Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Microsoft Office becomes a game

Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Screengrab from Ribbon Hero, Microsoft
Players get points for completing challenges successfully

Soon you could have the chance to be a Word Ninja, Prince of Powerpoint or Emperor of Excel.

Microsoft has created a game to help people get to grips with all the features of its Office software.

Called Ribbon Hero the game presents users with challenges that test their ability to use different features of the programs.

Players confident of their formatting skills can take on others via social networking site Facebook.

Finding features

Jennifer Michelstein, a program manager at Microsoft's Office Labs who helped design the game, said it was created to reveal features of the software people might otherwise miss.

"Any reasonably complex software faces a question of discoverability," she said. "So we asked how can we help users become experts?"

Gaming seemed to be a good method to copy because people learn almost effortlessly when play is enjoyable.

"But," she said "a lot of us were very sceptical about it. We didn't think we could build anything fun."

As the design process continued, said Ms Michelstein, further constraints became apparent when the creators realised that Ribbon Hero could not be too intrusive. Microsoft got a lot of criticism for an Office helper that took the form of a talking paper clip.

"We purposefully designed it not to push training to people," said Ms Michelstein, "We also did not design it to be an 'I'm stuck' feature."

Instead, she said, the game presents people with challenges based on features that they do not use. It is also a casual game that people can fit into the short breaks people take during a normal working day.

Users who complete challenges are rewarded with points to show how their prowess with the software has grown.

The game was tested internally at Microsoft and soft launched in early 2010. Ribbon Hero works with versions of Office 2007 and above and will run on Windows 7, Vista and XP.

"We were surprised because right away people were telling us they were playing it and it was fun," she said. "Competition motivated their play."

Screengrab from Ribbon Hero, Microsoft
Players can challenge friends via Facebook

"A lot of people told us they liked this way of learning, they really liked that they could learn for a few minutes at a time."

In a bid to reinforce what people learn, the game is designed to ensure that people do not repeat the same challenge too quickly. Players also get extra points if they repeat a task a few days after they learn it.

"There's something powerful about repetition and there's also something about spreading that over time," said Ms Michelstein.

Title race

New versions of Ribbon Hero are set to be released every few weeks that build on the elements of competition and reward that are popular in other games. While mastering a skill was, to an extent, its own reward, said Ms Michelstein, there was also scope for more tangible rewards.

Future versions of the game could involve achievements for completing particular challenges or bestow titles, such as Word Ninja, on players as they work their way through it.

The Office Research team is now combing through user feedback to try and find out if playing Ribbon Hero improves productivity and whether the lessons learned through it are retained.

"Anecdotally we are hearing that people are learning and remembering what we have taught them," she said.

Sadly, said Ms Michelstein, the game was not designed to last forever.

"We never designed the game to be something that users will play over and over again," she said. "Once you play all the challenges twice you are done."

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