Friday, October 24, 2014

You Watch Sports Because You Like Gambling

Why do people watch and root for sports teams, rather than play games themselves? It's not only that people are lazy. It's because watching sports itches the same spot that gambling does: it's a mental investment in an outcome over which you have no control and whose outcome is directly meaningless.

I say directly meaningless, because you may stand to gain or lose indirectly due to the outcome, if you have, for example, wagered money on it (for this post, I define gambling as the mental interest in a directly meaningless outcome over which you have no control, and wagering as the addition of something meaningful as an indirect result of the outcome; by meaningless, I mean that it has no meaning to you). The gain or loss from the wager is an indirect result of the outcome; the direct result is that the players go back to their houses and the ball gets put back on the shelf (i.e. has no meaning). In contrast, the winner or loser of an election, another event beyond your control in which you might have an investment, has direct, meaningful results, even if some of these results might not occur immediately.

Gambling is the mental investment in a directly meaningless outcome over which you have (or no longer have) any control. Rooting for other people playing a game is gambling: rewarding the brain for events beyond its control. You might know that some outcomes are more likely than others. You may have invested effort into raising or lowering the odds of these outcomes. For example, you may have trained your horse to run well or bought better equipment for your team. But once the die is cast, so long as there exists a possibility that either side might triumph (even against the odds), if you care about it, you're a gambler.

The outcome of a game is always directly meaningless (except, perhaps, boxing). If you see people rowing to see who can get to the far shore first, but getting there directly results only in the ability to claim victory, then caring about it is gambling. If the one who gets to the far side first avoids getting eaten by a shark, the result is not meaningless, and caring about it is not gambling: unless you don't care who gets eaten by the shark, in which case it is. You can always add a layer of meaninglessness on top of a meaningful outcome to transform it into a game. You change a competition into a game by adding the words "I win" to it. Succeeding in the competition is not "winning"; it's simply succeeding. The person who doesn't succeed could just as easily claim "I win" if she knows that the goal post is off the edge of a cliff.

When you become invested in the outcome of a game, or even the outcome of a single play, over which you are not exercising skill or talent, you are experiencing gambling. It's natural, because humans are wired for gambling. Even if you don't know who is playing, you want to see an effort rewarded (or punished) or a skillful performance succeed (or skillfully get opposed).

Why do people watch sports and gamble? Because we're wired to assess, but minimize, risks. Gambling provides the safest risk experience there is: we can experience, observe, and learn with no direct meaningful consequences. Wagerers (who bet money, etc) and players experience this risk more intensely, because they have tied real investment to their actions, making it a deeper experience and more primal; investing in the outcome is more educational and more productive.

Another reason we enjoy watching sports is tribalism, if we identify either with the participants or other onlookers; social connections are another primal aspect to being human. Yet another reason: escapism. Watching an event unfold over which we have no control is similar to reading or viewing a story unfold. So long as the game continues to capture our attention, we wonder what's going to happen next. This means that stories, plays, movies, etc also contain elements of gambling: we have a mental investment in a directly meaningless outcome over which we have no control. And we hope for a satisfactory conclusion.

Learning to gamble is a critical skill, exactly because it provides a safe space for evaluating the risks and rewards of taking chances, a skill that we use in non-gambling contexts throughout life.

The problem with gambling - when it is not tied to something meaningful, like wagering money - and sports watching is that it is time spent on something whose actual outcome is meaningless. It's fun: fun is necessary and even meaningless fun is often desirable. But other than sharpening out risk evaluation skills, it doesn't produce anything tangible. That same time and interest could be invested in research, science, creation, developing talent, developing your mind, participating in games where you have control (and thus are gaining or utilizing skills), and any number of other useful activities, many of which also sharpen our risk taking skills in a relatively safe way. Again: some mindlessness can be therapeutic, but it's not the best choice for all or most of the time, even leisure time. It is, after all, lazy.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Gmar Hatima Tova

I wish everyone who will be fasting this Yom Kippur a healthy and meaningful fast.

