Link to podcast episode: Taking the Work Out of Work | with Ross Smith of Microsoft

Jesse: Welcome to the show, Game Changers! This is the show for CEOs, HR executives, and other business leaders to learn about internal gamification. Over the course of this series, you’ll hear examples and pitfalls, discover how to assess when it’s an appropriate strategy, and learn to evaluate gamification partners in game design ideas.

I am Jesse Lahey, and today we’re talking with Ross Smith about productivity gamification. Ross is director of Test in Skype in Microsoft where he’s worked for over 20 years and has acquired seven patents. He and his team have helped Microsoft reinvent a number of business processes using gamification including the Windows Language Quality Game.

Ross Smith, welcome to Game Changer!

Ross Smith: Hey, Jesse! Thanks very much. Thanks for having me.

Jesse: Ross, you’ve been one of the earliest folks playing around in this emerging area called gamification. What is your personal history, and how is it you get to be involved in this area?

Ross: Well, I’ve grown up playing games. I loved board games when I was young, and I spent a ton of time in high school playing pinball and video games, kind of the early Pong in Atari and all that. So I’ve kind of always been a gamer.

Several years ago, in the Windows team, we had an intern come in and work with us. We were trying to sort of what’s today known as crowd-sourcing but really engage people from around the team in sort a voluntary activity. We built a simple like Hangman game and saw amazing engagement and participation literally overnight by doing a simple thing and thought, “Wow, there’s really something,” and that kind of kicked things. Often, we’ve just kind of been experimenting ever since.

Jesse: You led the reinvention of a business process using gamification what you called the Windows Language Quality Game. That was so monumental that it was the big example that kicked off Kevin Werbach’s recent book, For the Win. Can you tell us the history behind that initiative?

Ross: Yes, absolutely. Certainly, it was a team effort. There were a lot of great folks involved. Really, what we wanted to do was there’s sort of the business process around language translation and localization of Windows and other large software project. It’s very complex and time-consuming, particularly when it comes to the more obscure languages. You may have only a handful of sort of made up language speakers, or vendor companies, or people that can do the translation, and then you want someone to verify. So you really start to queue up the Languages.

What we wanted to do was leverage the fact that Microsoft has tens of thousands of employees all around the world who all obviously have a stake in the success of Windows who speak a variety of languages that we ship the product in. We wanted to create some way to engage folks from around the world to help us assess the quality of the translation effort, so we built a surely straightforward web-based game to essentially crowd-source assessment of the linguistic quality.

What we came to learn overtime—we had tremendous success. It was about 4,000 people participating, 4,500 people, and they reviewed over half a million screens. What we realized was if you think about particularly Windows, if you wanted to install a prerelease version of Windows and you were passionate about the linguistic quality, because perhaps Windows is going back to your parents at home in your home country or friends are going to use it, you have a certain sort of civic pride around the quality, and so you want to go and take a look and see how things look.

But for an operating system, that’s a pretty expensive proposition. You’d have to go backup your machine and then install the prerelease version and then kind of grabble through its dialogues to see how things look, versus the way we did it with a simple game: just, I go to this website, and the dialogue said choose my language, and the dialogue’s kind of slide in with a little animation, and I can review them and earn points, and be on the leader board, and stuff like that.

The cost of participation, the dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga talks about the magic circle of play where you can kind of come in and enter and it’s a voluntary activity, this allowed that. People at lunch time, instead of playing solitaire, they could come play the Windows Language Quality Game and contribute to a broader initiative for the company yet not make a huge commitment of their time. They could do it at a voluntary basis and kind of come and go as they play.

Jesse: Because this was essentially Microsoft employees volunteering their time. This isn’t part of their regular job.

Ross: Right. We are trying to go after the discretionary time people might have at lunch time, or after work, or something like that, and just out of the, like I said, sort of the citizenship of being an employee to contribute some of their spare time and their core skills of native language ability to help us assess the quality.

Jesse: Now, can you bring us up to date? Is that game still going on today or has it out-lived its purpose?

Ross: It’s kind of split off a new couple of different, I guess, children, grandchildren. I think what we’ve learned from that—it will probably continue to go on. What we’ve learned from that is people who roll out the exact same game to do the same thing are not seeing the success that the original saw because it’s the same game. Where you add a new game mechanics, you have to keep fresh. I’m a big, maddened fan. You have new players, and sometimes, they’re teams and new plays. You have to keep things fresh to get people to continue to play. It’s something that we’ve learned.

