Could a Game Be the Answer to Your E-mail Woes?

4/22/11Follow @wroush

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230 unread messages, after weeks of being so good about my inbox, I just looked at that giant message list and stared, then decided to go off and play Total War.” That’s a SEGA computer game involving armies that clash over Europe. “I spent the entire night playing, and ended up taking over Italy. It was several days later that it popped into my head—if I had just taken that time to go through my messages, I would have been done. Trying to take over Italy was way more ambitious than trying to get through my inbox, but it didn’t feel that way.” Perhaps the key to managing e-mail, Moore speculated, was to make it feel more like a game.

So Baydin hired a summer intern to code up a basic version of the Email Game, and the company released the first version of the app in September. It’s since been widely written up in publications ranging from Technology Review to the New York Times, and cited as an example of a trend toward the gamification of work. (Which, by the way, is one of the subjects of a new book called Game On by Jon Radoff, founder of Boston-based social game publisher Disruptor Beam.)

Moore thinks there are three factors that make the Email Game effective. First, it promotes focus—the game interface takes away all distractions and just shows you the one e-mail you need to process before the clock runs out. Second, it limits choice: your options are limited to replying, labeling, archiving, skipping, deleting, or boomeranging a message. Finally, the game provides encouragement, including deliberately goofy badges that pop up after each action (they say things like “Right on!” and “Radical!”). “It feels like accomplishing something and making headway,” says Moore.

Baydin has rolled out an enterprise version of the Email Game so that companies can offer the app to their employees (at $20 per seat per month). Of course, there’s still plenty of room left for Baydin to improve the game. For one thing, I think there ought to be a way for a user to compete with friends, instead of just seeing his or her own score. And it would help if there were a way to launch and operate the game from within Gmail, instead of having to go to a separate website. Moore says such integration could be coming in a future update. But at the same time, “Part of why the game works is that it feels different than a normal inbox,” he argues. “We think that separation is really important, because the inbox has come to feel like a place you go to drown instead of a place where you feel in control.”

I can certainly attest to that. I’m planning to use the game to gradually empty out my inbox, and then to help keep it empty. Moore says Baydin’s investors, including SimplyHired co-founder Peter Weck, K9 Ventures founder Manu Kumar, and TechStars co-founder David Cohen, are all using the game to stay on top of their own e-mail.

But what about Dave McClure? “Dave is not the ideal guy for this,” says Moore. “He gets a mind-boggling amount of e-mail. Everybody in the world wants to pitch a company to him. We’ve done our damnedest [to get McClure to use the Email Game] but with 44,000 unread messages, I think he has gone with the philosophy ‘I’ll hit some and I’ll miss some.’” Which might just be the ultimate solution to e-mail stress.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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