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Virtual Lessons, Real Productivity

Fred Mertz

SNAP, THE JOB'S A GAME: Reeves, co-founder of Seriosity, thinks that the fun people have while playing in intricate online realms can have applications in the workplace.

By Greta Lorge

You don't have to strap on bulky headgear to immerse yourself in an alternate reality. Thanks to advances in realistic 3-D digital graphics, these days all it takes is a computer with an Internet connection.

Every day, millions of people worldwide enter online realms like Star Wars Galaxies, World of Warcraft and Second Life, where they spend, on average, about 20 hours a week training to be a Jedi, storming the gates of Azeroth or just hanging out. And they're not all, or even mostly, pimply overweight teens; the mean age of players is around 30, and half of them have full-time jobs.

So what's the draw? On the surface, it's the possibilities inherent in these virtual spaces. Richly imagined scenarios allow players to, for example, watch twin suns rise over Tatooine, face off against a fire-belching dragon, or set up shop to sell novelty genitalia (in Second Life, you can build your own body). But, according to communication professor Byron Reeves, an expert on psychological responses to interactive media, there are deeper forces at play.

Most if not all of these worlds have developed sophisticated market systems with currencies and methods for transactions that parallel actual economies. And what interests Reeves is how game players behave in the pursuit of make-believe “riches.” Objects of value in these fantasylands elicit the same response that real money might: people want more.

If players want to earn money, win objects or improve their skills, they must complete certain tasks—say, gather ingredients to make a potion. Reeves says these jobs are analogous to real-world work: perform well, get a reward.

In 2004, Reeves co-founded a company called Seriosity with the goal of bringing the sensibility and fun of these complex multiplayer games to serious pursuits. He believes that embedding elements of game play in business applications will increase employees' engagement and improve their productivity. Seriosity's flagship product, Attent, aims to solve the problem of information overload in your in-box by taking the notion of a virtual economy and applying it to e-mail exchanges.

According to a survey by the Palo Alto-based Radicati Group, in 2006 the average corporate e-mail user received 126 messages per day. Based on that figure, and assuming an average of one minute to read and respond to each message, a quarter of the typical eight-hour workday is spent wrestling with your in-box. The primary culprit is not commercial spam, but co-workers' CCs, FYIs and CYAs.

With Attent, each employee is given an allotment of currency, called Serios, each week. If Reeves's theory is correct, employees will use their Serios judiciously and reduce “noise”in the e-mail channel. Here's how it works: a plug-in for Microsoft's Outlook e-mail application creates a pane in the message composition window where users can specify how many Serios they want to attach to an outgoing e-mail. The value attached to a message signifies how important the sender thinks the information is. (Reeves points out that Outlook already provides a red exclamation point to signify urgency, but because there are no limits on how many a user may employ, they have become ubiquitous and therefore meaningless.)

Attent creates a new column in the in-box, displaying the number of Serios attached to each e-mail message received. That way, users can sort the messages according to relative importance. And it allows senders to gauge how closely their idea of “importance”matches that of the recipients' by the number of Serios sent back with the response. An employee who consistently gets back more serios than he or she sends out would be seen as adding value. In game parlance, “It's not necessarily the player with the most currency who wins, because that doesn't help the company,”Reeves says. “It's people who are investing in ideas.”

The company's research shows that messages sent with 25 or more Serios are read nearly twice as promptly as those with zero. Why not just offer real money to motivate employees to improve their e-mail etiquette? “We want to make it require just a little bit of thought, not a lot,”Reeves says. “Even if it was $5, there's something heavy about that. Whereas five pieces of [make-believe] gold or five Serios is just light enough. The lightness makes it fun.”

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