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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
When work becomes a game
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Young men playing games, AP
A generation is growing up playing immersive online games
Video games are big business and soon they could be big in business too.

A whole generation is growing up for whom video games are a key part of how they relax, whether it be fragging friends in a first person shooter or backing up the main tank in a Warcraft raid.

And it is not just youngsters. There are plenty of older folks who shake off the dust of the working day in many different virtual worlds.

Statistics from the the US Entertainment Software Association (ESA) back this up. It claims that the average player is 33 and has more than a decade of gaming under their belt.

All of a sudden, say academics and researchers, companies have realised that all the time employees spend gaming in virtual worlds is changing them.

Ian Hughes, IBM's metaverse evangelist, said many organisations were considering ways of harnessing the skills and familiarity their employees have with virtual environments.

This familiarity has driven many organisations to consider virtual worlds as places where employees can meet, mix and get on with the job.

"A lot of people are more accepting of that way of working just because of games," he said.

"It's about harnessing that ability to play to get work done."

The formidable organisational skills needed to run a game team or guild, organise raids involving perhaps 40 people and co-ordinate their different abilities to defeat a game's strongest foes are all relevant to work, said Mr Hughes.

Game gear

But it is not just the skills that gamers hone in futuristic or fantasy worlds that businesses want to co-opt. Some are taking their inspiration directly from the way that online games are structured.

Screenshot from World of Warcraft, Blizzard
Skills learned on raids in games could apply to work too
Dr Byron Reeves, a professor of education at Stanford University, said some firms were taking elements from games to overcome the difficulties of working life in the 21st Century.

"The problems associated with distributed teams, collaboration and information overload right now are so severe, and the opportunities so good, that they are willing to look at anything," he said.

Dr Reeves has founded a company called Seriosity that applies game elements to workplaces.

It was working with five or six unnamed Fortune 500 companies to harness the efficiencies of those game mechanics, said Dr Reeve.

One of the programs developed by Seriosity adds a virtual currency element to e-mail in a bid to help people cope with information overload.

Anyone sending a message adds some of their limited supply of virtual coins, called Serios, to show how important they consider that e-mail to be.

It was a more finely grained grading system than the low, medium or high importance flags found in most e-mail programs, said Dr Reeves.

It had other benefits too, he said. It revealed not just the flow of messages but also started to show who people pay attention to and who did a good job of getting responses.

Some companies were starting to adopt even more of the elements familiar from games.

"There are people right now trying to map it one-to-one," said Dr Reeves.

Level playing field

Convinced that games can help them thrive some companies have turned work groups into guilds, rewarded staff with experience points when they complete tasks, giving out titles and badges when a guild finished a project and portraying objectives as quests.

Screenshot from Second Life, AP
Virtual worlds could become key to future business life
Some were also considering using a virtual currency as a reward system allowing workers to cash in their savings for benefits or extras for their office space. The top performing guilds also get to do the best projects.

None, so far, he said, were tying wages to how people performed in the quests and against other guilds.

"Mapping levels and points on to wages is the most extreme application," he said.

Companies were adopting game mechanics for several reasons, said Dr Reeves.

Partly because workers were so familiar with this structure, he said, and because people become powerfully motivated when they know how they compare to their contemporaries.

The main reason was for the transparency it gave to the way workplaces were organised and for revealing who got things done.

"It exposes those that do and do not play well," said Dr Reeves. "There is a leader board and you know the rules."

It had the potential to turn workplaces into meritocracies where the most accomplished are easy to spot because they have racked up all rewards, achievements and levels required for a particular post.

While it may not sweep away systems of privilege or end nepotism it had the potential to make workplaces fairer and take some of the grind out of the day job, he said.

"The whole idea here is to get the objectives of the individual players aligned with the objectives of the organisation," said Dr Reeves. "Do that and you have something good."

Angela Barron, an advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said games had long been used in training to expose personal preferences and prejudices.

Many organisations also used courses that revolve around games to help make teams work together better or expose power structures among workers.

She said this was the first time she had heard of elements of online games being used in a similar way.

"I would not have thought enough people play games for it to be a great motivator," she said.

But, she said, anything that helped staff develop a better working relationship and promote team work was likely to be a good thing.

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03 Oct 07 |  Technology
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