Gamification as a means of employee engagement has finally caught the fancy of Indian companies. Is it ready to go mainstream?

Last year, when it was gearing up to aggressively push mobile internet services to customers, Vodafone India took the help of its endearing brand mascots, the Zoozoos. Apart from its customer service and field sales force, it also needed to get the rest of its 12,000-odd employees to understand and evangelise mobile internet services to their friends, family and customers. The solution — a gamified learning module that would take the monotony out of the process and be fun too. The game was designed like a sci-fi adventure with Zentians, a special race of the Zoozoos, racing to find another planet after their own is destroyed by solar explosions.

Through a Super Zoozoo avatar, the player has to find a way to restore the destroyed mobile internet network. By collecting Vodafone mobile internet products such as recharge coupons, apps and services, players are required to cross five levels to finally restore the network. Along the way, they are made aware of the company’s mobile internet offerings and are ready with the knowledge needed to explain and sell its products and services in this space. Five top scorers from across the country had a playoff at the company’s corporate headquarters in Mumbai, with the winner getting a Blackberry Z10 and runners up winning other smartphones. 

Developed by Tata Interactive Systems (TIS), the Zentians game helped Vodafone’s agents get up to speed on a critical focus area and a new business driver for the company. “Our app awareness was very low before this. Once we started playing the game, we began Googling for answers, discussing specifications with tech experts we knew and talking about the game with our colleagues,” says Sambit Dey, manager, service delivery, at Vodafone’s Mumbai corporate office, who was then manager for call centre operations at the West Bengal circle in Kolkata. The exercise, which began in June 2013, was played by everyone in the corporate office and circle offices, from the finance department to the IT network and HR teams from senior executives to their secretaries. Scores and top scorers were updated live on leaderboards every day. Top scorers from each circle were invited for regional championships, where the playoffs were broadcast on a giant screen.

“Zentians was not mandatory training but pull-based learning,” says Vivek Mathur, chief commercial officer, Vodafone India. The customer service (CS) team, which reports to HR, organised and ran the game for around six months, ending in January 2014. In the early day, CS team ‘champions’ in each circle would leave tent cards on employees’ desks in the morning with cryptic teasers, with an employee dressing up in a Zoozoo costume and making rounds of the office. CS champions had their own incentives in each circle — there were rewards for 100% participation (someone who played at least once). The Odisha circle was the only one to qualify, while many reached 90% participation levels. Some even offices set up special gaming zones with bean bags and large screens to play on. 

Gamification, a new-age term coined to represent the application of gaming techniques in real-life situations, has been a buzzword in India for at least a couple of years now. Rajat Paharia, founder and chief product officer of US-based gamification solutions company Bunchball and hailed as the ‘father’ of the modern gamification industry, explains why it works for business. “Gamification combines three essential components: the newest research about motivation, big data and interactive design,” he says. Globally, companies such as Microsoft, Nike and Coca-Cola have deployed gamification to address business challenges or to make activities around customers and employees more interesting and effective. In India, it is still uncharted territory for most, even as leading names, primarily in technology-led services, have attempted some form of gamified application or other.

Getting started

Estimates put the global market for gamification solutions at roughly $5.5 billion by end-2018. Gartner had termed gamification to be at the peak of its ‘hype cycles’ early last year, where it was thought of being more of a fad, with unrealistic expectations and limited results. “While we are positive on the longer term impact of gamification, we are less positive in the short/immediate term. We predict that by 2014, 80% of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives, primarily due to poor design,” Gartner industry analyst Brian Burke had said in a report. Those who get it right, however, will move from games and fun to using gaming techniques for driving performance through a clearer definition of business objectives. “Accordingly, by 2015, 40% of Global 1,000 organizations will use gamification as the primary mechanism to transform business operations,” he adds.

Already, global corporations have used it in areas such as customer engagement, loyalty programmes and in sales, and are extending it to their internal operations and employees. The driving philosophy behind gamification is the same, though — engaging young consumers or employees through motivators they find most exciting: competitive challenges, instant rewards and bragging rights. From onboarding new talent to getting existing employees updated on policies and procedures, it usually begins with areas considered important but dry in nature. Training and learning programmes, therefore, are the first port of call. “You are learning by doing rather than reading or listening,” says Rajiv Jayaraman, founder, Knolskape, a Bengaluru-based gamification company. 

Between March and April this year, close to 32,000 Accenture employees across its India operations got to play a unique game and call it work. Titled ‘Path to success, the Accenture way’, it tested employees’ alignment to the corporate brand based on knowledge of the organisation’s culture and business objectives. Players moved up a simulated corporate ladder, and with a successful run they became the boss of the virtual organization. The game design was kept simple and loosely modelled on the ‘snakes and ladders’ approach. 

Meant for both existing employees and for potential hires, the game allows the player to choose between a male and a female avatar and play across four levels of increasing difficulty. By rolling virtual dice through mouse clicks, the avatar walks as many steps as the number that comes up, to reveal questions. These are based on the focus areas of the company in the current year, its new growth objectives, the latest information on careers at the company and its ethics and compliance policies. Upon answering a question correctly, the player gets to move through a virtual door to another level. The starting point is the reception of the company; from there, players travel through a training zone to the working or bay area and finally end up at the boardroom. Getting the answer wrong thrice sends the player back to the start. 