The search for the right life partner continues, despite having met already some incredible, wonderful women. I recently had an epiphany about something I did wrong in my last marriage; I apologized for it and was forgiven.

The "I'm writing a book" line is sounding a little tired; I really am, still, but it sometimes takes me a month (or four) to get back to it while I do other things. I've started other projects and other books, done industry surveys, lectured on gamification and will be lecturing on API design.

My bucket list mainly includes what I still want to give to the world. What books do I still have to write, games do I still have to design, lives do I still have to save, change do I still have to effect? I also want to travel, learn guitar, and so on, but that's less important. Time is fleeting. I've got work to do. I think I may need your help.

No other person can be responsible for my happiness. But I'm more focused, more effective, and admittedly happier working together with a partner and with good friends.

God bless,

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Movie Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Boyhood, Begin Again, Draft Day, A Poet in New York

Guardians of the Galaxy: A bunch of champion misfits are thrown together to stop a bad guy from using a powerful energy source to conquer the galaxy. A story we've seen before in every other Marvel movie.

This is the acme of by-the-book empty Marvel film entertainment: funny dialog, in-fighting heroes, superb effects, courageous, snarky, and indestructible heroes, daring and humor filled escapes and confrontations, a sensible plot, and entirely one-dimensional characters that will not require you to think, grown, empathize, or remember anything about them. The main protagonist is a plucky, abducted Earthling who misses his mom; that's it. That's his entire personality from the start of the movie until the end. There is a snarly woman fighter who grows close to the protagonist; that's it for her. A smart-alec raccoon. A plant-like alien who protects others. Etc.

For a movie filled with snappy dialog and funny quotes, there is not a single interesting conversation. Iron Man, even The Avengers, had more than this one does. The movie introduces creative settings and ideas - enough to remind one very briefly of the changing locations in Star Wars - that could have made some interesting scenes but they are played so antiseptically and soullessly that you may as well be reading the 2D comic strip. If you don't care about characters and conversations, go and see it and enjoy the knowledge that Marvel and Disney and Hollywood and Michael Bay and dozens of others are planning another hundred empty copycat movies that will be just as action filled, just as humorous, and just as manipulative, meaningless, and mindless.

How to Train Your Dragon 2: The first movie was a pretty entertaining Dreamworks film. The boy viking Hiccup had a dry sarcastic wit (like so many animated sidekicks) and a few good conversations. It was funny, and cliche but meaningful. Most of the other characters were one-dimensional, but enough was unexpected (like the variety and personality of the dragons) that it worked.

The story structure is odd; it doesn't start with a story that rides out to a conclusion. Instead, it starts out with no particular story, wanders in and out of one story and then starts a different story about half-way through. That makes it a little hard to follow, but also a little richer than the typical animated Hollywood film. There are less good lines, but the entertainment is still on target. I was a little disappointed that Hiccup's girlfriend, who would have made a great protagonist, is regulated to minor character status yet again; but a different woman has a surprisingly strong role.

Hiccup's town now lives in harmony with dragons, but Hiccup discovers some mysteries while out exploring. This leads to another inevitable confrontation that will determine whether the liberal's belief that everyone really wants peace is or is not sustainable. You may agree or not with the outcome, but the story gives the audience a fair chance to evaluate the question.

Boyhood: Director/screenwriter Richard Linklataer (Before Midnight) just goes from incredible to even more incredible. This is a near perfect movie about a boy's (Ellar Coltrane) childhood in the southern US (Texas, to be specific). His mother goes from bad marriage to bad marriage, his father is cool but flawed and often absent, and his sister is ... well, his sister. From age 7 to 19, he moves, he learns, he goes camping, he hangs with the guys, he tries to discover his passions, he tries to survive his family, he dates.

There is no single plot for the movie, just a boy's experiences over the course of 12 years. But the conversations are so interesting and so insightful, and the movie so richly captures key moments of his life, that three hours doesn't seem long at all. It's good that the movie ends, but I would happily return for the next nine years.

