Sep 15 2011

SAP TechEd 2011 – Gamification Keynote

Categories: 2011 SAP TechEd, Rants Dave Rathbun @ 11:58 am

We had a great start to the conference! Dr. Jane McGonigal took the stage to tell us how we can do so much more if only everything were like a game. That’s perhaps an over-simplification, but I’m going to run with it for a moment. The concept of gamification is basically this: if you put an obstacle in front of someone and tell them they have to do it, they’re likely to whine and complain. Trust me on this one, I have two boys (ages 8 and 10) and I can vouch for the whining and complaining part. ;) On the other hand, if you give them the same obstacle but frame it as a game, they’ll willingly go along with actions that they would not normally do… and have fun doing it. As one example she mentioned the “dance pad” games. Many people do not like to dance, and would rather do almost anything else when out in public. But turn it into a game that starts out simple and builds in complexity and they’ll willingly give it a try.

Golf was another example she used. Golf really is quite an unusual way to spend time. Suppose that golf didn’t exist today, and someone came up with the idea of putting a little ball into a small hole. Weird idea, right? The most obvious solution is to pick up the ball, walk over, and drop it in the hole. Of course that’s not how golf works. They make it far harder by starting from a long way away, and using various different sticks to hit the ball towards the hole. Pretty ridiculous, right? I can only imagine what the first conversation was like as folks were inventing golf… it probably did not go as Robin Williams imagines. (Warning: includes strong language, definitely not safe for work without headphones.)

Here’s a quote from one of her slides:

Games are unnecessary obstacles we volunteer to tackle

Golf certainly fits that description. With apologies to golf fans everywhere, it’s certainly not a necessary obstacle. The same could be said for many sports. Yet today golf is a multi-billion dollar industry. Folks spend hundreds or thousands of dollars buying equipment, spend hours out of their day, just trying to get better at putting a little ball into a little hole. What are they getting out of it?

Games can be frustrating, certainly golf fits that description. But when we’re successful at overcoming the obstacles (unnecessary or not) it turns out that we can experience certain positive emotions. Those emotions (with golf annotations by me) are:

  • 10. Joy – I’m happy I got the ball in the hole
  • 9. Relief – I’m so relieved I got the ball in the hole
  • 8. Love – I love this game because it lets me put a ball in a hole
  • 7. Surprise – Did I really just get the ball in the hole?
  • 6. Pride – Yes! I got the ball into the hole!
  • 5. Curiosity – I wonder if it’s possible for me to get this little ball in that hole?
  • 4. Excitement – Woo hoo! The ball went into the hole!
  • 3. Awe and Wonder – What an amazing thing, to get this little ball into that small hole from so far away…
  • 2. Contentment – I got the ball in the hole, now I’m happy. (Perhaps the 19th hole has something to do with this…)
  • 1. Creativity – Let me think about all of the different ways that I can get this little ball into that hole.
  • As she was talking through this list I started to think about how I felt when I was working on a programming problem. I don’t program so much in my job anymore, but I still love to do it. It’s one of the reasons I love working on BOB so much as it gives me a creative outlet for my coding energies, and a certain amount of price and contentment as I see the new code in use by so many people. Now let me repeat that statement with some words emphasized.

    It’s one of the reasons I love working on BOB so much as it gives me a creative outlet for my coding energies, and a certain amount of pride and contentment as I see the new code in use by so many people.

    There are four of the key emotional states provided by game playing that showed up in that statement, but programming isn’t really a game, is it? It turns out that it can be, and if it is, Dr. McGonigal suggests that we would all be happier and more productive at work. Who wouldn’t want to go to work for forty hours a week (ha, only 40? ;) ) if we could play games all day? But she suggested that it is not just about being more productive at work, but saving the world.

    Refocused Efforts

    Many folks would say that’s not going to happen, that game playing is simply a waste of time. Dr. McGonigal said that worldwide 3 billion hours a week are spent playing online games. The entire wikipedia, including both content and the underlying code to run the system, took 100 million hours to create! In other words, if we could harness some of the energy and enthusiasm poured into online gaming (it takes 300 to 500 hours per person to get to 80th level in World of Warcraft, which is where the game starts to get fun), we could create 30 wikipedias. Each week.

    What does this have to do with IT? Dr. McGonigal presented a number of statistics that showed how gamification or “Game IT” is becoming more interesting to companies around the globe. Most companies will tell you that their people are their most important resource. Gamification is the idea that if we can turn those people into a more energized and engaged workforce, that we will all benefit.