The need to bring in game-like tools to the workplace becomes apparent when you consider the size of a globally distributed workforce such as Accenture’s. With close to 300,000 employees across 56 countries at the $28.6-billion IT services to consulting corporation, regular information dissemination tools such as the intranet, emails and even social media often fall short of the desired objective, says Manoj Biswas, managing director, HR, at Accenture India. Fun and games assume a more serious and effective way to get the message across to the younger workforce. “They find traditional learning programmes monotonous to attend,” says Biswas. “As a medium, it has worked very well for learning, recruitment, employee engagement and feedback.” Indeed, given that such games are supported by hints and allow participants to tally their answers with information on the company intranet, corporate emails and the internet so that players read and internalise details about the company. 

At cosmetics major L’Oreal, gamification is a significant part of its recruitment process. Young professionals can test their skills and get acquaianted with the company’s culture through an online game called Reveal that requires solving business challenges across the company’s various functions. 

A simpler gaming application helps Bookmyshow hire better promoters for its turnkey events business such as IPL, ISL and Comic Con. Anil Makhija, VP, service delivery and operations, Bookmyshow, informs that over 1,500 promoters have so far played the online game from cybercafés or even their homes, to test their suitability for these short term assignments.

The gaming universe

As interest in gamification grows, the business ecosystem is evolving too. While service providers such as Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) and Kwench in India integrate games into their existing suite of tech-based employee engagement and training services, others such as MindTickle, eMee and Knolskape have positioned themselves as gamification vendors. Pure gaming companies, though, are staying away. “We are a (gaming) products company; we’re not interested in services,” says Alok Kejriwal, co-founder, Games2Win. 

So far, vendors have conducted most gamification projects for overseas clients. That’s changing now. For Kwench, a corporate library and employee engagement services firm, nearly 95% of revenue comes from within the country, according to co-founder Sunder Nookala. Working with its co-founder and technology partner SmartCloud Infotech of Pune, it gamifies areas such as performance management, employee induction, code of conduct and ethics, incentives and rewards. He terms these as topics or areas that by nature are “repetitive, albeit mandatory”.

Bringing in a fun element is only part of the solution. Nookala explains: “A gamified solution essentially draws on what are called game mechanics. These include competition, sense of achievement, intense engagement, levels and leaderboards that tap into the deep emotional level of an individual. To this extent, a lot a behavioural science is involved.”

Once the problem area is identified, Kwench conducts a two-day immersion session with the client to brainstorm the idea and generate mock concepts. After the final concept is agreed upon in writing, Nookala and his team work on creating the actual program to be rolled out, which can be either in 2D or 3D format. It’s a growing business, fetching a couple of crores on average during the past two years, and expected to touch ₹5 crore in a year’s time. Co-founded in 2008, the IAN-backed Kwench managed an overall revenue of ₹12 crore in FY13 and is looking to double that figure in the current year. Nookala expects the interest in gamification to gather steam in India over the next three to four years.

“We expect that serious game development will catch up on two fronts — Indian companies adopting gamification as a tool to engage employees, clients and channel partners; and outsourcing of game development by global companies to India,” he says. He also cautions against getting carried away by the initial noise around the idea. “Don’t expect gamification to be a silver bullet or a panacea for solving engagement problems. Gamification certainly drives engagement, but intent to engage comes first,” Nookala adds.

Putting games to work

At Mindtickle, a learning solutions company that has deployed gamification in over 250 assignments, around 40% of its business comes from India. The company clocked revenue of over ₹3 crore last year and has worked with clients such as Bookmyshow, SAP and eBay. The firm works on the software as a service (SaaS) model, billing on a per-user basis. “When it comes to gamification, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Specific gamification elements need to be employed based on the learners. For example, leaderboards work for sales reps but not for product managers,” says Mohit Garg, co-founder, Mindtickle.

Investments in gamification vary according to very specific needs. While some vendors work on a one-time fee that could range anywhere between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 50 lakh depending on the time involved and the scale of deployment, many others work on a pay-per-use model priced anywhere between $5-20 per user. eMee, a part of Pune-based IT services company Persistent Systems, was launched as a gamification services provider in early 2010. Its CEO Siddhesh Bhobe explains that expenditure on gamification is still quite small in India, contributing 10% of business for eMee. “The US continues to be an important market for us,” he says.

While a lot has been changing in terms of growing IT expenditure by Indian corporates, Bhobe says there is still a lot of fence-sitting. “Companies here are hesitant and decision cycles here are longer,” he says. From clients in the pharma and manufacturing sectors to taxi services, eMee works in both the customer loyalty and employee engagement spaces. It is the former from which it gets a bulk of its revenue as the ticket size is higher compared with HR engagement programmes.

