By Glen Tullman
Recently I read a book that has fundamentally changed how I view the world and especially how I approach building a business. The funny part is it’s not a business book. It’s a book about video games.
Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal has a concise and powerful thesis. People are spending an unbelievable amount of time on video games because we’ve created an unfulfilling reality:
The real world just doesn’t offer up as easily the carefully designed pleasures, the thrilling challenges, and the powerful social bonding afforded by virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential. Reality wasn’t designed from the bottom up to make us happy. Reality, compared to games, is broken.
But not all hope is lost, writes McGonigal, a game designer. She says we can harness the energy behind gaming and the lessons we’ve learned from how the designers created these games and apply them to make a better reality.
Sounds unbelievable, right? Unrealistic? That’s what I thought, too, until I dug in. I always heard that “business isn’t a game” when I was coming up in my career. Now I’m starting to think that may be the problem.
According to a 2015 Entertainment Software Association study, more than 150 million Americans play video games. The report goes on to say that 42% of Americans play regularly, at least three hours a week. That’s millions upon millions of hours of attention invested in gaming every week. We’re really missing something big if we’re not asking “why?”
This was all confirmed to me by the Pokémon GO craze that is overtaking the country. Billions of dollars have been added to the valuations of the companies involved. Millions of people are out playing the game, exploring parts of their neighborhoods they’ve never seen before and learning more about their community. While it’s only a game, and kind of a silly one at that, we’re seeing the start of augmented reality and a breakthrough in how we integrate games and reality. We know more is coming, and this is only the beginning.
In that spirit, this book reveals four very alluring aspects of gaming which, I believe, have direct applications to business:
• Clear missions with obstacles we can tackle: Probably the most common complaint I hear from folks who are bored at work is that they just don’t know what the goal is. According to Gallup, only 50% of people know what is expected of them at work. Changing and shifting priorities can leave them confused and befuddled. Who could run a marathon if they didn’t know there was an end? On the flip side, video games provide a clear goal with challenging obstacles that are possible to overcome. People like to be tested near their limits but not asked to do impossible tasks. When designing roles in a business, it’s important to give your team clear goals that will push—but not drown—them. The key part is providing clarity on what you want your team to achieve. CEOs and team leaders need to be able to clearly explain employee roles in a simple and direct statement. Don’t make it too easy, push them to their limits, but always make their objectives attainable. If a leader can’t summarize what each person on their team does in 10 words or fewer, something is wrong.
• Fast feedback and the ability to feel and see rewards: I call this “keeping score.” Team members want immediate feedback. They want to know how they’re doing and how they can get better. Be direct with them—and make it a regular habit. Whenever a team member runs a big meeting, I never say goodbye to them without letting them know how they did and suggesting two or three things they could do better. It’s awkward and overbearing at first. Why? Because we are not used to getting honest feedback unless, of course, it’s a sport. Then, a coach, even one who screams at you, is loved! Because she’s trying to make you better. So, after a meeting, give direct feedback, good and bad. Celebrate their successes, coach their areas to improve, and when they’re doing well, directly tie promotions and changes in compensation to the work they’ve done. Even better, where possible, tie rewards directly to key metrics. For example, any salesperson who sells 10 new clients in a quarter earns an extra week of vacation. Kind of like the character power-ups you got for completing a particular hard mission in a video game, but in real life.
• Generating epic meaning to be a part of something bigger: Collaborative video games have taught us that big goals create moments of epic achievement. Players love being a part of a team that works together to achieve an ambitious goal, whether it’s a bunch of Warcraft players getting together to complete a large raid or HALO players worldwide working together to rack up 10 billion enemy kills with real-time updates. People like being a part of something bigger that gives meaning to their individual actions. Even if they are make-believe. Imagine how much more powerful they could be if they were tied to reality. What if we built something at our businesses that advanced a shared mission? Health businesses can target specific health goals (e.g. 1,000 or more lives saved with specific shared testimonials). Construction companies can target a certain number of homes built (and share stories around the office with pictures of couples in their new homes). And technology companies can trade examples of how they help connect long lost friends or make romantic connections (perhaps a wall of wedding invitations). Promoting epic goals that aren’t directly tied to profits can drive excitement and motivation. Make sure everyone knows how they are helping get to that number and what they can do to get there even faster.
• Creating strong social connectivity with more time interacting with social networks: We know people are happier when they’re interacting and developing social networks. Author McGonigal breaks down the studies: Social interaction is one of the key things that drives online gaming and especially collaborative gaming. Our workplaces should be the same way. Let’s create a community beyond the occasional Town Hall. Every CEO should be thinking about what networks we can develop in our businesses beyond the usual office departments. Offices can spark communities around shared interests (a video game club, for example), shared goals (e.g. health and fitness or parenting) or helping others (such as a volunteering club focused on a specific goal). We can adopt schools, push each other to accomplish personal goals and make friendships that transcend a simple “hello” at the water cooler. At my last company, we paid people to complete volunteer projects in the community completely unrelated to work. And they came back so energized, we accomplished more in less time.
Video games may seem trivial at first. After all, you can end up spending a vast amount of time jumping over fireballs in a castle trying to rescue a princess. But they shed light on what we’re missing at many of our workplaces: fun, excitement and human bonding that build strong communities. By taking some of these elements from games and putting them into our workplaces, we just might add a little more meaning—and a thrilling sense of accomplishment—to what has become for many a daily grind.
Reality Is Broken helps break us out of the static thinking that has too often dominated business. We have always been told business is serious and can’t be considered a game if we want to succeed, but perhaps that’s backwards. By making business more game-like, we’ll be following the quintessential business goal: playing to win.