Can playing online video games solve the world’s problems?

Not unless we play a lot more of them, according to Jane McGonigal, an authority on gaming’s value to human development. She isn’t satisfied with the roughly three billion hours a week that people currently spend playing games on their phones and computers, and during a recent TED Talk, the online game designer, former director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future and author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World asserted that addressing some of the world’s most intractable issues requires more game playing, not less,

While that may seem counter-intuitive, one area where more game playing does appear to be paying off is human capital management and employee benefits, where gamification is increasingly being used to address such challenges as employee recruitment and retention, training and skills development, and benefits utilization.

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

HR gamification is not new. But new business priorities and corresponding changes to how human capital is managed — including a new-found emphasis on employee experience versus education; a pervasive need to improve employees’ technical and managerial skills, and a trove of opportunities to increase service levels and reduce costs with new self-service applications — particularly in connection with employee benefits — have made the use of gaming more relevant and integral to HR than ever.

Gamification has already won some high-profile adherents. Marriott International, for example, was an early adopter, using an online hotel-simulation game called MyMarriott to recruit new employees, especially in emerging markets.

But determining the technology’s ROI can be a challenge, since many of the most important benefits — such as establishing a rapport with a sought-after constituency (e.g., millennials), or increased employee engagement, even outside working hours — are hard to quantify.

“Our clients typically have goals beyond ROI,” says Peter Filak, business development director at Games for Business, a game technology provider. Coca-Cola, for instance, used the Games for Business platform to develop Revenuepoly, a sales-strategy training application. Coke “recorded a 52% voluntary participation rate and an average length of usage of 5 hours per user, 51% of which was recorded outside of working hours,” according to Filak.

The increased use of gamification by HR organizations correlates with the increased use of a specific hiring tactic: assessment. Assessment tools are “hot again because they’ve been gamified,” explains Jonathan Kestenbaum, managing director of Talent Tech Labs, a research and development organization. And the reason is simple. “Assessment is an area where [gamification] works,” he says.

Three types of games

There are three types of assessment tools where gamification can play a significant role, Kestenbaum says. The first is simulation. A call center trainee, for example, might be put through an engaging but challenging simulation game that features an irate customer, to uncover any weaknesses in dealing with confrontation or reaching a consensus.

The second is skills-based assessment. This is often used to ascertain specific technical expertise. For instance, a company called HackerRank offers companies the ability to create “CodeChallenges,” competitive games that hiring managers can use to assess their candidates’ coding skills and select the most talented.

The third area, the one most often associated with business-related games, is behavioral-based assessment. Behavioral assessments “have been around for a long time,” Kestenbaum notes, and there are several providers that offer these types of tools and/or services.

Knack, founded in 2012, is one of them. It offers cloud-based applications for testing job candidates in the form of three colorful and engaging online games: “Meta Maze,” “Bomba Blitz,” and “Dash Dash.” The results from recruits’ mobile phone gameplay are combined with a wealth of employment-related data that Knack has accumulated, and then run through the company’s AI-based data analytics tool in an effort to identify high-potential talent.

Knack’s predictive analytics are also useful for identifying unrecognized or under-developed leaders within a company’s workforce, says CEO Guy Halftek, and then matching them to leadership positions.

Another area where HR gamification is gaining traction is training. Particularly when used in conjunction with massive open online courses, or MOOC’s for short. “I’m focusing on gamification in MOOC’s as a way to further employee training,” reports Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, an HR research and advisory firm. “It’s been integrated into MOOC and MOOC has really taken off.”

Still another area ripe for gamification is employee benefits. Jim Wexler, co-founder of Persona Labs, a maker of game-based assessment tools, offers wellness programs as a case in point: “The materials are often off-putting, boring, complicated, and scary,” he says. “Gamification can get more people to participate, to appreciate a program’s benefits.”

Employers are also using gamification to develop leadership and sales skills, train employees in crisis management and in many other areas, because, as Wexler puts it, “Games are what people want.” So many clients are interested in using this format, he says, “because they understand that they can use the power and effectiveness of games to get things done.”

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