Playing Games at Work

You’ve probably noticed that websites like to reward you for everything you do. Updated your profile on LinkedIn? Congrats! You scored a 100%! Booked air tickets on Expedia? Yay! Get that five-star dinner voucher. Silly as it sounds these small thrills often sway what we buy or do online, and turn everyday activities into fun games.

And a growing number of businesses have cottoned on to this. This process is called gamification, and it brings to routine activities that sense of excitement and achievement felt while playing a game. The idea is to add game-like elements (points, competition for first place, medals, etc.) to every day activities, such as completing work on a deadline or doing the most work among your colleagues each week. The goal is to make routine work fun and encourage your employees to work more enthusiastically.

It also offers businesses alternative ways to reach out to younger consumers; those of the digital age, who are always on the lookout for more interactive and challenging ways to communicate. Sportswear manufacturer Nike, for instance, created Nike+, an app that helps measure the distance or pace of a walk or run. It uses a GPS sensor, linked to an iPhone or iPod, that you insert in the shoe, to motivate fitness enthusiasts to strive harder, while the non-profit educational website Khan Academy uses gamification to improve the learning experience.

By using game concepts like points, badges and medals, gamification, as global information technology research and advisory company Gartner Inc. puts it, “utilizes principles that make traditional and online social media games appealing and compelling. It encapsulates a sense of fun, competition, gratification, improvement and rewards”. A 2011 Gartner report predicted that by 2015, more than 50% of the organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.

Beyond driving profits and user engagement, games are finding resonance worldwide within the workplace as well. Many organizations use them during induction, for employee engagement and training. “Various peer-reviewed studies, like the Human Cognition Project, an ongoing project initiated in 2011 (by Lumosity, an online brain training and neuroscience research company) which brings together neuroscientists from around the world, researching aspects of the brain, show that gamification improves cognitive capabilities,” says Rohit Nair, chief operating officer, Contests2win. “At the 2win group ( and Games2win), we build consumer apps and content that focus on improving five parts of the brain—memory, logic, concentration, language and visual interpretation,” adds Nair. They are a business-to-consumer group, so they don’t design apps for companies.

India Inc. is yet to fully wake up to this potential. But change, many believe, is coming. “In the last four years, as computerization has picked up, more companies are open to the idea,” says Sanjaya Sharma, CEO, Tata Interactive Systems (TIS), a global pioneer in e-learning solutions and simulations. “Every company has a big initiative to roll out and they need to educate and train people on these initiatives in innovative ways. Boring methods are not effective.”

Last year, TIS developed a learning programme for US-based health insurance company Cigna, which wanted to move from a customer-based experience approach to a customer-centric one. “We developed three game-based courses to be played sequentially which focused on customer centricity,” says Sharma. The programme won the company top honours at the prestigious 2013 LearnX Asia Pacific Awards, instituted by the LearnX Foundation, a non-profit that promotes advancements in workforce learning.

“Gamification is the way forward,” believes Sharma. “One, it is more cost-effective than traditional methods because there are no travel costs, or those incurred on instructors and hiring premises. Also, it has proven to be very effective in terms of learning outcomes. The old debate about whether tech-based learning is effective is over.”

Back home, it is mainly knowledge-based companies that have adopted gaming methods so far. “We speak to companies who appreciate and recognize training as critical to their growth,” says Mohit Garg, CEO, MindTickle, which has developed learning platforms for Vodafone India, Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, and Yahoo!, to name a few. Garg co-founded MindTickle in 2011 with Krishna Depura, Nishant Mungali and Deepak Diwakar. It was voted No.1 in the GSummit2012 for “Best use of Gamification in Enterprise/HR”.

“Out of our own experiences we knew how important training is for companies but there is a big gap between employee motivation and company needs,” says Garg. “We had been running knowledge-based games for Mood Indigo, the IIT (Indian Indian Institute of Technology), Bombay, festival. So if we could create high-level, knowledge-based engagement for students, why not for employees? We figured out a platform which combines five themes to take this to the next level—social learning, gamification, cloud-based technology, mobility and analytics.” In India, gamification is acquiring currency in induction processes and employee engagement. “CEOs recognize that the payback from high employee engagement is very critical,” says Garg.

