Playing with your money


How do you convince average employees to willingly perform challenging, repetitive tasks for hours on end with obsessive focus and discipline? How do you impel them to learn complex, abstruse principles and techniques without even being aware of it? And how do you forcefully communicate concepts of crucial importance to their future financial wellbeing?  Simple. Invite them to play computer games.

At first, this approach may sound frivolous. But recent studies have demonstrated again and again the extraordinary educational value that games possess. Properly harnessed, they can be engines of productivity and learning. Companies which believe games have no place in the office are kidding themselves. In 2003, a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon revealed an astounding 9 billion work hours were misspent playing Solitaire that year in the US alone[1]. Nobody would argue that collective procrastination is good for humanity, but imagine the same lost time was instead captured by games teaching principles of financial literacy!

In Mark Twain’s classic novel, Tom Sawyer dupes his hapless chums into whitewashing a fence for him by convincing them that the activity is so fun he doesn’t want their help at all. Framed in this way, no extrinsic rewards are needed; his friends beg him for the opportunity to take over the back breaking labour.

When Google needed to tag thousands of images with descriptive phrases, it initially didn’t adopt the Tom Sawyer approach. Instead it hired data capturers to undertake the mammoth task. Progress was slow and costly. But when the photo tagging task was converted into a competitive online game with a score and a leaderboard, the experience immediately went viral and soon millions of people were eagerly helping Google improve its search database[2].  

The pedagogic value of playing games is irrefutable. A medical study found that doctors who play training games on a regular basis commit 37% fewer errors and work 27% faster in laproscopic surgery.[3]  Harvard University is offering a game called Farm Blitz as the centerpiece of a 3-day financial literacy course it’s offering.[4]

The neologism gamification describes the use of game design strategies to leverage people’s natural proclivities toward competition, social status and achievement in non-game contexts. The goal setting website, for example, encourages members to commit to public challenges and pay monetary penalties if they fail. While not a game in the traditional sense, the site uses game strategies to compel its users to stick to their financial and other goals.

Gamification as a corporate strategy is on the rise. In 2014, Gartner estimates that 70% of Global 2000 corporates will have built a “gamified” application.[5]  And it’s a hot trend in the world of finance. About 20% of the 500 companies at a 2013 gamification conference displayed financial products.  

Games provide structured experiences that offer clear goals and a compelling sense of achievement and progress. Beating a tough level triggers a jolt of dopamine in the brain, which increases engagement. 

Learning does not feel like work in the context of a computer game; rather it’s an effortless byproduct of exploring the game-world or solving the puzzles that will release more pleasurable chemicals into the brain.

The best games gradually increase their difficulty in response to progress, tantalizing players by keeping them on the edge of mastery as they seek ever more sophisticated information to conquer the next challenge. As game designer Raph Koster puts it: “fun is just another word for learning”[6].

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This edition

Issue 72