Can we add fun to teams through ‘games’?
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 12 minutes

Can we add fun to teams through ‘games’?

How to go about gamifying team-building, teamwork & collaborative culture remotely

Can we add fun to teams through ‘games’?​ How can we make work fun? How can we add fun to team projects? Can we add games to make this thing more fun? These are all questions that managers ask when they see and start considering gamification.

Therefore, I want to explore what it means to gamify a team’s experience, and how to promote collaboration, especially if your team is working remotely. Because for remote teams the level of interaction can become strained due to the lack of in-person interaction.

To start with, you need to discover why you want to gamify. Why do you want to gamify team experiences? Is the reason for:

  • Training: does your team need a high level of engagement to retain knowledge around procedures and processes better?
  • Collaboration: does your team need better cooperation on a project? Is teamwork lacking in a professional capacity? Do you need more buy-in from them for the corporate culture?
  • Entertainment: is team cohesion lacking? Is peer culture not great in the team? Do they need more non-work opportunities to form friendships that help with work collaborations?

To answer these questions you need to make sure that gamification as a tool is the right one for the problem you’re trying to solve, thus I want to go through the following points:

  • How a group appears/forms in a game-like setting
  • Three variations of how to promote team building
    • Short-form: Fun, short, sweet, low depth
    • Long-form: Fun, custom, complex, heavy on depth
    • Mid to long premade: Games that already exist for team-play
  • And final Thoughts on gamifying team-building

Some of the issues that you may come across with the various solutions that we’ll be looking at are:

  • Some are too short and sweet. A lot of fun to do, take part in and don’t take very long, but lack depth and offer little long-term effects or benefits for a team.
  • The lengthier solutions are highly immersive and fun as well. They have a lot more depth, but are complex and may take too long and/or could eat into work commitments.

The question to consider and keep in mind then; is there a middle ground where teams can connect, remotely if needed, and still promote team culture, cohesion and collaboration daily, without disrupting work responsibilities? And is sustainable as a mid to long-term activity that benefits both the team and the business?

Gamification, game’s and gamified groups

First, we probably need to clarify a few things around gamification. Gamification isn’t just something you add because you feel it has ‘everything’ you need to solve a problem with. It’s simply a tool, one of many, and it needs to be the right tool for the job. Do you have a nail? Then grab a hammer. You wouldn’t grab a screwdriver or the whole toolbox to bash the nail in, would you?

Gamification, with its many definitions, likely boils down to this: knowing, understanding and using game elements and thoughtfully applying them to real-world, real-life, non-game situations through the use of sound game design methodology, to solve an issue or problem. Commonly it is used to allow for some sort of change in behaviour, such as increasing engagement.

For more definitions, you can have a look at Kevin Werbach, Yu-Kai Chou, Brian Burke, Andrzej Marczewski, myself and my co-author Dan Griffin, and so many more.

Next, then is how do games go about bringing people together? And how do we use those elements to gamify group interactions?

Games as activities are very good at bringing groups together and enabling them to work together towards a singular goal. In many, it’s called forming a ‘party’ and then going off on a group quest/adventure. The mechanics used to enable a fluid transition between the steps in the six stages of group formation found in Group Dynamics theory.  

These six stages in a party quest can be translated as:

  1. Quest: initial instructions
  2. Interaction: gathering information
  3. Challenges: obstacles and conflicts
  4. Milestones: success and acknowledgement
  5. Boss Battle: executing the final task(s)
  6. Epic Rewards: achievement and return

This linear progression can be seen in games like World of Warcraft: “In other games, such as World of Warcraft, players cooperate to achieve a goal they cannot accomplish alone. In this way, game elements often align individual goals with collective goals.” (Vegt, N. (2018) Teamwork Gamification: TU Delft, pp. 14).

A concept that can be extrapolated from the party quest or party adventure is that you could create small adventure groups within your teams, building the party around specialities, skills and abilities. Mirroring an adventuring party with a warrior, mage, medic, etc. The group members, therefore, complement each other with their inherent weaknesses and strengths and the group is given a collective goal to focus on. To do this effectively you will need to spend some time analysing individuals to create the right teams.

A more superficial method is creating ‘adventure groups’ as overlay’s for existing teams and giving each member a fictional speciality. This returns to the practice of gamifying by renaming rather systemic change in my opinion. It may still be effective, as the psychology behind this practice is proven with the use of avatars. One thing to keep an eye on is that you should be careful with this type of overlay, as fictional or fantasy roles could interfere with real roles if not thought out well. There might be a dissonance between the roles of say the warrior and the role of the programmer. The issue of which is more important could occur; the ‘game’ or the ‘project’?

Creating a team-building experience for remote workers

 

Short-form

Many of the more traditional methods of promoting teams and teambuilding fall under what I would class as short-form. As they are either short in terms of the length of the experience or their benefits are short-term, or both.

This is not to say then that this is a bad thing. On their own, they lack any real depth or long-term benefit. But if these short-term experiences are done regularly, let’s say once daily or weekly, then these activities can become cumulative and will eventually contribute to team cohesion and collaboration.

For remote teams, some of the easiest methods are to simply schedule daily catch-ups, creating virtual water-cooler moments where colleagues can chat and see how everyone is doing. There is no overt use of a game mechanics here, but simply the behavioural psychology of facilitating and filling the need for a sense of belonging. Often it may just require managers permission or involvement to get people to interact casually online through a group chat.

If you wish to add more gaming to these, then utilising games that focus heavily on mechanics like team collaboration, mystery, surprise, curiosity and challenges are your best bet for short and sweet experiences. Using video conferencing software for things like a pub quiz, or Pictionary, Lip Dub, fun facts matching or any variation of what can commonly be considered to be a party game.

