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Serious Play Conference 2011: Microsoft's 'Productivity Games'

Serious Play Conference 2011: Microsoft's 'Productivity Games'

August 29, 2011 | By Stephen Jacobs

At the Gamasutra-attended Serious Play Conference, two Microsoft presentations discussed 'Productivity Games' -- the use of games to motivate players to become better corporate citizens, share and enhance existing skill sets and acquire new ones.

Donald Brinkman, who manages programs in digital humanities, digital heritage and games for learning at Microsoft Research, and Ross Smith, director of test at Microsoft, shared stories of the company's efforts in this arena, both across the enterprise and outside of the corporation.

"Collaboration within the enterprise is a big thrust and gamification is part of that," said Brinkman. "Twitter is already gamified because there's formative feedback in terms of the numbers of people following you and how often your Tweets get re-Tweeted."

"We're looking at doing the same things in the work processes... Not strict gamification per se, but creating gameful experiences as described by Jane McGonigal."

Microsoft's Internal Productivity Games

Brinkman first discussed Elevation of Privilege, a game developed at Microsoft to make the often tedious process of assessing threat diagrams (a kind of software engineering/security vulnerability analysis tool) more gameful.

Elevation of Privilege is a variant of the card game Spades, using a custom deck of cards with names like the "Three of Tampering." Players play the cards against each other and against the security diagram. By running through the card game the team assesses all the potential vulnerabilities without overlooking any. The card has to be the best one in the given set, but is also used to see if it represents a valid weakness within the system diagram.

"Its really just there to encourage the conversation about the system," said Brinkman. The game is Creative Commons-licensed and is available free to download from Microsoft.

In Smith's presentation, later on in the afternoon, he covered what he's learned in over eight years of creating and using dozens of productivity games within Microsoft's Testing Division.

"The first one started eight years ago in Windows as an intern project," said Smith. "People have to surrender their machines overnight for us to test and we give them back the next day. This comes at a cost to them so their manager sends out a broad mail saying 'please help us.'"

According to Smith, this has to happen multiple times during pre-release phases of development, and the request has to keep going higher and higher up the organizational chart to get workers to encourage employees to participate. Smith saw an opportunity to see if he could use a game to encourage greater participation and better corporate citizenship.

This first effort was a simple one, a Hang Man-style game to spell out the words "beta one," at a rate of one letter per night, with a competitive leaderboard. "We saw a 4x improvement," said Smith. "We had people asking, 'I ran this last night, where's my 'E'?'"

Another successful effort was the Language Quality game, developed around Microsoft's large language localization needs. Within a simple Silverlight application, 500,000 screens were reviewed by over 4,500 people to correct and/or improve the translations.

"In many ways this played to people's enjoyment in their ability to use their native languages and their national and corporate pride," said Smith. "They didn't want their friends to see a project they worked on with bad translations."

This game was much more sophisticated than the early 'Beta One' effort. "We injected false failures, intentionally poor translations, into the game to make sure that people were really paying attention and not just 'knee-jerk' circling everything on the screen," Smith said. "We had leaderboards by individual and by language to tap into that national pride. Japan took a day off company-wide to play the game. They won that leaderboard."

Smith's most recent game was Communicate Hope, which aided the development of Microsoft's Office Communicator (now known as Lync). For this game, the goal was to get users to provide feedback on the product design and usability and to submit bugs. The game leaderboard was linked to five charities and Microsoft's contributions to those charities was tied to the game results. Smith's group got 16x more feedback from people playing the game than those not playing the game, and tens of thousands of dollars went to the charities.

Communicate Hope worked at both ends of the testing process, as it had a second component that rewarded the test team members if they responded quickly to feedback (taking away from their usual focus of recording and fixing bugs).

Smith's experience has been that games tied to organizational citizenship -- those that motivate individuals to enhance or acquire skills by doing things like mentoring or cleaning out the coffeepot at work -- are more successful than those that might reward people for their established day-to-day responsibilities.

"Who wants to come in fifth at their job? Why would you play?" asks Smith. "And ... if it becomes a game are you expecting to get a raise?"

Smith has found that good game design trumps prizes in productivity games. "Say there are two players both trying to produce a widget and it takes one of them longer than the other. If the slower one won't be eligible for the prize, he's likely to quit. I don't want him to quit, I want him to keep going. So giving everyone an unlock code for the next challenge or puzzle is a much better motivator than a prize."

Smith cautions against the temptation to run games constantly. "You can 'over-game' people, because it uses their discretionary time. Even if that discretionary time is just the break between tasks at work when they [usually] play FarmVille, they're using it to play your productivity game instead of what they'd normally do. So, we run ours in phases for two to three weeks and then stop for a while to give them some recovery time."

Productivity Games For End Users

Moving beyond games for internal use at Microsoft, Brinkman discussed the impetus behind the creation of the Ribbon Hero games.

"Office is not the easiest tool to use," says Brinkman. "The Office team knows that most people don't know about all the features and that users often use them in non-optimal ways. Traditional approaches to improving this situation, things like documentation and help videos, only help some of the users."

"So the Office Labs group within the Office Team decided they needed to incentivize people to learn Office. They wanted something that would teach people Office features and be something that people would want to use proactively. So the Office team called the Xbox team for help."

The result was Ribbon Hero, a game that was so popular with end users it merited the creation of a sequel, Ribbon Hero 2, which brings back Clippy, who's traveling through time to provide the player challenges.

Unlike the internal productivity games Smith discussed, you can watch some Ribbon Hero 2 videos to see what the game is like or download it to try it for yourself. The game has been used in classrooms in schools around the world to teach the use of Office skills.

Taking The Productivity Games Approach To Education

"How can we create games as platforms for education, a whole ecosystem of game-like and gameful experiences?" asks Brinkman. "We want to wrap a frame around the educational experience, let teachers do what they want but also build hooks around teacher and student experiences and create living records of them."

One approach to answering this question catalyzed for Brinkman after a discussion with Andy Phelps, director of the school for interactive games and media at the Rochester Institute of Technology. (Full disclosure, the author is a member of the development team on this project.)

Retaining students, rather than seeing them drop out before graduation, is a universal problem in education. Phelps had found that that students who left college early were less likely to have been woven into the social fabric of their school. Phelps proposed to create a productivity-style game around the "non-academic" aspects of college life and turn it into a "Hero's Journey."

Brinkman liked the idea, and now Microsoft and RIT are developing the first version of the game Just Press Play, for release this October within Phelps' programs. Other scholars and professionals from the University of Madison, NYU and social and ARG game developers are participating as partners or advisors.

The following year, the game will be made available to students in all of RIT's nine colleges, and RIT will also work on a version for K-12 education. The Open Source framework and system will be released for use around the world. To see a full list of the participants and to follow the progress of the game's development and deployment, you can go to the project's Think Play blog.

"It could become a unified platform for education," said Brinkman. "Microsoft is really concerned about the future of education and sees the game as a way in which we could create a constant stream of open source, localized data to try to help schools understand what's happening with their students."

"We would hope to see better retention, but even if we don't we can look at the students who dropped out and mine that data to see what might help them to stay in school. We'll be able to reveal patterns that no one ever thought about and we won't have to take a blanket approach. We could say that in Macon, GA, kids who swim everyday stay in school, but not in LA."

Bottom line, Microsoft is bullish about productivity games in all kinds of work and workplaces.
"It's only natural that with more and more gamers in the workforce, that we should bring games into the workplace," said Smith.

[Stephen Jacobs is an associate professor in the School of Interactive Games and Media at RIT and a visiting scholar at the International Center for the History of Electronic Games.]

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