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Games People Play

by | Nov 11, 2013 | Industry News & Trends

Ahhh… this song by the Alan Parsons Project brings back great memories! It motivates me to think about how we as association professionals, take on the concept of gaming, and how we can use games to create a better world and better membership experiences.

I get a lot of questions about Gamification, and I know people are wondering about my obsession with games in general. As a gamer, I have been able to see the parallels between gaming and the work we do in our daily lives within our associations. There is a reason why we’re spending sometimes 20 to 40 hours a week playing games, as opposed to engaging in real life activities – games are very satisfying.

Gaming isn’t a fad. Yes, it’s trending right now in a lot of social media, but the ideas behind gaming dynamics and techniques are as old as human civilization itself. We have been playing them since we learned to walk upright and scratch symbols on sheep’s knuckles.

Human beings are made for gaming. When we were kids we played – that is how we learned. When we become adults for some reason we believe we can’t play anymore. We have to be “serious” about learning. But actually what we do when we are kids is we’re playing, we’re experimenting, we competing, and we’re having fun. Those are the things that make us learn and retain material better in a social environment. We learn from each other in a social environment, like the education meetings and events that are at the heart of what do in our associations.

What is new is the massive push into electronic gaming and the way researchers have been able to track and quantify human behavior on a scale never imagined before. What they are finding is gamers are attracted to and become deeply engaged with systems that promote vision, learning and community. These are things associations are already pretty good at, but we have lots of room to improve by changing some of the things we do to increase motivation and fun. With 500,000,000 gamers globally and one billion on the way, associations cannot afford to ignore this new constituency and figure out what makes them tick.

We have a lot to learn from an association perspective on how membership processes and learning processes can mimic game design, in order to make our programs more engaging to a new generation that are our members and leaders of the future.

Associations should be thinking about gaming in general as a part of our offerings – it is not just for kids. People of all ages are play games today, and their personality type doesn’t matter. Because even if all you want to do is play solitaire – that’s a game. If it’s two people playing Yahtzee, that’s a game. Even if you are playing with literally thousands of people in a World of Warcraft setting, there is a type of engagement and a speed of engagement that is custom made for everybody. That is what’s really cool about it – you can engage whenever you want to.

I think that’s where we get it wrong sometimes. Especially when we think that gaming only applies to the younger generation. It actually applies to everyone. And good learning techniques apply across the board, as well.

We game all of the time as human beings. But the reality is that most of the games that are available in the corporate environment kind of suck. They’re rewards programs, or they’re “show up at a happy hour with an original game and get a free drink.”

When we’re talking about associations we need to talk about creating connections that are more fun. Maybe instead of membership being an event where a prospect signs up, it’s a process. Maybe they come in and get a task – meet five new members by a certain time and level your membership up. Go to this education event and level up that way. We already do these things, but we just need to do them in an intentional way so that members feel like they are achieving things, instead of just getting the traditional membership packet and wondering if anyone cares about them. Let them engage in their own membership process.

There’s a new landscape that has been radically changed by the advent of gaming consoles and the Internet. Here are just three very contemporary examples of how games are being used for entirely new purposes to do great things.

Half the Sky – Games for Change is promoting a new Facebook game that they rolled out based on the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I played it for a while and it was pretty fun. In addition to the simple scenarios it presents, you have the opportunity to earn points that can unlock actual charity gifts for people. You are also occasionally given the opportunity to donate to non-profits straight from within the game using your cell phone.

US Navy and MMOWGLI – The United States Navy, in joint partnership with the Office of Naval Research, the Naval Postgraduate School and our fine, fantastic friends at Institute for the Future have come up with a new online game known as “Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet” or MMOWGLI. This game is intended to run scenarios and solicit input from players on some of the Navy’s most pressing challenges and tactical nightmares. You can read more in this article from the “Armed with Science” blog. And just in case you don’t get how players can be attracted into games like this – look at the nightmare scenario video they cooked up to get players involved. Yeah. Sleep tight.

Omni VR Virtual Rehabilitation System – Medical practitioners and physical therapists are finding new and better ways to get people interested in pursuing their own mental and physical recovery from illness and accident. There are new and engaging uses for a system like this. It’s similar to Wii or Microsoft’s Kinect but it’s specially designed to meet the needs of patients. In the Golden Living Center patients can actually play together, which creates opportunities for group therapy and recovery as well as social interaction. Seriously, your grandma may be playing games sooner than you if you don’t get with it.

So, yeah…we’ve got a bright future ahead of us. People are playing games for all sorts of good reasons and the games are only getting better…I say spend less time trying to downsize your board, and more time learning about things that will make a real difference in the lives of your members. No, you might not know exactly how to make it happen, but if you don’t start thinking about what these opportunities might look like, you might not recognize them when you see them.

I’m promising you the Moon and the Stars, do you believe it? (Thanks Alan Parsons for the good times).

About the Author

Shelly Alcorn, CAE, began her career in change management at the age of 5 when she was enrolled at what was to be the first of the eleven schools she would attend prior to graduating from high school. Being the perpetual “new kid” forced her to quickly and strategically assess new environments, orient herself to new curriculum, policy and rules and figure out the political nuance involved in navigating recess.

Shelly kept up the fast pace by working her way up from receptionist to executive director of two different non-profit associations, passionately pursuing developing her skills and is now a consultant. A revolutionary, self-proclaimed edupunk, she got her CAE (Certified Association Executive) just to prove she knows what she’s doing. She can be contacted at


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