Leighton and Byron's Blog

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What is your game strategy?

We've recently moved our blog to the Seriosity web site. You can find it here. This new version is more user-friendly and will be updated more frequently. We hope you'll subscribe and become a regular reader.


Have you ever watched a friend or offspring deeply engaged in a video game and performing a highly complex but completely artificial task with incredible competence? Could that focus and attention be bottled and used for something serious? We’re convinced it can. This is not so much about how you plan to win against competitors, but how you adapt to an extraordinary new form of media that will affect your enterprise: massive multiplayer online games or MMOs for short.

Console video games have powerful lessons for business about engagement and motivation, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you look further into the world of collaboration taking place in the online role-playing games, every day (and night) tens of thousands of teams of 5 to 100’s of people from multiple time zones, countries and cultures, each with different and highly complementary skills self-assemble around extremely challenging goals. Sound familiar? It should. This is the new world of global business collaboration. The psychological principles and affordances found in MMOs have much to teach us about teamwork, leadership, innovation, urgency, and incentives (“what do I get when we win?”).

One of the reasons to pay attention is that these games are dramatically shaping the expectations of people entering the workforce. The gamer generation has different expectations about challenge, risk, authority, and collaboration as we have been warned by John Beck and Mitchell Wade in Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever. More recent surveys have shown the extent to which thirty-something men (and increasingly women) are playing these complex, social on-line games. What’s most important is that we know many of these gamers work at your company right now.

To be clear, we are not talking about just using games for training and simulation, although these are wonderful applications. Beyond using game technology to help people get ready to make money for shareholders, we are talking about game technology to help people while they are making money for shareholders. This could range from borrowing a few of the key psychological ingredients from great games like World of Warcraft that will make the workplace more interesting to the full Monty: re-engineering entire jobs so that workers become their avatars, building transparent and persistent reputations for tackling graded challenges with teammates inside a virtual online world as part of a compelling narrative. If this sounds fantastic, it’s worth noting that tens of millions of MMO players are already carrying out tasks inside their games that look exactly like the kinds of information work that companies have to pay people to do!

If you peel back the patina of medieval or science fiction images of dragons and spaceships, you will find a host of features that perfectly capture the essence of motivation and management in business. Games do an especially good job of encouraging people to try and fail, and try again in the context of clear and interesting challenges. They do a fabulous job of giving feedback in all of the relevant timescales for a task. Leadership emerges as a product of the environment, as we described in the May, 2008 issue of HBR. Collaboration is faster and richer with reputation systems flowing in parallel channels of information where dashboards are as important to followers as to leaders. Importantly, players use a synthetic currency to record, exchange and store value that can be traded in vibrant markets.

Because business is utterly dependent on voluntary creativity and collaboration of workers using their tacit knowledge, ignoring game inspired design principles is a huge missed opportunity. Games offer powerful tools for creating alignment, performance and engagement. And like any powerful technology, they can be dangerous if the implications for stakeholders aren’t thoughtfully considered. In future posts, we’ll share some ideas about how to discover and apply these ideas at work. In the meantime, we are interested in what you think about the notion of using game technology at work.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

About this Blog (linking Seriosity and Total Engagement)

We've recently moved our blog to the Seriosity web site. You can find it here. This new version is more user-friendly and will be updated more frequently. We hope you'll subscribe and become a regular reader.


With the publication of Total Engagement this month, we’d like to use this blog to comment on what we’ve learned since delivering our manuscript to the Harvard Business School Press and to create a place where others can tell their own stories.

How we got here
Two swim dads standing around our daughters' team pool in 2003, we began to compare notes on our mutual fascination with the psychological power of design principles in interactive media. There is a lot of time to talk, because kids swim for only a few seconds out of every hour and these girls have meets all year round. We discovered that we not only shared a lot of common ideas, but that the subject matter was vastly deep, interesting, and timely.

Questions swirled about what design features were driving the exceptional engagement of players, especially in the case of massive multiplayer online games (MMOs). What psychological theory could explain how each feature contributed and was there a common thread that tied the features together? Are players already doing stuff in the games that looks like real work? In that case, why does someone have to pay people to do the same stuff in another context (outside of the game?)

To get some initial feedback on these ideas in early 2004, we hosted a conference - in the form of a game - with intellectual and financial support from Alph Bingham and colleagues at Eli Lilly and Company. To get broader feedback, we gave a seminar at the Santa Fe Institute Business Network and learned that people from many large enterprises were also fascinated.

Leighton's colleagues at Alloy Ventures provided the resources and a home to incubate the ideas. Seriosity, Inc. was formed to further develop these ideas for information workers in large enterprises. Elite student gamers became our jungle guides and we immersed ourselves in the broader literature on serious games. We recorded hundreds of hours of game play and spoke to many great game designers.

After talking to people in dozens of large companies and hearing about their pain points, we settled in 2005 on the problem of information overload (and in particular, too much email from colleagues) and the solution we chose was to use marketplace ideas and a synthetic currency – ideas taken directly from the games we had studied. It took quite a while to build the software and it initially didn't turn out the way we had hoped. For early users, it actually slowed people down rather than making life easier. But since mid-2007, we have continued to work with a handful of talented people who have rebuilt the troublesome parts of our attention economy. It is now working quite nicely in a beta trial that must be setting records for length.

While we were waiting for software to happen, we decided to codify our thinking and experience; that is, write a book. We wrote a proposal and, Bang, our agent had signed up our first-choice publisher. We each drafted different chapters (can you guess which ones?), but we each edited every paragraph of the manuscript and can hardly tell who deserves credit for the better (and worse) turns of phrase. See our Acknowledgments in the book for the names of the many people that made Total Engagement possible or better.

Where we are going
We continue to work on new games that address broad enterprise challenges. These are still stealthy projects, but we look forward to writing about them when our enterprise partners are ready. We've also taken on some interesting behavior change projects in the energy field. More later.

If you've found your way to these pages, we bet you may have some stories of your own about using games in the workplace. Were the ideas smart or silly? What could have been done better? Post them if you like and we’ll comment and tell others about them.