“Seventy percent—according to a number of studies—of people say they’re not really motivated at work,” Kevin Werbach, an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, told a crowd of Wharton alumni at the latest stop on the Knowledge for Action Lifelong Learning Tour.

This lack of motivation has huge ramifications for businesses across every industry. Motivating employees can lead to increased productivity, and motivating external audiences can lead to larger profits. Werbach has conducted intense research on one method of doing this: gamification.

People love to play games. The tradition of gaming stretches throughout history to every known human civilization. Games are pervasive in today’s society. The online game Angry Birds has been downloaded 1 billion times, users of Xbox Live are on the online version of the system for 2 billion hours a month, users spent 9 billion hours in 2003 playing Windows Solitaire, and 97 percent of American teenagers play video games.

“Games motivate people,” Werbach said.

That’s why researchers like Werbach study gamification at Wharton and beyond, or “building game-like elements into existing processes or activities.” Gamification entails the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts.

Gamification of established processes can make a significant impact. Microsoft used gamification to motivate its employees to review dialogue boxes in languages and dialects other than English. The tech giant launched a competition among its field offices to review the dialogue boxes in Windows 7. Employees were so eager to win that they reviewed more than 500,000 dialogue boxes during their spare time.

Gamification can also be used to motivate external audiences. Club Psych, the website of USA Network’s television show Psych,  is using gamification to raise the level of engagement with fans. Since this implementation, overall traffic to the USA Network site is up 30 percent, page views are up 130 percent, and online merchandise sales are up 50 percent.

Werbach explains that psychology’s theory of self-determination underscores why games are a powerful motivational tool. This theory suggests that intrinsic motivation is based on three principles: competence, autonomy and relatedness. A process that is properly gamified should touch on all three principles.

With the potential power of games, it’s important to understand the rules of gamification before diving in. Better yet, Werbach told attendees, it’s better to be the game’s designer.

“Be the one who makes the rules.”

Editor’s note: Visit the Knowledge for Action Lifelong Learning Tour website for more on Wharton gamification events and future tour dates and registration information.