'Serious Games' Help HR Explain Retirement Benefits
'Serious games' are now being designed to continuously motivate employees to play and increase their skill level -- as well as their knowledge of a topic -- each time they return, even when the games are built around a concept as dry as retirement planning.
By Carol Patton
Over the past several years, more companies have been using game mechanics -- referred to as gamification -- to help employees understand safety policies, adopt a healthy lifestyle and learn about the culture and values of their organization.
"We're looking at 40 percent of organizations using gamification to transform business operations by 2016," says Elise Olding, a research director who covers gamification at Gartner in San Jose, Calif. "Once we understand how to design and utilize these game mechanics properly, we'll see them integrated into a lot of business functionality."
Offering an element of fun is important, but so is including clarity on business goals, clear rules, immediate feedback and connecting actions to desired outcomes. She says effective "serious games" are designed to continuously motivate employees to play and increase their skill level each time they return.
While HR can pick and choose many serious games that help build a healthy workforce, the same couldn't be said about those that address retirement, an often confusing and complex benefit. Until now, that is. American Express and Towers Watson have recently introduced serious games for employees to better understand their retirement benefits and encourage participation in retirement plans.
Last October, American Express launched a virtual Smart Saving fair that will ultimately mimic the company's live, on-site fair, says Barbara Kontje, director of global retirement & Smart Saving at New York-based American Express, which supports 26,000 U.S. employees.
"After visiting all of our  major locations," she says, "we realized we have a very large virtual population of about 5,000 employees. So we created this virtual environment. It's all customized, based on the way we set up our onsite fairs."
Both types of fairs offer a carnival atmosphere. The live event comes complete with popcorn, balloons and a raffle ticket offering the chance to win an iPod touch. While the company's retirement experts are onsite at live events and available via scheduled chat sessions at virtual fairs, she says, employees at both fair formats can spin the wheel of fortune, respond to interactive quizzes or play with flash cards to address specific retirement-related questions. At live events, they win calculators and other prizes aimed at increasing financial education.
Attendance at the live events ranges from 50 percent to 65 percent of the onsite-employee population while the 24/7 virtual fair attracted 1,000 employees over two separate, two-day periods. "Getting 1,000 people at any one time to come to an (online) event that is new and different is very positive," says Kontje, adding that employees can also earn points if they take specific actions, such as clicking on a link to read an article on retirement. When they reach 1,000 points, they're also entered into a raffle for an iPod touch.
Meanwhile, the company is targeting 80 percent of its virtual population to log on to the virtual fair. Since offering the live events two years ago, and the virtual fair last October, she says, participation in the company's retirement plan jumped from 70 percent to 79 percent.
"Managing your money can be fun," she says, adding that in the future, the virtual fair will offer more interactive enhancements and hopefully, a 3D experience. "By making it more game-like and entertaining . . . really engaging employees, they will come back and learn more every time."
Employers have actually been using game-like structures for a long time. Adam Wootton, director of social media and games at Towers Watson in New York, points to the employee-of-the-month concept as an example. But, ever since behavioral sciences evolved to demonstrate how to motivate people, he says, game mechanics started applying some of these behavioral lessons in a fun way to drive engaging outcomes.
Last year, he says, Towers Watson piloted an interactive, iPad- and iPhone-compatible benefits game called Swiftee. After one minute of play, in which employees try to catch either escaping coins from a piggy bank or game pieces from a house, they are asked a financial question, such as, "What does HSA stand for?" If they answer correctly, they score points. Otherwise, they can ask for a hint that provides a short explanation. Employers can then post everyone's score online.
"People like playing games, [learning] how they compare with their friends or defeating the game," says Wootton, adding that this game won a 2012 communication tools award at the Asian-Pac Pension conference. "With games, motivation is intrinsic . . . [they don't] require prizes."
Introduced in 2011, the firm's second game can be played on an employee's smartphone. Wootton says H Engage delivers the game - also called H Engage -- adding that employees sign up by text message. The game features a treasure hunt wherein employees search for codes that appear in emails or on HR communications around the workplace, such as in posters or mailers, then text the uncovered code to accumulate points. They're not told where to look, only that every HR communication may have a code so it requires them to read all HR materials. After submitting one code, for example, they may receive a return text explaining that there are five codes, encouraging them to search for the remaining four codes.
"The texting game really supports any communication campaign," he says, adding that employee surveys at one high-tech company revealed that more than half of employees who participated had a better awareness and appreciation for benefits, which was the company's goal.
Another is a browser-based flash game introduced in the United Kingdom. Wootton says employees use arrows to control a character moving through an interactive world, similar to an obstacle course, collecting pension money as it moves. At the end of each level of play, they're asked a question, given information or shown a short video about their pension.
Wootton believes there's no value in offering retirement benefits if employees don't know they exist or understand them. He says the "Build it, they will come" mentality is unrealistic, as is the belief that gamification only applies to young people. He says the fastest-growing segment of social gamers is women over the age of 45.
"The reaction from users is very positive," he says. "From companies who employed [our games], we haven't had any real push back. Their motivation is, 'If this helps us achieve our financial goals, then it's absolutely a good idea.' "