Brooks Mitchell was on vacation a few years ago when he watched a busload of people pour into an Elko, Nev., casino.
"They were running in to play the slot machines," he recalled. "It hit me that they were excited about losing money."
Thus was born Snowfly Performance Incentives, an employee incentive company focused on random, positive reinforcement, the concept behind slot machines and other games of chance.
Mitchell, who was working on his doctoral dissertation, had also read about an "intermittent reinforcement" motivational program designed to improve attendance at a manufacturing facility.
He combined his casino epiphany with that motivational theory and created software that lets workers earn the right to play computer games of chance at work.
At Accent, a call center in Kansas City, Mo., manager Mike McCart said the games, which have been in use there for about a year, are making a difference in attendance and attitude.
Workers earn tokens for coming to work, for being on time and for meeting other performance goals. The tokens are then used to play very short computer games - no skill required.
The true motivation doesn't come from playing the game. It comes from the random point total won each play.
Those points translate into pennies, which build up to dollars, which are loaded on a debit card for employees to spend whenever and wherever.
"Some save up their totals to spend at Christmas, some save up for vacation," said Linda Hyde, the Accent manager in charge of the call center's Snowfly program. "One of our associates is using her Snowfly dollars to buy a wedding dress."
Some workers earn as much as $100 a week above their base pay through Snowfly points, she said.
Curtis Williams, who said he had held various customer service jobs for 25 years, is a Snowfly fan. "They're fun," he said of the games. "The points build up. It makes a difference."
Mitchell said Snowfly had charted a 20 percent improvement in performance - however a company measures it - with his motivational programs. Managers at Accent didn't have a specific improvement measure to cite, but they said they had been pleased with results so far.
"We've always heard that employers are upset because employees are playing computer games at work," Mitchell said. "But this is different. It's not someone online playing solitaire for hours. These are very short games, only a few seconds each, and you have to earn the ability to play."
After visiting the call center and seeing the games in action, I can verify that the time commitment is indeed tiny. The games are incredibly simple: A basketball player shoots a basket, or several horses run a race, or a few balloons are popped by a mouse click.
The only "excitement" comes from seeing how many points the game randomly produces. If the points didn't add up to dollars, there would be little motivation.
But from a modestly paid worker's standpoint, anything that builds take-home pay is a good thing.
I left the call center feeling a little sad, though.
I'm in favor of rewarding performance, but when rewards accrue merely for showing up, I worry that it says something rather unflattering about the American work ethic.
But, hey, if Snowfly (or anything like it) improves attendance, attitude and performance, I wouldn't pull the plug.