One of MindTickle’s most talked about platforms is a hot-air balloon race (at the event HiFli Solstice 2011) developed for ISB, Hyderabad, to enable interaction among its 2012 batch students and over 3,000 alumni from across the globe. It’s built on the lines of FarmVille, and users had to interact with other participants to advance to higher levels. Virtual rewards and medals were given to keep them hooked. At the end of the week-long event, each user, MindTickle claims, clocked an average of 11 interactions. Hundreds of new LinkedIn connections were formed.

Last year, the company designed a game challenge for Vodafone India to enable employees from across the country to participate. “Earlier, we would have regional-level contests,” said a spokesperson from the Vodafone employee engagement team. “For the first time nearly 7,000 employees came on board at the same time.” The balloon- race platform had a social networking element built into it to allow employees from different circles to connect. “If someone won a gold medal, you could ping them,” said the Vodafone spokesperson. “Within hours of launching this program, we had over a thousand employees mailing us to say they loved it. We spent a third of what we used to on such initiatives.” Vodafone plans to repeat the exercise this year.

“You cannot take 10,000 employees out for dinner or bowling,” says Ravi Handa, former vice-president, customer success, MindTickle, who now runs an e-learning venture called Handa ka Funda. “Gamification can help you find a way to engage all of them at the same time. We created a game for a company that has a presence across different tier-type cities. The induction process for the agents was huge and critical. So we created a game with a boat race. This boat goes to different islands and they learn about the different cultures there. When you design the process in this way, people do it very well. If designed in tight sync with the company’s objectives, the games can meet all their needs.”

Like online travel portal MakeMyTrip, which gamified its induction process in August but tweaked it so it wasn’t totally tech-reliant. “The new hire is given an iPad with a Bluetooth headset and told to play a game,” says Gurpreet Bajaj, head, talent development, “It is a 2- to 3-hour induction module with a social learning element to it. So you learn in a fun way.” The module doesn’t require an instructor, but they have one present. “That’s because we are Indians. So we cannot rule out the human factor,” adds Bajaj.

However, piling on hundreds of badges may end up meaning very little, as a more recent Gartner report cautions. It predicts that 80% of gamified apps will fail to meet their objectives by 2014; the top reasons being poor design, including meaningless points and badges. Garg agrees. “I am not sure about the 80% figure but I agree that it may fail if companies start looking at gamification for the sake of gamification, and we are seeing that specifically with sales. Just because you have rewarded someone with an online medal does not mean it meets your business objective. We have to look at rewarding the right kind of behaviour with the right kind of incentives and show the learner what his next baby-step milestone should be.”

This article was published in the Mint newspaper under the heading “Play Ball at Work.” To view click on

Laptop Learning

The average time a Mumbaikar spends commuting is estimated at about 50 minutes; time generally spent on a quick nap or reading newspapers. Rashmi Jain, 34, uses that time to study. Every day, enroute to work, she is hooked to her cell phone, watching internet video lectures on game theory, marketing and consumer psychology by faculty from Duke and Michigan State University.
“I was looking to acquire new skills”, says Jain, who works at Reliance Communications ADAG. Three months ago she signed up for a MOOC- Massive Open Online Course- which is a college class based on lecture videos delivered via the internet. It is “massive” because thousands of students can enrol for a course unlike a regular classroom lecture which has limited seats; “open” because all one needs is an internet connection; “online” is the manner of delivery and “course,” because like any regular college program there is homework and tests. At the end of the course, usually ranging between three to 18 weeks, students pass or fail. A large number simply stop showing up.
Be it engineering, humanities or mathematics, many top notch universities around the globe offer a range of programs, free of cost, via MOOCs. In the last few years, elite, Ivy League schools like Princeton, Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley and Caltech have pledged millions of dollars to MOOC development. IIT Bombay recently tied up with EdX, a non-profit consortium founded by Harvard and MIT, making some of its regular courses available online, for free. “We have a huge repository of lecture materials,” says Dr Devang Khakhar, director, IIT-B. ”In addition there could be other elements like discussions, quizzes,tests, etc”.
The prospect of a foreign education is one that is attracting Indians by the thousands; not surprising, given how stringent admissions criteria to some of these universities can be, or the exorbitant college fees. ”Our students in India represent the largest percentage of Coursera students outside of the US, roughly 10%,” says Dr Andrew Ng, co-founder, Coursera ( Coursera is among the leading education start-ups that act as go betweens, by packaging courses and designing online interactions between students and schools. ”In the past 6 months, we have seen a 139% increase in India student enrolment”, adds Dr Ng.