Then we’ll probably, along the way here, do another version ourselves, and to do that, we’ll add new game mechanics and new elements to keep it fresh for people, so that’s not just the same old thing.

Jesse: What light has gamification, in general, shed on how we think about work and employee engagement?

Ross: I think if you think back to sort of early civilization, games, and play, and recreation were intertwined with work and life. It was really no separation. You went hunting and fishing to gather food, or children played games to learn how to be adults. You celebrated festivals, something like that.

Then the industrial era came along, and those two things were separated. We have the mechanization and urbanization of work: things like the orchard and the time clock, the phrase “on-time.” It all came to rise during the industrial era, and great advance in production, and sort of industrial progress. But it was also the greatest rise in sort of dedicated recreation: the Yellow Stone Park in, I think, 1871, the first national park system, the traveling circus, the photograph. All came to rise during the industrial area as people separated work and play.

As we come back to knowledge work in 1959, Peter Drucker came up with the term knowledge worker or Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class. The idea that we’re now using our minds more than our bodies to get work done bring play, and games, and recreation back into the workplace. It helps people to be creative and innovative, and so to keep games as a motivational technique.

If you think about the metaphorical 17-year-old boy in the basement playing Halo, he’s definitely engaged. If you think about bringing that into the workplace and using game elements and game mechanics to keep people engaged in, what we’ve seen, a voluntary or citizenship activity can be tremendously effective as a sort of a 21st century business process.

Jesse: You’ve said that collaborative play helps build trust, creativity, and innovation. Why is that?

Ross: If you and I play a game together, and—let’s say we’re in a softball team. You might be the CEO and I’m a line level employee, but we’re on a softball team together, I learn a lot about how you react to competition, how you like to work together. I learn a lot about you in the context of a game, of fun. The risk of failure, the risk of alienation is very low, because we’re in there; we’re having fun, and it’s just a game. Then when I bring that back to the workplace, I learned a lot more about you, and if you think about what is trust, I wouldn’t be able to predict your future reaction.

If you take that same example, you’re the CEO and I have to bring you some bad news, and if I know that, “Boy, when we played that softball game and we lost,” you reacted very strongly to that bad news, I now have some context for what’s going to happen in the workplace when I bring you bad news. If I see that when we lost, “Hey, we played hard, and we gave it our best shot,” you don’t really have a negative reaction; you think more optimistically about the future, that kind of sets some context for me in the workplace.

So now, I can trust more because I’m able to predict your future behavior that, “Hey, I’m going to bring you this bad news,” whereas if I know that you’re going to react negatively, I’m going to prepare for that. I can still trust you because I can prepare for it.

Now, without a game or without that, in this case, softball context, if I don’t know how—I can’t predict how you’re going to react, sometimes you scream and yell, and sometimes, you say, “Ah,” and shrug it off, I can’t trust. I don’t know how to prepare because I can’t predict what your future reaction is going to be.

Bringing you, again, inside this magic circle, or we can come and play a game together, and ideally, collaborate more together towards a common goal within a game, it allows me to learn a lot about my coworkers or my fellow players that, then, I can bring back into the workplace and be more effective because I now have relationship built on collaboration and even competition but with the risk of failure being a lot lower because it is a game.

Jesse: That’s easy, I think, to see in the terms of softball, and I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Take that magic circle and apply it to work, are there any examples that you can share that would show those similar kind of dynamics? Because I don’t see it necessarily in the Windows Language Quality Game where it feels a little more like we’re playing by ourselves there.

Ross: We did a game in the Windows security team where we wanted to get some additional effort towards some sort of column side projects, for lack of better term. We separated the team-base play with coaches and players. The coaches would do sort of the day job and continue kind of treading water on the regular work, and the runners, in this case (it was kind of an Olympic themed thing) would do some of the side projects. We ran this for a week where we separated the teams at the end of the week, had sort of a little celebration for the winners.

What we were able to see in this is that I think we had one coach, two or three runners on each team that, if you said normally, “Okay, Jesse. Ross is going to do some cool side project, then we want you to do his day job while he’s doing that,” you’re probably not going to have a great reaction to that. It’s like, “Well, wait a minute.” By building some game mechanics around this and making it a team-based competition, now, you and I share a similar goal. We want our team to be the best, and so you’re willing to take on my day job work because we share this common goal.

The structure of game elements and game mechanics around the work allows us to accomplish things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do, and it still comes across as fun, “Hey, we’re winning. We can talk smack back and forth to the other team,” and stuff like that. In the meantime, you’re doing my day job, which without the game doesn’t sound fun at all.

