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E-mail, The Game

2009 May 27

This recent article in Wired discusses the work of Dr. Byron Reeves, who turned e-mail in an organization into a game.  Each week, employees at the organizations he works with receive tokens which they can then attach to their e-mails, which they can then spend to make their e-mails more important.

So for example, an organization provides 100 tokens each week per employee using Reeves’ system, called “Attent.”  The employees are then able to attach however many tokens they want to any particular e-mail in an effort to make sure people read and prioritize the information they are providing.  It works surprisingly well.

If you really want someone to read a message now, you attach a lot of tokens, and the message pops up higher in your correspondent’s Outlook inbox. Reeves figured this would encourage people to send less e-mail: Those who are parsimonious would wind up with lots of tokens, which means when they really have something to say, they can load it up with tokens and make sure it’ll get through. Sure enough, that’s what happened. When a work group at IBM tried out Attent, messages with 20 tokens attached were 52 percent more likely to be quickly opened than normal.

Thus, it appears that games, or at least the mechanics of games, can be a valuable way to change employee behavior for relatively little cost.  Attent itself isn’t even that psychologically complex a system – it simply encourages a little reflection on how important any particular e-mail really is.

But there may be a downside: when you introduce a game, you may unwittingly encourage unhealthy competition.  Consider foursquare, an online social networking game where people living in NYC check in with every location that they visit in the city, such as bars, coffee shops, and restaurants.  Each check-in, you increase your chances that you will be dubbed “Mayor” of that location – in other words, you’ve visited it more than anyone else.  In theory, this should encourage people to get out and meet others that like similar locations.  In practice, it creates a sense of competition so that people play the game for the game’s sake (to stay Mayor and “win”), rather than its intended purpose.  The designers are trying to adjust the rewards system to address this, but it’s unclear how successful they will be.

Such hijacking of game intentions is what I worry would happen in a real organization without proper thought given to game design.  Imagine a game system tied to mentoring – each mentor gets points for every person that gives them a positive review as a mentor at the end of each quarter.  Points are then tied to other rewards (whatever those might be – an extra day off, a cash bonus, a free lunch with the boss, etc.).  It’s easy to imagine that each mentor wanting to win might try to increase their chances with whatever means possible; they might get all of the people in their unit to rate them even though no actual mentoring has occurred with promises of shared prizes.

And in case you were wondering, I have my own plan about a game-related system to be attached to web-based training.  But that’s a post for another day!

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  1. May 28, 2009

    Great post! This game could backfire, but I am happy to see people trying new things.

    I am pretty sure this approach is better than instituting some policy limiting the number of emails, or the numbers of addressee’s in each.

    By the way, thanks for finding my blog. I might not have found yours without it.

  2. May 29, 2009

    Thanks for visiting! I’ve been trying to track down all the I/O blogs out there, but there don’t seem to be many… if you know of any that aren’t listed in that “I/O Blogosphere” link up top, let me know.

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