Coursera currently produces the largest number of MOOCs, worldwide. It offers programs from 83 universities, among them Ivy League schools like Brown and Princeton. For a small fee, with the option of financial aid, it also gives students a certificate to share on their resumes.

Another prominent start-up, Udacity (, born out of a Stanford University experiment, also has a significant Indian presence. “We have students from over 190 countries enrolled with us”, says Clarissa Shen, VP, Strategic Business and Marketing. “After the U.S., India is our second biggest country in traffic”. In May, Udacity tied up with Georgia Tech to offer the first professional online Masters degree in computer science.

While there are no country specific statistics, a large category of Indians enrolled in MOOCs are those looking to enhance their careers, says Dr Ng. Like Mumbai-based Nitin Jain, who works with National Stock Exchange’s IT division, and is taking finance and software interface courses with UC Berkeley and Michigan University. “I work on software development and the course gives me a basic understanding of how software works on the ground. I do believe it gives you an edge in the industry,” believes Jain.

Can the online experience come close to matching the on-campus experience? Clearly not. Neither do the providers make the claim. But they make the point that MOOCs brings it a little closer to those who don’t have the access.

“We believe that online education will never completely replace the value of interactions with students and professors that a university provides”, says Dr Ng. “We built Coursera to encourage learning without limits, in the face of rising university costs and lack of accessibility to quality education. By offering courses from top universities, we can grant students more opportunities to continue their educational pursuits.”

Helping to recreate some of that on-campus experience are local community groups where students can learn from their peers around the world. “The student community has proven to be an important aspect of the learning environment,” says Shen. “We have what we call “super user” students who are very active, organizing jump-offs to platforms like Facebook, Google+, and Skype, and organizing local Meetups with other Udacians.”

Kolkata-based Abhinav Biswas, who is enrolled in a MOOC in start-up engineering from Stanford University, find these forums useful. “You don’t feel the absence of a teacher because there are so many peers across the globe to help you”, says Biswas, 23. “If I post a query, I get a response within a couple of hours.”
Mumbai-based Vikram S., who has been through both, the online and on-campus experience at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees. A banking professional, he has completed courses from Caltech, University of Melbourne and Columbia University. ”You have to be self-motivated. You can watch lectures early in the morning or late evening. If you miss deadlines, you are penalized. There is no bias as there is reasonable anonymity. I do miss certain aspects of teamwork, but communication is easy as there are enough tools and teaching assistants working with the professor.”
But do online courses actually help in career advancement given the largely conservative mindset at the Indian workplace? “Unfortunately not”, believes K Sudarshan, managing partner at executive search firm EMA Partners International. “We always measure the difficulty of getting into a program. Even within the IIMs there is a ranking in terms of how tough it is to gain admission. Something that comes by easily is not seen as such a big deal.”
That will change, believes Vikram S. “I took the courses with a perspective that if I don’t get to apply what I learn at work, I can apply it elsewhere. What matters is what all you carry at the back of your head. If you have an optimistic bent of mind, it is a great experience. Currently a degree may mean a big deal, but acceptance will come slowly.”

This piece was published in the Mint newspaper under the title “Hooked to Learning on the Net”. To view click on