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Game ON! Revisited

May 1, 2012

NOTE: The 2012 GMIC Sustainable Meetings Conference just wrapped up in Montreal.  To mark this, here is a blog on last year’s conference.    It is a little longer than our regular blogs, but hopefully you will find it interesting.

Ever watched someone play a video game?  Chances are, they are totally immersed in playing.  They wouldn’t notice if World War III broke out around them.  They are focused, sometimes obsessively, on the objectives of the game.  Harnessing this power of engagement for meeting and events isn’t a remote possibility: it’s been done.

It’s July, 2010. The Board of Directors of the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC) was presented with an innovative concept: how the GMIC annual conference could reinvent itself using game mechanics, changing not only how the event looked, but also how attendees, sponsors and partners participated, interacted and learned.

It was a major innovation, but also a huge risk: the annual conference was one of two major revenue streams for the association.  The executive director of the GMIC , Tamara Kennedy Hill, says, “Failure was not an option for us that year.”  Kennedy-Hill adds, “Some of the initial reservations were simply unfamiliarity with the concept. Gaming?  What did that have to do with sustainability? How does it work? What if people are afraid to participate? And yet, the timing was ideal to introduce a radical approach to our conference design.  After the concept presentation was delivered, the Board saw that this experiment could increase engagement, structure networking and provide a concrete way to demonstrate and assess sustainable learning outcomes.  The other benefit was the innovative design; the GMIC was fast realizing that the traditional and technical approach to sustainable meetings was not reaching a mainstream audience.  Gaming allowed sustainability material to be delivered in an exciting experimental format”.   The result was Game ON!, the 2011 Sustainable Meetings Conference, which took place in Portland, Oregon. It was a brilliant – but not unqualified – success.

The intent of Game ON! 2011 was twofold:  first, it was to immerse attendees in a sustainable event universe. Second, it was to meet the GMIC organizational goals for the conference, which were: 1. To gain insights into sustainable meetings through field learning and interactive team activities; 2.  To build a network of experienced professionals who have moved beyond green meeting checklists into strategic sustainability action plans; and 3.  To develop sustainable solutions to issues raised by a rapidly evolving meetings industry.

Kennedy-Hill says, “Sustainability is a new skill set for many people. Just listening to a speaker isn’t enough to change behavior.  With this new format, attendees could have fun, be challenged, practice new skills and network while applying new skills to solve realistic sustainability challenges”.

The inspiration for using game mechanics in a conference setting came from the book Total Engagement by Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Read, which outlined several key areas where players of massive multi-player games demonstrated beneficial traits or affects.  These key ingredients, and how the GMIC integrated them into the recipe for Game ON! 2011, include:

  1. Leaders.  Leaders are a key success factor in multi-player games because they help to interpret the situation for others, act as relationship builders within the team, and act as a point person to focus efforts into execution.  At conferences, often “leaders” are found as talking heads on stage or attending “leader’s forums”.  In a game context, leaders can actually demonstrate and refine leadership ability.  Game ON! 2011 recruited leaders for teams in advance, and held an orientation session for them at the start of the event.
  2. Avatars.  Since James Cameron has already successfully introduced this term into popular culture in the 2009 blockbuster movie Avatar, we don’t need to define avatars here.  What is important is that having an assigned role can help to increase your engagement with the game.  While avatars, or roles, were envisioned for use in Game ON! 2011 they were not implemented due to time constraints other than giving general roles to each group through interpretation of their assigned case studies.
  3. Narrative context.  Storytelling is important in many business situations, and it is essential to a successful game by providing both context and the motivation to participate.  Game ON! 2011 provided the context through the use of specially developed case studies. Since the primary mission of the GMIC is to inspire sustainability, each case study tied an economic, environmental and/or social sustainability issue to a meeting/event situation.  Teams were asked to crack their case using specific information from conference sessions, and were given a list of applicable sessions to attend to get the relevant information.
  4. Feedback.  Feedback – usually in real time – is essential to gamers.  It provides not only the current status of players, but gives the motivation to improve that status.  Feedback is often lacking in business situations, and most often, the feedback in conference situations goes one-way, from the attendees to the conference organizers.  Creating a 360-degree feedback opportunity that includes attendees, or “players”, at a conference has the potential to enhance engagement and learning.  Game ON! 2011 used a customized app to provide instant feedback to teams, through the use of a leader board viewed on a tablet or smart phone.
  5. Ranks and reputation.  While feedback lets you know how you are doing, ranking lets you know how you are doing in relation to everyone else.  To a gamer, your reputation is based on your rank.  Integrating ranking into a conference situation creates a new dynamic among the attendees, potentially increasing learning, engagement, camaraderie and friendly competition.  The Game ON! 2011 app leader board was an innovation that allowed teams to not only see where they stood in relation to other teams, but to see in which possible scoring categories those teams had accumulated their points.
  6. Marketplaces.  Marketplaces provide a place to use virtual currencies in on-line games to acquire items that might increase your success.  In a conference situation, a marketplace could be used in either virtual or real formats, allowing attendee players to transform points into something concrete for immediate or future use.  A marketplace also provides a natural link to program partners and sponsors, integrating them within the context of the game.  This provides more complete engagement and integration than many traditional ways of integrating sponsors and partners, such as logos on signs or PowerPoint presentations.  The marketplace was not fully developed in Game ON! 2011.  However, destination partners were integrated into the narrative context of the case studies, encouraging teams to look at in-depth information for each destination under consideration.  The mobile app stats prove that this engagement did happen to a great degree, giving partners immediate and verifiable return on their investment directly with their target audience.
  7. Competition.  Competition is a product of ranking, and is a powerful way of increasing collaboration, networking and learning on-site.  Some conferences and events might offer stand-alone competitions; designing the meeting or event itself as a competitive framework is innovative outside of sporting events.  This is what Game ON! 2011 accomplished; the leader board incorporated in the custom game app enhanced the competitive atmosphere.
  8. Teams.  Networking is often seen as a primary goal and benefit of attending a meeting or event.  Working on a team creates an automatic network for team members, especially helpful for those who are not natural connectors at large events; these then have the potential to create long-lasting relationships beyond the time boundaries of the meeting or event.  Teams also foster allegiances and create natural competition between different teams.  Game ON! 2011 assigned attendees randomly to teams.  The randomness was purposeful; psychological research into a phenomenon called “in-group bias” indicates that people will automatically identify strongly with whatever random team they are assigned to.  Teams did, however, evolve to include virtual team members communicating through channels such as Skype, an unexpected, organic and serendipitous result that improved the original design.
  9. Parallel Communication Channels.  Using various ways of communicating is important.  Not only do people often have preferences for visual or spoken communication, sometimes the context determines which gets used, and with whom.  Voice, text or other visual means of communication should be implemented, and in addition, the channel should allow both private and public communication within a team and beyond the boundaries of the team.  Most conference and events formally use one-way communication, although the rise of social media such as Twitter has allowed two-way dialogue to occur in various situations.  Game ON! 2011 allowed teams to communicate internally at meetings and externally to other teams via the app.  Twitter was integrated as a points-earning activity with moderate success.

