News & Views

Jane McGonigal / Interview

by Dan Southern

Having been inspired by reading game designer Jane McGonigal’s book Reality Is Broken, PHD’s worldwide strategy and planning director Mark Holden set about figuring out how game design and mechanics could improve the company’s ability to innovate. 

At the end of 2012, the media agency launched Source, a digital, live-collaboration tool for employees around the world, where participation is encouraged through game mechanics and is rewarded with ‘pings’.

The system has been credited with playing a central role in the agency’s capture of Unilever’s global media planning account. 

McGonigal has now been brought into the fold and is advising on new developments for the platform heading into 2014. Dan Southern caught up with her to talk Source, company culture and game mechanics…

Jane, you’ve come into the project after being the inspiration for its initial launch. What’s impressed you so far?

A lot of the time when these sorts of things are launched, only 10% if people might be using. But with Source around 75% of people are active users.

Getting more people using it is one of the big design projects we’re working on. It’s primarily for planners, strategists. But, for example, could or should the receptionist be playing? The CEO? We’ve been asking what do receptionists do to help people each day? How should the CEO be helping? What does it mean for collaboration to be going up and down like this?

Is the thinking behind that that everyone can be creative and contribute ideas?

We’re going to open up the ability for anyone across the organisation to be creative on other projects. So a buyer might not be creative on a daily basis in their role, but know a market really well. So they’ll be able to collaborate on here. 

We’re also thinking about more social elements, trying to encourage more communication about what wins people are having every day. To be able to see a constant stream of what’s going on: HR, how did you win today? It lets people see what all these other people in different areas of the organisation do on a daily basis.

One of my favourite game mechanics is when you can award other people skill or experience points based on what they’re doing. So imagine, you might report that you’ve had a great conversation with someone, to make a new pizza, or whatever. Then somebody might give you skill points for ‘curiosity’, for example.

You can grow your strengths profile and create a language around the values of the organisation. 
What does PHD value? Creativity, curiosity, collaboration, openness. How can you measure that? Well, at the end of say ten years, you can look back and say that you not only earned all these awards, or won all these accounts, but you also developed, maybe, your ‘courage’.

It puts you more in control of your fate in the organisation. You can get noticed and it doesn’t have to be by your direct manager.

Who else is taking this idea of ‘gamifying corporate culture’ and applying it?

A lot of examples are quite shallow, but the best are where companies customise it to their culture. Zappos developed a great game that sat on the desktop of every employee. When you signed in with your credentials, before you were able to go to any of your workspaces it would show you a picture of another Zappos employee and ask if you know the name of that person, with a few options to choose from. 

You would try to earn points and go on a streak of knowing who these random people were. After you guessed it would tell you if you were right or not and offer some information about who they were and their department. 

They came up with this because Zappos is a very social company: lots of young people doing work that’s not particularly creative, and so they’re trying to create a sense of well-being and purpose. They were also trying to do cross department innovation: you can’t really innovate with people though if you don’t know who they are. So it started to change behaviour. People would walk into the cafeteria and stand on the chair and shout “I’m Jane McGonigal! I work in future forecasting! If you see my face I want you to get my name right!”. 

The key is to look at what is the work we do? What are our values? What do people need help with to thrive and flourish? Not just saying, ‘Hey, x consultant, can you put some achievement badges in our workflow?’ Because that’s a trick.

How do we assess how successful this stuff is?
I’ve always try to do scientific research on the games I’ve developed in the past. For this platform, we’re going to use the Gallup engagement Q12 metrics [which measure the relationship between engagement at work and organisational outcomes].

This measures things like ‘I feel like I get to use my strengths every day at work’, ‘I have a mentor in the organisation’, ‘I feel like my company has a mission and purpose that has meaning bigger than myself’. This is really cool because if you look at what it takes to make the perfect game, these types of metrics correlate perfectly! Which suddenly makes a skill set I have relevant to all this stuff!

We’re going to use the Q12 to measure things like engagement against stuff like employee turnover, absenteeism. 

What are some of the plans for Source?

I’m working on what it really means to earn ‘pings’, which is how you earn your points.  We want to make sure that the profile of the pings you earn are meaningful. We’re also trying to figure out things like what does it mean if you’re a ping millionaire? How can people feel that, as they advance in the game, it’s giving them access to new opportunities? 

For example, no matter what group you’re in, or what office, say if there’s a new client, do you want to bring in all the ping millionaires to a brainstorm meeting? 
That’s a real change to the way the company might operate, as it might affect your colleagues if you’re being called into all these meetings …
What should be interesting as this evolves is that the systems is so tuned to real-time collaboration and ‘just in time help’ that the idea is that anyone will be able to draw on the resources of the global brain. So if your ping millionaire is pulled into your meeting, Source should be able to help you cover that guy with other available resources.

We’re also building leaderboards, on show in each reception around the world, which show all the pings going around the company. It’s not so much about the competition between offices, but more about walking into work every day and being visually reminded that there are thousands of people all over the world working together, and that I could have a friend in Lithuania, and Sweden, Hong Kong. 

What’s keeping you awake at night?

The biggest thing is development of game applications and videogames as alternatives to pharmaceuticals. There are many clinical trials and scientific literature now that show that games can beat out depression drugs and anxiety drugs, for example. There are virtual worlds that work better than morphine for treating pain and burn victims; Kids that don’t have to get anaesthetised  for surgical treatments as they’re playing with Nintendo DS; people on depression playing 30 minutes of games a day, improving more than if they’re on Prozac. The same with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The expense of drugs, the side effects of drugs, the complications… if you can reduce our dependence on that, the economic force behind that is huge.