Jesse: That is pretty amazing. Okay, I can see how that would build some trust and some teamwork. What about creativity or innovation?

Ross: I think the biggest thing, it’s in the same context. If you think about the behaviors that are attributed to creativity or innovation, it’s things like freedom to fail or freedom to experiment, try new things, work together on things, just new ideas, all of this sort of behaviors around creativity, if you think about those, they’re all kind of rooted in trust. Okay, freedom to fail, if I go and do some really cool experiment, and I fail miserably, if I don’t have a boss that trust that I’m on the right path or that it’s okay for me to take these risks, that could end very poorly.

In the context of a game, failure is a lot less risky, so I can try something in the context of a game, and if I fail miserably, well, I lost the game. If I fail miserably in my day job, maybe I have an awkward conversation with my manager, like, “Why did you do that?” and so I’m more incented to take risks, and experiment, and work with others, and do all these things that lead to creativity and innovation. I’m more likely to do those in the context of a game because the risk is lower. “Oh, it’s just a game.”

There’s a lot of discussion around “do you call these games or gamification” or we call them productivity games, but the word game has a connotation that some people don’t think belongs in the workplace, and yet if you think about sort of the upcoming generation, virtually, everyone is a gamer. What’s fun about games is that they are voluntary: you can come and go as you please, and so when you build this structure around some activity and call it a game, people feel more liberated to take risks that they wouldn’t take in a regular work environment.

Jesse: What about when you look at the possibilities for gamifying work beyond typically player-versus-player competition which is sometimes called zero-sum games where there’s a winner-takes-all rewards that are getting to be pretty common place, do you have any examples of possibilities that go beyond that?

Ross: Yes. What we found in our lessons learned out of this is everyone’s different in what we do, in software testing, a diverse population is exactly what we want. The glory and shame of the leader board, the zero-sum game, or player-versus-player works for some people but not everybody, particularly across cultures or some cultures that have a strong reaction to that sort of leader board, hierarchical mentality. So we try and sprinkle elements of virtually all types of game designs: player-versus-environment – we put puzzles, and hidden tokens, and things like that. Player-versus-self – can you beat your own high score? Can you do this certain activity so many days in a row?

We also had a lot of luck with altruism: play for charity or play to raise awareness around particular issues, and so the “play” is crowd-sourced effort, but it now has a bigger meaning to the players. When we think about our product in Skype (I’m sure people are familiar with it), if you as a Skype user have a dropped call or the software crashes, from a test team perspective, we’re pretty excited about that (we call it a bug), particularly if it’s prerelease. If it’s after release, we’re not that excited. But if it’s prerelease, that really helps us improve the quality.

The problem is that you’re probably not quite as excited as we are because you probably were making a real phone call. How can we incent and motivate you to install a prelease version if you do run into an issue, give us logs, and give us feedback. So using games, and game mechanics, and altruism, and then all these different elements to keep you as a “player” or beta tester engaged with the product and willing to take a little extra time to give us feedback is very valuable to our test process.

Jesse: Can you give us an example of what some of those game elements that you’ve used with Skype would feel like for the user?

Ross: Yes. The Hangman game we did early on was spelled beta one, and you would do certain activities to earn the letter B, and then we would have sort of a leader board of, “Okay, here’s everyone that’s earned the letter B and so on. Then we’ve done some stuff around you hit a certain scenario, and you might hit a marker and a code, and you get a little fireworks thing goes off, a little animation goes off. and a window pops up. We’ve done some stuff where you might get an instant message from sort of a game master when you perform a certain activity.

These are sort of player-versus-environment: just sprinkling little hidden things throughout, and as people kind of hit these speed bumps along the way, they get some little trigger to say you’ve uncovered something.

Jesse: Those would be example where the sort of reward, it’s not a tangible reward, but there’s something that happens that gives pleasure to the player, and there’s a bit of surprise involved. It’s not “I do this, and I get a reward,” where it’s contingent. It’s a little more unexpected, which brings an element of fun to the game.

Ross: Yes. We can say, “Go see if you can find the hidden coin,” and we might send a hint out and say, “Hey, it’s in the area where you’re making a phone call, and it might not be exactly making a phone call, but somewhere in that area.”Oh, I hit the mute button, and this lights up, and I get a little animation, a little fireworks or something,” the idea of sort of sprinkling things around the environment where people will go search out.