Making gamification work takes more than just adding a game to a business situation. “You don’t make it an overhead to what employees are doing already. It should integrate seamlessly into the work processes, or else it’s guaranteed to fail,” says Bhobe. Understanding what drives and motivates people is also key to successful game design. “Gifts and vouchers make little sense. Instead, non-monetary rewards, such as lunch with the CEO or a ticket to an international conference, work best,” he adds. Leaderboards with scores also serve a similar purpose, increasing participation and keeping interest levels alive throughout the duration of the game. But gamification requires senior management mandate to succeed. “Employees often wonder, ‘Is anybody watching?’. If they don’t get the right signals, they drop out,” says Bhobe. 

Gamification is a significant component of the training process at SunGard Technology, a US-based financial services technology company with $2.8 billion in revenue and 11,800 employees worldwide. It works in the education, public sector and financial services space. Its BFSI vertical has retail banks, hedge funds and investment banks as customers. With 2,600 people working at its Pune and Bengaluru software development centres, close to 70% of product R&D happens out of its India operations, with over 100 products developed here.

A key problem was the various points of productivity loss in the organisation. Due to the iterative nature of the work, a lot of time was being lost in back-and-forth communication. Meetings and conference calls were another area where time was being wasted without goals being clearly articulated. “We wanted people to become aware where they were losing time and efficiency. These are organisational habits whose impact grows as the company grows in size,” says Sharad Verma, senior director, HR, SunGard Technology in India.

Earlier this year, the company’s India HR team developed a game titled ‘Who killed Productivity?’. Modelled after crime investigation thrillers, the game was designed around the murder of a girl named Productivity. Movie-style posters and other teasers were put up across on the intranet to promote participation. The central character was a typical SunGard employee: a 28-year-old with around five years of work experience. “We wanted people to identify with her. So she was a good performer at work with a life outside office — a circle of friends and a social network,” says Verma. When she’s found dead in her apartment, a detective is sent to investigate. 

The animated investigation proceeds through six subplots where the detective discovers different aspects of her life that led to lower productivity. For instance, in the managing emails episode, the detective discovers over 200 unread emails in her inbox, a sign of poorly managed communications. Another touches upon the importance of goal-setting, with friends recounting how the central character lacked clarity of purpose in her life. “There was no teaching or preaching,” says Verma, “but the game reminded participants of the areas where they were being less productive.” 

Around 1,800 employees in India and another 200 at SunGard’s Tunisia operations played the game, with 76 winners getting all answers right. The game generated buzz and was discussed widely. It was even picked up by SunGard’s global HR team for its own members. “Gamification is not about games. It’s about amplifying the effect of an existing, core experience by applying proven motivational techniques so that companies can drive more sales, stronger collaboration, better ROI, deeper loyalty and higher customer satisfaction,” says Bunchball’s Paharia.

As an example, Bunchball’s work with RMH Franchise Corporation, which operates over 130 Applebee’s casual dining restaurants across the US, involved creating a gamified website Bee Block for the latter’s employees, who work in hourly shifts. Apart from managing their profiles, these workers can log on to participate in contests that are automated and broadcast in real time via Bee TVs placed strategically throughout restaurant workstations. Early results from the pilot programme show a 20% reduction in employee turnover, in a business where average turnover rates are as high as 125%. 

Reaching the next level

While early experiments with gamification in India haven’t tapped all benefits, Paharia says there’s proof that it’s working well for businesses in the US. In most cases, it’s about a quantifiable business result. “At Bunchball, we’ve seen gamification increase engagement in 50% of employees targeted, reduce onboarding (time) by 91% and increase interaction with training programs by a whopping 145%; in each company, we have been able to map these activities to business results — 15-18% increase in sales revenue, 20% reduction in employee recruitment costs and a 4X conversion on purchases,” says Paharia. 

Anita Ramachandran, founder of Mumbai-based HR consulting firm Cerebrus, points to the fact that gamification has always existed in other forms. For instance, financial services firms have used the ‘shadow portfolio’ as a training tool for portfolio risk management. IT firms have been early adopters of gamification in its current form, she adds. Ramachandran considers gamification to be more of a ` in employee learning programmes. “It’s more suitable for large teams such as sales and operations,” she says. 

At TIS, the Serious Games division has been working with clients — ranging from banks to cruise liners and FMCG companies — on web-based training solutions for nearly a decade now.  Durgesh Nadkarni, VP and chief games designer at the Serious Games centre in Mumbai, says gamification has brought in a new level of interest among corpora tes, who use it f or training and assessment. Its ten-member team comprises graphic designers, game developers, coders and creative writers. Its project for a cruise line operator, for instance, was to gamify training for the client’s housekeeping staff. Through a time-bound interactive game, staff members grasped instructions on how to place items in the bathroom and which chemicals to use in specific areas for cleaning.

In India, adoption is often hindered by conventionally ingrained attitudes towards use of such tools at the workplace. “Companies find it hard to trivialise or gamify something that’s serious,” agrees Games2Win’s Kejriwal. TIS’s first domestic gamification engagement was for a private sector bank, where the function of cheque verification was made interesting through an animated game. Nadkarni recalls that senior executives at the bank were initially skeptical. “Of late, the India market is definitely getting hotter. We get 20% of our Serious Games business from domestic clients,” says Nadkarni. It is up to early adopters to take the endgame to a completely different level. Till then, gamification risks being a new way to kill time at work.