Framing the impact of gaming on organizations

Lately I have devoted a lot of time thinking about how gaming might impact organizations. Organization leaders and researchers seem to understand and analyze gaming very broadly. Games have long been used to help students and employees learn about different aspects of organization. People can learn a lot about e.g. management and communication within an organization by playing a game. Such games are consciously designed to be educational rather than purely entertaining. However, the flourishing entertainment gaming industry has not gone unnoticed. Organization leaders and researchers have been interested in how the industry operates. Strategies for fostering creativity and innovation are analyzed and applied in other industries. Most recently, organizations started experimenting with gamification, i.e. the use of common gaming principles and techniques. Scoring systems, badges and leaderboards are introduced to stimulate specific work practices or simply make work more fun. Overall, organizations’ interest in gaming is generally very broad, indeed. As a result gaming could have a profound impact on organizations in terms of their structure, culture and performance.

The question remains how gaming’s impact on organizations can specifically be understood and researched. There is much organization-related gaming research, leading to different expectations and indications of gaming’s impact on organizations. Still not much is known about the characteristics and extent of gaming’s impact. Some would argue that the research topic is still simply rather new. However, the research is also rather fragmented, since gaming is understood so broadly. It helps to bring different perspectives on the matter together, in an attempt to move this field forward.

 

I think there are essentially at least four frames for understanding the impact of gaming on organizations. Each frame has different definitions for gaming and gaming’s objectives. A frame can define gaming as a designed experience or a socio-cultural phenomenon. Thus a frame can focus on gaming as an experience that resulted from playing something, e.g. a board or computer game. Conversely, a frame can focus on gaming’s societal importance. Gaming can be viewed as an important industry or as a frame of mind that permeates society. A frame can subsequently define gaming’s organizational objectives instrumentalistically or idealistically. Instrumentalistically, a frame can focus on how organizations can benefit from gaming. Idealistically, a frame can focus on how gaming can introduce norms and values into an organization.

 

When gaming is framed as a designed experience and its organizational objective is framed instrumentalistically, we are essentially dealing with a quite old serious games frame. Serious games that fit this frame have been referred to with many different names, notably business or management games, policy games, as well as the more general gaming simulation or simulation games. When developed for organizations, simulation games are generally positioned as enabling both individual and organizational learning. When focused on individual learning, games might be designed to let players train leadership skills (e.g. in the game Virtual Leader, see Aldrich, 2004) or specific management skills (e.g. understanding and countering the ‘bullwhip effect’ in the Beer Game, see Sterman, 1992). When focused on organizational learning, games might be designed to let players develop a new strategy or policy for e.g. rail cargo transport (Meijer, Mayer, van Luipen, & Weitenberg, 2011).

When gaming is still framed as a designed experience, but its organizational objective is framed idealistically, we are essentially dealing with a newer serious games frame. In this case games are positioned as creators of engaging ideological experiences with an educational potential. Games can be argued to allow designers and players to reflect on, critique and activate society and its organizations. Well-known game designer and researcher Bogost deems games especially suited for ‘procedural rhetoric’, ‘the practice of authoring arguments through processes’ (2007, p. 29). Closely related is Shaffer’s notion of ‘epistemic games’, i.e. games that help players understand the ideology or ‘epistemic frame’ of a professional within a certain industry (2006). One example of a serious game that fits this frame is the McDonald’s Video Game (Molleindustria, 2006), a game about understanding and critiquing how fast-food restaurant chains are run. Bogost also developed serious games – or ‘persuasive games’ as he termed them – for specific organizations, e.g. Cold Stone Creamery: Stone City, in which players realize the different ways they can avoid waste, as they progress in the game (Persuasive Games, 2007). Both games (should) make players discover certain norms and values underlying their gameplay, hopefully influencing the players’ own norms and values as a result.

But what happens when gaming is framed as a socio-cultural phenomenon, i.e. an industry or a way of thinking? When gaming’s objectives are framed instrumentalistically, we are confronted by researchers interested in organizational structures in and of the gaming industry, for example. Research is then done into how a specific country’s gaming industry developed (Kim & Kim, 2011). The usefulness of researching game developers’ organizational structures is often presumed very high, because they are also considered part of the ever-expanding ‘creative’, ‘cultural’ or ‘new economy’ industries (Teipen, 2008). Game developers can be considered pioneers for new organizational structures that in time will be applied much wider. Many more organizations can learn quite a lot from the structures of game developers or the creative, cultural or new economy industries as a whole.

When gaming’s objectives are framed idealistically, we are left with the fourth frame for understanding the impact of gaming on organizations. The use of the notion of gamification often fits this frame. Gamification leads organizations to apply common game design principles and a gaming frame of mind to their processes. A well-known example is Foldit (Cooper et al., 2010). This game changed a process at one department of the University of Washington, i.e. the process of predicting complex protein structures. The game rendered the process attractive to a global community of players, allowing the University to speed up the process tremendously. This latest frame also pops up in discussions about how passionate gamers think and behave. Arguably, generations born roughly after 1982 have grown up with games, perhaps rendering their attitude towards learning and organization different from previous generations. Beck and Wade theorized that in order to harvest the potential of these passionate gamers, managers need to focus less on managing their organization’s structure (‘fine-tuning incentives, policies, and management metrics’) and more on motivating their gaming employees as heroes (Beck & Wade, 2006, pp. 101-102).

This last frame essentially explains my interest in whether we are witnessing the emergence of ‘playful organizations’, i.e. organizations where employees value their ability to play so much that the organization becomes highly creative, spontaneous and pleasurable as a result. I elaborate this a bit in a paper I presented at the Digital Games Research Assocation’s conference in Hilversum last year. If you are interested, read on here.

Many thanks to my colleague and supervisor dr. Igor Mayer for working with me on this topic!

References

Aldrich, C. (2004). Simulations and the Future of Learning. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Beck, J. C., & Wade, M. (2006). The Kids are Alright: How the Gamer Generation is Changing the Workplace. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Cooper, S. et al. (2010). Predicting protein structures with a multiplayer online game. Nature, 466(7307), 756-760.

Kim, R. B., & Kim, J. P. (2011). Creative economy in Korea: A case of online game industry. Actual Problems of Economics, 124(10), 435-442.

Meijer, S. A., Mayer, I. S., van Luipen, J., & Weitenberg, N. (2011). Gaming rail cargo management: Exploring and validating alternative modes of organization. Simulation & Gaming.

Molleindustria. (2006). McDonald’s Video Game. Retrieved from http://www.mcvideogame.com/index.html

Persuasive Games. (2007). Stone City – Cold Stone Creamery Retrieved from http://www.persuasivegames.com/games/game.aspx?game=coldstone

Shaffer, D. W. (2006). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Sterman, J. D. (1992). Teaching takes off: Flight simulators for management education. OR/MS Today(October 1992), 40-44.

Teipen, C. (2008). Work and employment in creative industries: The video games industry in Germany, Sweden and Poland. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 29(3), 309-335.

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