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What Pokémon Go Tells Us about Gamification in the Workplace

What Pokémon Go Tells Us about Gamification in the Workplace

Last night, as I was returning from dinner with friends, I heard some whooping on the street. Someone was saying “I got 290! I”. A second later two triumphant teenagers emerged, flushed and riding their bicycles. They were playing Pokémon Go.

Venturing out at night was probably a function of the fact that the summer vacation is on and the fact that the more exotic Pokémons are rumored to be available during night-time. Several hours earlier, my youngest son ventured on the street after dinner with some friends. They had the same goal – capture Pokémons – and as he came back home he told me (in excruciating details) the scores of his friends and how long they’ve been playing the game.

Getting people to walk around with a game

What would these teenagers be doing otherwise? They wouldn’t be walking as much, hunting and gathering Pokémons. They would probably be living the sedentary summer life of most of their peers – at home, in front of a screen – the TV, a computer or their smartphone. This brings us to the point of the goal of Pokémon Go – it uses a game to encourage walking. The game isn’t just for teens.  Marlynn Wei comments in Psychology Today that “The app has the potential to benefit people who would not otherwise be motivated or able to leave the house due to fear or anxiety”.

“Pokemon Go is what health gamification should be” says Steven Randazzo.  Using augmented reality it puts users in a quest to collect Pokemon. The catch is that to encounter them you need to get walking. “Pokemon Go rewards movers and explorers”.

Health gamification

We’ve known for quite some time that the ability of mobile phones to track movement and location carries an almost intrinsic capability to enable applications for fitness and wellness, The result is that with the success of the mobile phone, so has the quantified self (as it pertains to fitness) gain widespread adoption. This isn’t a fad. Research shows that tracking steps taken actually increases the amount of, well, steps taken. But in the past, fitness-related apps were used by people that already were interested in improving their life choices. But Pokémon go takes kids that had no interest in sports and gets them to walk around.

An Coppens says this about the fitness/walking side of the app:

“Introducing game elements to walking indeed isn’t new. Including our mobile phone and virtual creatures in an app in the process is new. The key to making this work though are the motivational drivers of initially curiosity to see what the hype is all about and for the first time users it may also be curiosity to try out something new and novel. Thanks to early achievements and rewards, the game hooks players in. The rarity of some of the special creatures is making people stay out longer and go further and try harder. Belonging to a tribe of players and playing with friends gives an added bonus of enjoyment as well as a bit of peer pressure.”

Gamification of data

Gamification – the use of game mechanics to drive engagement – is what my company, Centrical, has been doing for the past several years.  Our deployments are about getting employees to improve their work performance through digital motivation and real-time feedback. In many respects we’re like a fitness tracker for work – building on the same premise that gamification and real-time feedback can be effective and long lasting drivers of work. Gamificaiton at work, of course, is not a game, and there are no Pokemons to be had.

When I explain that we take data about performance and reflect it to employees, so they can reflect on their targets and performance, changing it in real time.  I am sometimes asked why not just show the raw data to employees – something like a business-intelligence based report on their performance, maybe a time-series chart. You can probably guess that that would not move the needle for many employees… it isn’t enough. Data isn’t enough – but games and gamification are a great way to visualize data and to drive motivation.

Barry Joseph says that the secret sauce of Pokémon Go is big data. He says “The game’s AR succeeds, in fact, because it turned big data into a game.” He’s referring to the big data underlying Google Maps – which are used to deliver the Pokemon in location. “Datasets are just numbers until they are translated for the non-expert” he continues.

“Beautiful, interactive visualizations are one way to present data. But as Pokémon Go demonstrates, so can games. What ways can we play datasets, rather than just present them? “

he asks.

The real world

The game captures our attention because it not only encourages us to walk in the real world, but also interfaces with the real world. The thrill of the buzz when you pass near a Pokémon, gym is basic psychological conditioning. All its game elements are related to who we are in the real world.

We explore the real world because the game interface plays on what makes us human:

  • our innate desire for discovery (along with the fear of missing out on rare pokemons)
  • our need to move; and
  • the fact that we become compelled to collect points

Games are powerful motivators, as the recent craze shows us. Self measurement, reflection and motivation to do a good job, as they appear in enterprise gamification, may seem not as powerful but they can become a powerful and longer lasting motivator for better work with longer term engagement.


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