What makes this movie so special? It was shot with the same actors over 12 summers over the course of 12 years. The same boy plays the seven year old in grade 1, eight year old in grade 2, grade 3, etc all the way up to the nineteen year old in his first year of college. The same goes for the sister (Linklater's daughter) and the other actors, including the adults (who age 12 years by movie's end, of course). Linklater had to get extremely lucky to find a boy who could act so well and be captivating and interesting by the end of the movie; and, as a boost, by the time he is 19, Ellar is drop dead gorgeous (in the vein of Leonardo DiCaprio).

Just like Before Midnight, this movie is worth more than every other movie made this year, combined.

Begin Again: This movie has been compared to Once, which is fair. Once was one of the best movies of all time, nearly perfect: poignant, lyrical, rich, engaging, haunting, melancholy, heart-rending, romantic. This movie is not quite as good as Once, but it's pretty darn close. It has all of the same elements, except the setup is a bit more heavy handed, the characters aren't as poor or desperate so they're a little harder to relate to, some of the resolution is a bit too pat, and the music isn't quite as heart-rending. But it's still a fabulous movie.

Dan (Mark Ruffalo, looking as devilishly ruffian as ever) is a music executive who is having a bad day/week/five years. Gretta (Keira Knightly, looking as incredibly gorgeous as ever) is a songwriter/singer who is having a bad week. Gretta gets roped into performing one of her songs at a bar, and Dan hears her and wants to produce an album with her, though he hasn't got the studio to do it. The recording sessions, which occur in various New York locations and take up much of the movie, are cathartic and transformative for both of them in their various relationship troubles.

Adam Levine (Marroon 5) plays Gretta's cheating singer/songwriter boyfriend, and his and Keira's singing performances are the stars of the film. It's got some romance in it, and some daughter / father issues, late night drinks and trouble relationships, and some really good music. Lovely.

Draft Day: Kevin Kostner in yet another sports movie, this time football on draft day. He and others like him wheel and deal to get better order in the selection queue to pick up star athletes for this year's (and future year's) season. Knowing nothing about sports, I understood very little of the movie at the beginning and only about two thirds by the end; I expect that this is similar to what non-techies feel watching a movie about hacking (except that hacking movies usually contain no actual current technology).

I was bored for a while at the beginning but the story began to compel me as I began to understand the stakes. Kevin's character appears to make a boneheaded move near the beginning that everyone likes, and then he has to find his way out of it by the end, against everyone else's judgement (and, of course, triumph in an unbelievable reversal of fortune, since it's a movie). Jennifer Garner is eye candy as Kevin's girlfriend and some kind of (dispensable) executive on the team committee. The acting is all good and the movie works as a sports movie without the sports, much the same way that Moneyball did.

A Poet in New York: A BBC drama on the final years of Dylan Thomas as he boozed, antagonized, and bedded women in his final tour in America before succumbing to his sickness and dying in 1959. The portrait is unflattering, except for his incredibly good poetry and his warm words for the students he encounters (except for those women whom he tries to sleep with); from what I have read, the portrait is probably pretty accurate.

The acting, directing, and scenery are all fine. There are some flashbacks to his being targeted by verbal bullying as a small boy, and to the destructive relationship he had with his foul-mouthed wife. Otherwise the film is straightforward and fairly flat. Any book on the subject would probably be more colorful and more enjoyable. Still, the poetry is lovely.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Love and Kudos for Anita Sarkeesian

Like Kathy Sierra, Anita Sarkeesian is a phenomenal voice helping to push the world out of chaos and into a brighter future. Kathy wrote the blog Creating Passionate Users, a captivating and inspirational blog about making your products and services - and customer - awesome. Anita records femministfrequency, video blogs about the wide-spread sexism and objectification of women in the media, especially in video games.

Both Kathy and Anita happen to be women. Seven years ago Kathy was driven out of the public sphere by credible violent and sexual threats by the male misogynist low-life miscreants who troll the internet. Now the same is happening to Anita. Don't let the seven years between these events fool you; this kind of thing is happening over and over to other women (and their occasional male defenders) on the same or smaller scales.

