Work While You Whistle

Work While You Whistle


For centuries we’ve been exploring the thin line between fun and work. Many concepts have come and gone that played to this idea – from purely hedonistic options (dropping out) to pseudo-psychology (the secret), and everything in between.

However, the two most compelling (and successful) models thus far for making work fun have been rather less involved.

Disney’s “Whistle While You Work” summarizes the first school: that work goes by more quickly if you distract yourself with something simple, like song or socializing.

The second concept, that you can meld fun with your paying job is a privilege reserved mostly for a small number of highly actualized people, such as Bear Grylls or the guys from Mythbusters. It’s no coincidence that these examples are famous – these kinds of people are the subject of workplace fantasy because of the perceived alignment between fun, status (money) and work. We’re told all our lives that if we do what we love, the money will follow. With few exceptions, this isn’t true for most of the world’s 7 billion people.

But with the rise of gamification (the use of game techniques in non-game contexts) things are changing. Across diverse industries, such as health, finance, retail and marketing, a movement is taking shape to bring game mechanics and fun to everyday work.

What’s changed in the past couple of years is nothing short of monumental, and an example of the free market at work in its best form. From countless enterprises and in dynamic startups, American companies have finally realized that fun – indeed games – in the workplace can pay big dividends.

This isn’t the namby-pamby stuff that so many optimistic/deluded game designers and theorists have built a cottage industry around. We’re not wasting hundreds of hours playing overly complex simulations in pointless 3D worlds or spending time in high concept and pedagogically excruciating games. The techniques being used to create change in corporations leverage the strengths and techniques of games without looking like Portal 2 or Farmville. That’s the power of gamification at work.

NextJump knows a thing or two about that. New York-based NextJump runs internal and external incentive programs for big brands. So, when they wanted to help get and keep their employees healthy to reduce healthcare costs and absenteeism, they turned to gamification for the answer. First, they set aside a pool of money saved from a switch to HSAs and awarded it to those who had the best exercise habits as tracked by their custom check in app. Then, in experimenting with techniques to improve adherence, they introduced a leadboard system that showed each employee how frequently their team was working out in comparison to other employee groups around the company.

The results were astonishing: employee exercise time and frequency rose by 700%. The introduction of competitive and co-operative game mechanics (like leaderboards and team challenges) have altered behavior enough to save lives and real money for the company.

Google, like so many big companies with a large and distributed team, spends tens of millions per year on travel and entertainment. As is customary for their culture, they bucked the standard corporate trend of tight-budget travel policies and gamified it – to great effect.

Employees are given fixed amounts for each city pair and trip; an otherwise unremarkable structure for T&E. But, whatever they don’t spend gets banked and can be used later to beef up other trips, donated to charity, or cashed out at a discount below 1:1. This virtual economy game mechanic is supported by ad-hoc leaderboards. Their results too have been amazing: stakeholders have described cost reductions in the millions. Perhaps even more importantly, Google’s gamification of T&E has done something entirely improbable: it’s got employees talking about travel best practices and how to save money. Imagine that.

Meanwhile at Target stores, cashiers are hard at work, getting reinforcement from their homegrown check out game. The custom-built app has proven to be a great way to relieve monotony and increase checkout speed by upwards of 10%. The basic premise was to provide feedback, progress mechanics and fun to improve user performance. This appears to be spectacularly true even in fairly unskilled jobs.

Given these early successes, it should come as no surprise that Gartner group forecasts extraordinary growth for gamification in the enterprise. Analyst Brian Burke calculates that by 2015, fully 50% of corporate innovation will be gamified, and over 70% of the global 2000 will have an active, gamified app running internally. If true, this uptake would exceed even that of social media. This spectacular growth is fueling excitement around the enterprise content programmed for Gamification Summit Fall NYC.

At its core, the power of gamification in the enterprise is in delivering optimized training and motivational incentives that transcend simple cash bonuses and paid time off. By tapping into individuals’ personal journeys and creating fun, engaging systems that teach health, cost reduction and time management (just to name a few), enterprises can reap substantial benefit.

And this is the just the beginning. Startups like Rypple and EmpireAvenue are out to transform how companies communicate and people value each other with innovative game-like approaches. Simultaneously, the military and MLM experts like Mary Kay continue to leverage the power of status, levels and incentives to drive performance and engagement.

The power of gamification is changing our workplaces – for the better. By leveraging the techniques and lessons of games, companies large and small are reinventing work and creating feedback, incentive and engagement loops that really (and finally) match employee interests.

We may not all be able to blow up cars and get paid for it, eat at fancy restaurants and win a Pulitzer, or slay the dragon and marry the princess. But in our gamified era perhaps we can finally expect to have fun, be emotionally rewarded and excel at our jobs – whatever they may be.


Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.


  1. Hi, I love Google’s idea for their T&E policy. However, I’ve been unable to find any other reference to this policy. Can someone point me to any more detailed information about this?