Many of these are designed to last 60 to 90 minutes at most. Which makes them perfect for quick sessions where colleagues can get together and have a bit of fun. But as I mentioned, for these to have any benefit what so ever, they need to be regular and consistent. They are high on fun and entertainment value but lack any depth in terms of social interactions beyond the moment in which they take place. Also, they have nothing to do with the work that the teams are doing, which on one side is good, as taking a break is healthy, but if your aim is to promote professional collaboration then you may need to consider something else.

 

Long-form

The benefit of long-form experiences is that they can be designed to be self-directed and be highly customised to the team and individuals who participate in them.

One of the best long-form experiences, especially for remote workers is an online ARG or Alternate Reality Game. ARG’s are lengthy narrative-based experiences where players must work together to solve puzzles, questions and challenges that are spread across the internet, or intranet and which are relayed through trans-media features. And often ARG’s have a single final epic goal that needs to be achieved.

With ARG’s, often the players aren’t aware that they have entered a game, which makes this type of experience perfect for incorporating projects or other work-related things. Meaning team members could be doing their work and playing the game at the same time if it is well designed that is.

And this is the issue with ARG’s in this manner, they do require a large amount of work to achieve the right level of engagement from players. The experience can be tailored to a player’s skills, abilities and experience within the organisation. Though it must be said that ARG’s can be short as well, some can last for a few days to a week, or several weeks, or even months. Depending on what is needed.

ARG’s or variations of them, do offer greater depth than traditional teambuilding experiences, but they can be incredibly complex and difficult to develop if you want them to be good and enjoyable for your players. A danger is that if they are too engaging and not work-related, then there is a very real possibility that people will be playing the game more than doing their actual work. It may even eat into their leisure time if they become obsessed with solving the overall mystery goal.

One advantage is that there is a level of spontaneity that causes curiosity and facilitates a need for belonging and interaction. As the game isn’t obvious to start with, colleagues may stumble upon the opening puzzle and start discussing this in their spare time, sharing ideas and solutions at random points in the day, sparking conversations and more.

 

Premade mid-form

The third alternative to facilitating group interaction and collaboration is to use premade and pre-existing virtual spaces that are designed to engage and promote teamwork. Some are free and some are pay-to-play. In general, it should be easy enough to have everyone on a team create an account for a game they all know or want to learn. They can then come together at agreed times and take part in some kind of quest, mission or team objective.

Pick games that focus heavily on team cooperation. For example, any MMORPG like World of Warcraft for the more fantasy-oriented. Or an FPS like Overwatch for the sci-fi action-oriented. Or perhaps for those that wish to quietly build and farm together then games like Minecraft or ECO are good choices. Or if you want to go in-depth into narrative experience then there are even online alternatives for Dungeons & Dragons with Roll20.net and DnDBeyond.com.

All of these, and other games, can be a lot of fun, but much like with the short-form experiences, the issues that arise are that traditionally they would need to be played outside of working hours. You could set aside an hour or so during working hours for a team to play these to promote the team feeling. But some may take umbrage if they are required to play these outside of working hours when they want to relax.

Considerations for gamifying experiences

So, is there a middle ground then where we can gamify team collaborations that aren’t superficial name changes or short non-work entertainment pieces or huge projects with high maintenance? I still struggle with trying to answer this. I lean towards versions of the ARG that are shorter and have feedback and check-in mechanics for after the game has been completed, to make sure learnings and such are embedded.

Some of the things to bear in mind when creating gamified team experiences in workplaces are that many employees experience their work on an individual level and not necessarily on a team level. Also, there is often a social aspect for many teams. Relationships, positive or negative, can be accentuated in gamified experiences and could reduce the collective engagement as the focus then goes on these social relationships. The gamified experience should, therefore, focus on team task-oriented challenges to lower possible social conflicts.

Therefore when developing a gamified experience be sure to do test runs, as when creating experiences in real-world situations, you will need to properly balance it so that any negative side-effects or pitfalls do not derail the experience for the players. Some aspects of the negative side-effects can be that elements of the game (i.e. complex rules) invade the experience and take people out of it.

To combat this possibility, it will take a lot of work to create a sound gamified experience. There are no shortcuts. And I believe you’ve only half gamified an experience if you only reframe/rename a non-game context. For example, teamwork and projects have inherent mechanics and elements that can be translated into a game context:

  • Project goals – Quest Objectives
  • Guidelines – Game Rules
  • Project documents – Quest items
  • The remit of a project – Adventure area

This is but the first step, as these can alter the mindset of the team and the outlook of a team’s processes and procedures when working together on a project. More work is required to fully gamify the experience in my opinion then.

Final thoughts

Building a gamified experience requires prep work, especially when customising for specific teams. You will need to explore and analyse the interactions between team members, their levels of competitiveness and cooperativeness. And if you are not the manager, then you will need to work closely with managers and representatives of teams to ensure that the right elements of projects are transformed into actual effective game elements for the gamified experience.

Team engagement is thus paramount, and so you must allow for the narrative situation of the experience to be flexible, volatile and unpredictable. Teams benefit highly from this and it will allow individual members to grow while the team grows as an entity as well.

An issue to consider when building engaging narrative-based experiences, is that depending on your teams, they may not want to spend more time together outside of work. As mentioned many game experiences may not be traditionally suited for working hours.

Overall developing online and remote team collaboration experiences is not an easy undertaking, and for those who think that if it’s digital it should be easy, then think again. Social interactions are possible in any space, analogue or digital, but translating them will always take some effort and it comes down to what everyone enjoys and is willing to put effort into.

So, make sure that gamification is the right tool for this, and be sure to have a culture, in general, that is flexible enough to permit for a change in mindset and perspective and that allows for the inclusion and facilitation of a gamified experience within the work environment.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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