Really, what they’re doing is they’re exercising different features within the product, and then we can get an idea from some of our instrumentation; we can get an idea for how easy it is to do some of these things. Again, most of the prerelease work—actually pretty much all of our games have been sort of Microsoft employees prerelease experimentation. That way, we can get some good data around usage patterns and things like that. Then you see those.

Just collect a bunch, a whole big data thing, just collect a bunch of data, and then wherever we see we need more data in this area, we can sprinkle some game elements in that area and then send out hints and say, “Go find this thing over here,” and then that will give us the data we need to kind of make some prioritization decisions.

For player-versus-self, we’ve done some things. It’s how many days in a row can you do a certain activity: maybe enrolling your machine in a test process overnight—can you do that five days in a row or seven days in a row? You kind of beat your own high score, and then we’ll have sort of a dashboard or report that shows your high score of how many days in a row you were able to do that. Maybe we compare to others, maybe not.

It’s important to show there some transparency, so when people find an issue, they can go and see and track it through our review process so that they can see, “Hey, the thing I found actually got fixed.” So it’s just kind of appealing to, “Hey, you are making a difference, and here’s how you can track exactly what that feedback…” It is obviously an important part of games. If you picked up the sword and try and slay the dragon and he breathes fire on you, you realize the sword wasn’t the weapon you needed. We need that kind of feedback as part of our games in a slightly different manner and say, “Okay, I’ve found something. Is this the right thing or not?”

Jesse: Ross, those are some really cool-sounding, fun-sounding examples of taking things that would otherwise be tedious work and making them a lot more interesting, but beyond sort of anecdotal evidence, do you have any data that shows whether or not it’s making a meaningful difference?

Ross: Yes. Well, there’s, again, mixed reactions to the use of the word game, and so we are very meticulous and rigorous about data collection. We do have comparative A, B studies. The interesting thing that we’ve learned is that pretty much everything we’re asking here has the potential to compete with traditional reward systems. We’ve kind of come up with a matrix of where we think games work and where they don’t.

If you think about—we’ve broken skills out in the core skills, and everyone has unique skills that only I have or the reason I am employed, expanding skills which are things I can learn to be better at my job, and then sort of the roles on this table or the in-role behaviors and the citizenship behaviors that we look at. If you say, “Okay, we’re going to do the ‘do Ross’s job’ game, and we’ll deploy this thing to 500 people. If I come in first, does that mean I get to keep my job or does that mean I get promoted? Or if I come in the hundredth’s place, what does that mean in my next performance evaluation?”

The idea of using games sort of to just get more work out of people tends to be received poorly because it feels like, “Oh. Well, you’re just trying to get me to do more work.” Unless you sort of gamify the entire reward system and really think, “Okay, if I get to the next level in the game, that’s a promotion for me.” That could probably work.

What we’ve found is that these games, on the edges, are the best way because you’re only going after discretionary time. They don’t compete with the traditional reward systems. So if I’m number one on the leader board, I’m not thinking, “Okay, it’s time for me to get promoted.” That took us awhile to learn that. We had a lot of negative reactions to some of the things we rolled out because we were in that sort of “do Ross’s job” game scenario. Being very careful about where you use game mechanics, I think, is important.

Jesse: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. It’s not a good idea to try to necessarily gamify someone’s 9:00 to 5:00 work, “this is what I’m here for,” but the things where you’re really pulling after discretionary effort are better opportunities.

Ross: Yes, because the whole idea of play is fun because it’s voluntary, and the ability to come and go doesn’t necessarily happen with a 9:00 to 5:00 job. Again, unless you take the entire rewards system and give it context in the game, you’ll have much more success if you stick to sort of citizenship behaviors where people have skills like language speaking, or typing, or reviewing, trying scenarios, testing out software, things where, “Hey, I know how to make a phone call on Skype. I’ll go do that.” It’s going to be much more fun.

Jesse: You’re kind of looking at that question through the lens of a model that you’ve developed that helps a business leader assess whether gamification is an appropriate strategy for a given business process. You’re sort of looking at a matrix I think, right?

Ross: Yes.

Jesse: Can you outline those two axis for us?

Ross: Yes. There are three columns, and the columns, we just label them C, U, E, which is based on Elizabeth Smith’s work of Core Skills, Unique Skills, and Expanding Skills. Then the two roles are your in-role behaviors and what’s called OCBs or organizational citizenship behaviors. Really, you want the lower left and the upper right check marks. That’s where games work well. The upper right is games for learning – expanding skills for in-role behavior, game for great. Then what we’ve seen like with the Language Quality Game, core skills is for citizenship behavior. “I’m not on the Windows team, but I speak Spanish. I can take a look at a few dialogues that have been translated and determine whether they’re in high quality.”