10. Time Pressure.  Time pressure in a game gives a sense of urgency.  Conferences lend themselves naturally to time pressure, as they are constricted to specific days.  Game ON! 2011 used case studies designed to challenge players within available time constraints.  This was intentional, to mimic many work situations where meeting professionals need to perform well under pressure.

The 2011 event was a successful experiment, due in large part to the creativity of the design team and the willingness of GMIC’s logistic partners, including Three Squares International and its mobile app partner, QuickMobile, to try out something new and test it for the event.  There were, however, some things that could be done differently, and done better.  For example, as Kennedy-Hill says, “There were a lot of moving parts, and not always clarity on when to stop the creative process and focus on execution and planning.  For future years, we decided that we like elements of experimentation, but they need to be balanced with clear goals and outcomes.  There were many last-minute, unplanned elements that could have been executed more smoothly with better planning or a clearer understanding of what it would take to bring the concept to life.  There are times when you are in a creative space and can benefit from defined scope and boundaries; yet, lacking those boundaries, we still produced an excellent event.  We want our future events to benefit from creative vision but still build on best practices for execution.

We want to perfect planned organized chaos.”

The 2012 Sustainable Events Conference will be held April 22 – 25 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The design team reviewed all comments from the 2011 event to revise the concept for 2012; the goal is to keep the elements that most people liked, and to adapt those elements that received constructive criticism to become better able to meet expectations, enhance learning, and change behaviour. It will feature the next generation of the organized gaming chaos envisioned by Kennedy-Hill.  She says, “The next generation of the game ties onsite gaming to the learning experience and to attendees’ personal sustainability education plan.  The game will have two levels; the first level is focused on individual accomplishments and learning, while the second level offers the opportunity for those who want to participate in teams to solve real-life sustainability challenges.  So if one person is more of a gamer or a team player, they will find spontaneous challenges and hands-on CSR challenges that they can solve in collaboration with others, but if another person is more of an independent contributor, they will have the opportunity of tracking their own learning and receive virtual rewards”.

A long-term goal for the GMIC is integrating conference-specific gaming activities into a year-round member learning and rewards program to enhance member engagement, the ability to track member learning and to celebrate accomplishments in a concrete and comparable way.  “The innovative gaming concept helped the GMIC rebrand itself to be seen as an organization open to innovation, adaptable to market change and demonstrating how sustainability has everyday business relevance for the events industry.  It gave everyone from the Board to the design team to the attendees permission to experiment and test concepts in a safe environment.  The success of the experiment has generated a lot of industry discussion and a wave of events that are also experimenting with gaming to enhance learning and change behaviour”, says Kennedy-Hill.  One thing is certain: game mechanics will continue to influence not only the GMIC, but also influence the meetings and events industry into the foreseeable future.  Game on!

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