huh Thats crazy to Tell me more.

Of course, theres already plenty of gaming going on in business (and not just gaming the system). Companies use simulation tools for product development and build games for marketing products, as well as for corporate training or education. Cold Stone Creamery, for instance, has used video games built by Persuasive Games to train ice cream servers and Cisco Systems used Persuasives games for its engineers. Corporate executives routinely develop skills through role-playing and other strategy games, said Ben Sawyer, co-director of the Serious Games Initiative and head of Digitalmill Inc., a consultant group based in Portland, Maine, that works with businesses to carry out gaming strategies.

Sawyer said that companies were beginning to see that they could use video games to develop skills and spread corporate culture through their ranks, even to help individual employees understand how they could contribute to the overall success of the company. He said that companies struggle to manage tens of thousands of people, of varying experience and skill levels, who are often dispersed around the globe. But the developers of games like World of Warcraft have created exactly that kind of environment.

Nobody knows just how much gaming will ultimately affect business. But its clear that the game is changing.

NY Times / Michael Fitzgerald