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NGA embraces gamification for engagement, innovation

By Jacquelyn Karpovich, Office of Corporate Communications
Pathfinder Magazine
Dec. 11, 2014


Gamification isn’t just found in the latest version of Candy Crush Saga or in the nearest Xbox. It is being successfully used commercially in everything from recruitment tools for the military, graduate school prep courses and personal financial management websites.

And now, gaming principles — like points, rewards, and badging — are unlocking new achievements in the intelligence community.

Government game-development efforts are exponentially on the rise, said National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo in an October press release announcing the release of the agency’s gamification software to its organizational account on GitHub, an open-source, collaborative software development environment.

“The current generation of professionals is discovering the collaborative learning power of using games in standard business practices, and the newer generation is already familiar with how these new technologies are powerful learning tools,” said Cardillo.

The agency’s software gives awards or badges to users and operates as a stand-alone application, or it can be integrated with other Web-based applications to increase learning, processing and output, said Ray Bauer, an NGA information technology innovation lead. It also provides a customizable Web interface for displaying badges and a configurable rules engine that translates actions performed by users into awards.

Gamification fits into the workflow of intelligence analysts and geospatial analysts as a tool to manage and incentivize collection and analysis of data, said Bauer. The points and value system reinforced through gaming can motivate employees to complete and promote well-rounded tradecraft and training.

Bauer witnessed the successful application of gamification while supporting the agency’s humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery team, he said. The analysts on the team earned points by identifying features within their individual areas of interest. After collecting enough features, they unlocked badges. The higher the proficiency in a particular feature, the more achievements they received.

“In the future, I see individuals competing for personal awards, [and] teams and groups within NGA challenging one another to excel,” said Bauer. “It can also help to engage analysts from all over the intelligence community to collaborate while building interdisciplinary tradecraft.”

The application of gamification at the agency stretches beyond intelligence analysis and into agency business practices.

In July, Cynthia J. Mendoza Chatelain, NGA’s chief engineer and senior leadership gamification champion, tested gamification’s efficacy in the agency’s inaugural “Capabilities Camp,” which brought people together from across the agency to align elements with the agency’s new portfolio management business construct — a new operating concept.

Badges were awarded to encourage participants to use creative thinking and step out of their comfort zones when making decisions and recognizing team members, said Mendoza Chatelain, who looked to promote thinking in a broader agency-wide perspective among participants.

“Ultimately, everyone who contributes is a part of a game and a team,” said Mendoza Chatelain. “Gamification brings people together for a common purpose and allows new ideas and innovation to come forward in an uninhibited way.”

In a time of declining budgets and limited resources, the benefits of being able to leverage software development in an unclassified environment like GitHub makes complete sense for an intelligence agency like NGA, said Mendoza Chatelain.

“In fact, I think we need to leverage more of it,” said Mendoza Chatelain. “As long as protecting our classified data remains paramount, I think there is a lot to gain. There’s a lot of talent in the unclassified environment.”

As the director of NGA’s Information Technology Architecture and Engineering Group, Mendoza Chatelain already sees a number of immediate applications for gamification within her own organization, particularly in efforts to reshape the IT workforce and promote new skills development, she said.

“It makes things fun,” said Mendoza Chatelain. “You’re in there doing the work and gamification makes it more exciting.”

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The information technology research and advisory company, Gartner, defines gamification as “the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve goals.” Gartner estimates that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those activities.