    I get it, I think. There have been plenty of times (in my younger days) when I stayed up all night playing games. There have also been plenty of times when I’ve stayed up all night (still in my younger days) solving a particular coding challenge. What did the coding challenge have to do with playing a game? In each case I have an obstacle to overcome, either code that won’t work, or monsters occupying my space station on Mars. In each case I had to exercise creative thinking and try to apply different solutions. Sometimes my code didn’t work, and sometimes the monsters killed me. In each case I got to start over and take a different approach. When I finally solved the problem (code works, monsters eradicated) I felt a definite sense of accomplishment. These feelings can be powerful motivators. Dr. McGonigal calls this “epic wins” and they’re the primary source of those ten positive emotions listed earlier. As she says in her video, “There’s no unemployment in World of Warcraft.”

    Gamification In The Real World

    As a final point she presented two scenarios where gamification or game play is being used in the real world. The first scenario involved a speed camera at a particular intersection. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a speed camera is essentially an automated policeman that is on duty twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. It includes a radar or other speed measuring device, a camera, and access to the database that contains your license plate number as well as all of your personal data. If you exceed the speed limit through the area covered by the camera, your picture is taken (because they have to show it was you driving the car; they cannot ticket the car itself) and a ticket is sent off in the mail. That’s the normal process. At this particular intersection they reprogrammed the speed camera. Not only would it take pictures of speeders, but it would randomly take pictures of folks that were driving under the speed limit. Why?

    Because each of those folks was awarded a bonus for driving under the limit. The amount of the bonus depended on the amount collected from speeders over the same period! It essentially became a game where safe drivers could win a share of the fines paid by those that were speeding. Over some period of time (I don’t think she said how long) the average speed through that intersection dropped 18.5%, resulting in a safer environment. Speeding tickets alone were not able to do that.

    Dr. McGonigal went on to say that she didn’t feel like this particular game was a sustainable model, and I agree with her. What were speeds like in the area outside of this particular intersection? Were people slowing down overall? Or just at that one intersection? Were people going out of their way to drive through this intersection, therefore increasing traffic congestion, just for a chance at a winning ticket? One thing I’ve observed over the years is that human nature is quite predictable: if you provide an incentive or reward, especially a cash reward, then a certain subset of the population immediately goes about looking for ways to – can I say it? – “game” the system. :)

    The second scenario she presented was also quite interesting, and as far as I can tell not really subject to abuse. It’s really a heart-warming story, and it involves kids playing the most popular sport on the planet: soccer. Yes, I can call it soccer, I’m an American. :P Of course the rest of the world calls it football.

    I’ve seen pictures of kids all over the world playing soccer. Even if they have to make up a ball by wrapping a bundle of trash with tape or string they’ll do it. There were some undergraduate students at Harvard University that came up with this – quite literally – brilliant idea. Why not take the fact that these kids love to play soccer, and help them derive some tangible benefit from it? To do that, they figured out how to put a kinetic energy generator inside a soccer ball. (Read more at As the kids play soccer during the day, the ball is capturing the motion and using it to charge a set of batteries. During the evening, the kids’ families can plug in a small light that uses this energy and use it to see to cook, or read, or any other activity. The light attachment is an LED light so it lasts a very long time. It also draws very little power which means it couold last up to 24 hours. The sOccet can also power a small fan or – and for most people that could benefit from this I imagine this is by far the most useful benefit – a water sterilizer. All of this just from kids playing a game. The idea turns something that people want to do into a potentially life-saving event. Play some soccer, get clean drinking water.

    Get Super Better

    During her talk, Dr. McGonigal mentioned that her latest effort into social enhancement via game play was going to be coming out soon. The site is and the intent is to promote personal health.

    SuperBetter is a game that helps you recover from any illness or injury — or achieve any health goal — by increasing your personal resilience. Resilience means staying curious, optimistic and motivated even in the face of the toughest challenges.

    We believe that instead of being diminished by obstacles in our way, we can grow stronger—much stronger. In fact, science tells us that dramatic, positive changes can occur in our lives as a direct result of facing an extreme challenge—whether it be coping with a serious illness, daring to quit smoking, or dealing with depression. We call this getting SuperBetter!

    I can see many of the attributes she mentioned in her talk in just that one paragraph. Instead of saving the world, we’re saving ourselves. By playing games. Epic Win. 8-)

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One Response to “SAP TechEd 2011 – Gamification Keynote”

  1. Comment by Dhaval

    ‘Gamify your KPI’ is my most frowned upon punch line when pitching a what-if analyis dashboard to any client. After I am done giving a demo on how a well designed dashboard acts as the perfect scorecard for this game the client is sold and happy!

    Thanks for sharing. :)

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