Then the “do Ross’s job” is the center column. Big X there, because it’s competing with existing reward system.

Jesse: Okay, great. In the show notes for this episode, we’ll put a link to where you have that graphic laid out for anybody who’s more visually oriented and can’t picture that.

Ross: Yes. It’s a little easier.

Jesse: You’re coming from Microsoft where you have tons of programmers available to you. Because this all sounds highly customized, are you aware of resources, or what would somebody at a different type of company do if they would like to add gamification to some productivity tasks?

Ross:  Well, there are a couple of companies that have come up and offered some platforms to do this: Bunchball and Badgeville are a couple. What we’ve seen is there’s some dispute on the term gamification sort of cheapen game design and is it being misused. I think there’s a risk. You can’t just slap a badge on a website and say, “Okay, go!” That doesn’t last and can often backfire.

What we’ve seen is a lot of this sort of—we happen to work with software developer, but a lot of the incoming generation has an aspiration. I mean they’re gamers, so, “Hey, would you help us design a game?” even if it’s an analogue game. I mean I can put yellow sticky’s on my door and make a leader board. Engaging what would be some of your audience or some of your team to help just brainstorm, “Hey, let’s make a game out of this. Can we do it?” we have seen that people are very interested in doing that because most of this next generation are gamers.

But a couple of this platform companies have some sort of (I don’t want to say turnkey) have some game elements that are possible to deploy. Again, you’ll still want to brainstorm around design.

Jesse: Ross, you have an organization and a website that helps other people learn more about this productivity games and has resources that people can find to learn more about it. Can you share that with us?

Ross: Sure, yes. We call it 42 Projects, and our website is—42 in deference to Douglas Adams and the answer to life, the universe, and everything from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Really, we’ve been doing this for many, many years and have paid a fairly extensive tuition into what works and what doesn’t, so we try and be as transparent and share as much as we can so that people can build on our work and not go down and make the same mistakes we’ve made.

I have website. There’s a bunch of references on books that we found useful. We really kind of—42 Projects has sort of three pillars which is how do we innovate in the way manage to better accommodate the new generation, how do we intersperse games and play in the workforce, and how do we build organizational trust. Sort of the three pillars are interrelated. I know we’ve talked about play today, but a lot of our data and findings from games we’ve deployed, and virtually, we’ve done a paper on every game we’ve done. That’s all up there. Certainly, I’m happy to answer—if people have questions or whatever, my contact information is up there. I’m happy to answer any questions.

Jesse: What do you think about the future of gamification and work?

Ross: I think, if you think about the globalization of the workforce, the incoming generation being raised with games and being raised with digital technology, by 2022, everyone is going to be a digital native. The idea of if you watch two-year-olds play games on a tablet these days, it’s phenomenal. When we think about the future of work where we have a global workforce, I think we’re going to see more and more of games as a business process.

Really, I’d like to see companies start to think about can we gamify the entire human resources experience so that all the traditional rewards are tied into a structure of a game, because if you think about what gamers get in terms of transparency, the sword example I used earlier, feedback, transparency, it’s immediate. I go down the wrong path; I realize right away I went down the wrong path, so I jump up and hit the mushroom. I got 500 points and some chimes go off, whereas in the workplace, I might do something I might not find out until next year’s performance evaluation that that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Being able to give that immediate feedback to employees, I think, is a good thing going forward, and games can give us that.

Jesse: Ross Smith from Microsoft, thank you for joining us on Game Changer.

Ross: Aw, Jesse. Thanks very much. I appreciate the time.

Jesse: We’ll provide Ross’s contact information and links to two presentations he’s given, including his most recent at GSummit ’13, in our show notes for this episode which you can find at as in Game Changer Episode 12.

If you’re working on the Game Changer Series Puzzle, our clue for episode 12 is the letter P as in pineapple. There are other clues in each of the first 14 episodes in the Game Changer Series as well as in Engaging Leader Podcast episode 38 featuring Kevin Werbach. From those 15 clues, if you can be the first person to guess the secret phrase, you’ll win a $100-gift card from Amazon, and everyone who guesses that correctly will be honored on our Game Changer Genius Board. I have to say, nobody has yet won, so as soon as you think you know the secret phrase, email it to me at

Link to podcast episode: Taking the Work Out of Work | with Ross Smith of Microsoft