Key takeaways

  • Attracting and retaining employees is a key concern for businesses competing in the war for talent.
  • The popularity of video games and their ability to keep players coming back while performing routine tasks offers a unique insight into human behaviour.
  • By applying and optimising elements of game design to the workplace, employees could find that same satisfaction in their daily workload.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, video game sales soared as people around the world embraced consoles, laptops and phones for entertainment, community and a sense of normalcy in an upended year.1 Perhaps you were one of the millions who flocked to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In the game, players inhabit their own island and build it up as they wish. There’s no end point, just easy tasks, such as collecting wood or picking fruit, on a slow-progression towards achievable goals.2

The simple repetitiveness of such ‘work’ with well signposted and satisfying world-building rewards meant that Animal Crossing, and other games like it, became a go-to activity during the pandemic.

It makes you wonder, what is it that sucks people into playing hours and hours of video games… and could we replicate that so that people felt the same way about their jobs?


There are many reasons people leave their workplaces, and just as many as to why they stay. According to a 2019 study, 67 percent of employees report that they would go above and beyond if they felt more valued and engaged, while 90 percent say good company communication is key to a positive working environment.3 A separate survey found that 39 percent of respondents want their employer to be clear on how they can grow within the company, with 37 percent looking for a company that promotes from within.4

Growth and progression sound like fairly obvious retention factors, and many businesses advertise such pathways as perks to attract job applicants. However there is often a lack of  clarity on how employees can access such rewards.

CEOs are concerned about having and keeping the talent that they need. The skills required are changing. Increasingly, businesses need the capacity to analyse and leverage increasing amounts of data, find ways to evolve and predict their needs over time, and make sure their employees are equipped to succeed in their jobs. Investment in talent is an increasing priority, but equally, retaining those employees once you do takes on more importance.

What’s in a game?

The most compelling games keep people coming back willingly and routinely. One reason for this is that specific game elements make it clear to the player how to progress, and the best games are usually very good at communicating progression.

In other words, they effectively combine two things employees say they desire in the workplace to remain engaged. As games progress, they reveal new ways to keep play interesting and rewarding. As Amy Jo Kim, Game Designer for The Sims explains it, “games keep players engaged by helping them get better at something meaningful. It feels good to engage our brains, improve our skills, and make progress on a path towards mastery”.5

The path may be different across different genres or titles but many include repetitive tasks (referred to as game mechanics) such as ‘farming’, ‘mining’ or  ‘grinding’  such as Animal Crossing’s fruit picking, smashing rocks in Minecraft, or defeating enemies in the Final Fantasy games. Gamers and casual players often discuss how to improve these core, repetitive behaviours as they help them to build up various types of currency, advance character stats or unlock levels and abilities.6 Many play games every day precisely because this will allow them to get the most out of mining activities to advance.

Mining, like excel spreadsheets, isn’t usually the most enjoyable of tasks. Yet players do it because they know what they get in return. They know it won’t take up the majority of their time, so they’re willing to put in the time, get the rewards, and move on.

Applying game design to the workplace

Many games are broken down into a cycle of repeated tasks, described in game design as the ‘core loop’. Leveling up and broader tasks become the ‘extended loop’ and the high-level vision of the player/character in the broader game world is referred to as the ‘metagame’. These loops can be broken down into activities that make up the player’s experience, and in the same way, we can view employee experience in the workplace via activities that fall under core, extended and meta terminology.

For business, identifying core loop activities will help define not only the core activities of the job, but where their extension could lead to better engagement, places to ‘play’, and ways to advance. Viewing your employee’s meta-world in this way can give a unique perspective into how employees spend their time and on what, and where to balance ‘the grind’ with more compelling activities to advance.

Imagine if jobs were as compelling as the games people played in their free time? The work experience could  be far more enjoyable with clear paths for progression and reward goals. Too often, however, employees feel that they are stuck in mindless core tasks with no way to ‘level-up’. Their metagame becomes drudgery.

Enter player name…

If you’re thinking of applying game design to your workplace as an exercise or strategy, the best place to start is to look at the activities that make up an employee’s core loop.  What are the specific activities they perform? (Ask them what you think they are spending their time on and what they actually do could be vastly different). How much time do those activities take up in a day or week?

Next, analyse the extended loop. Where do those core activities offer room to extend opportunities for advancement? What core activities can be replaced, even one at a time, to naturally extend the daily breadth of work. It is in this detail that we reveal the real game, improvements that can be made to increase engagement and the ‘replayability’ of the day. There’s also the ability, having defined core loops, to also ‘retune’ the time spent on activities for more engaging workdays.

Let the game begin

Outside of their job description, how well do we know what really makes up an employee’s day? How clear is it to the employee what the goals, rewards, and rules are for their activities? The best games are honest with their players about how to succeed, and so should your workplace. If activities do become too repetitive, employers should think of finding ways to automate or change daily tasks to get the most out of employees, improving the core loop and enabling the extended loop the path to progression.

Game design thinking can help you identify and nurture talent within your company, and provide new ways to play and progress while defining a stronger selling point for why others should come play in your metagame. Work can be more engaging than a game and the core behaviours of game design could allow you to reset the foundations and keep your people happy.

PwC US has developed a set of core loops, activities and insights for several industries, including retail, insurance and financial services to help identify what drives employees, the benefits they are looking for and what keeps them engaged. Contact John Jones for further information.


Digital Pulse: John Jones


John Jones

John is a managing director in PwC’s New York Experience Center.

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Louis Bennett

Louis is a director in The BXT Team at PwC US, based in New York.

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