It is a rude reminder that the civilized among us live in a world that is surrounded by the far-less civilized. Whether it is Islamic fundamentalists raging through the Middle East cutting of heads, bands of robbers raping their way through Africa, gangs in Italy or California, drug peddlers in Mexico or Columbia, or the racist, sexist, anti-semitic trollers hiding in anonymity in middle America, these are people who are certain that they are better than you and that you have no right to be free from whatever violent actions, threats, and sexual or physical abuse that they choose to direct your way.

The rest of us must remember that, regardless of how liberal or tolerant we are, there are people who are not who will truly not "live and let live". They must be vigilantly and repeatedly condemned at the least, and legally and physically fought when necessary.

Anita's videos are fantastic, of course. Regardless of whether you agree with every point or every example, her contributions to the understanding of tropes in the media is excellent and she should be applauded or intellectually engaged with, not threatened, nor should she or her family be physically or sexually threatened. Like every truth-speaker, the fact that her analysis reveals a systemic problem with the status quo, and results in a violent reaction of those who want it to stay that way and who  pour their filth and hate onto others, is proof that she and others like her are nailing it and must ever-vigilantly continue to do so.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Top 10 Ways My Counting Annoys Non-Computer Geeks

00. Starts at 0 -> 01
01. Prefixed 0's or 0x's -> 02
02. Ascending count -> 03
03. Linked list -> 04
04. 0 .. 1023 on my hands -> 06
05. null
06. Null strings instead of skipped digits -> 07
07. Non-decimal base -> EOF

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Movie Reviews: The Fault in Our Stars, Edge of Tomorrow, ...

The Fault in Our Stars: There are movies, especially young adult movies, that, after watching them, I immediately want to find and read the book. This is not one of those movies.

Girl with cancer (she drags an oxygen tank around with her) meets boy with cancer (he has already lost a leg) and his friend (who is going blind). Will their personal demons and illnesses allow them to find happiness?

TFiOS is a decent movie, but it's by no means great. The acting is fine and it's poignant. The characters are flat, but not unbearably unrealistic, though the script doesn't reveal enough about them to tell. Mostly they are just too good and perky. The exception is the one character who is drunk and mean.

It was all so flat, neat, and uncomplicated that it was hard to get into. The only really true moment was in the denouement when our heroine faced the mean guy and, rather than resolve anything with him, left the situation unresolved and messy. That was real, and thus involving.

The directing was ok ... maybe; the movie was cloying and highly sentimental (too much lingering on smiles and tears and long sentences of young love with beautiful characters). And really, the whole thing was fairly predictable. Even if the movie didn't so closely follow My Sister's Keeper, it was obvious who was going to die and when. But the movie shies away even from that; it just passes over it: "And eight days later [character] died and so I went to [character]'s funeral".

The freedom given to the two characters to travel on an airplane with an oxygen tank and with the likelihood of spontaneous lung collapse seemed far fetched, as did them walking around Amsterdam alone and drunk or unescorted into the house of a strange man (they don't speak Dutch). My biggest problem is that the Holocaust is used as a metaphor for the character's personal battle with cancer, and the Anne Frank House is used as the backdrop for a romantic meeting between the two main characters. Both of which were offensive.

Edge of Tomorrow: EoT gives us (unfortunately) a whole lot of Tom Cruise, who, while capable of action sequences, seems to hog the camera in any action movie in which he appears. Every one of his action movies is: Tom grunts, Tom runs, Tom fights, Tom falls, Tom grins, etc etc, and every one of his performances is exactly the same as every other one. He portrays no actual personality other than his own. This is unfortunate, since he promisingly gave us a good many real characters at the start of his career in films like The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July, Risky Business, Rain Man, and others. I am very bored of Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise.

EoT also (fortunately) gives us another spunky female action protagonist, Emily Blunt, in a role that departs from her usual choices. She doesn't have much more personality than Tom does, but at least that's a refreshing change for her.

Earth has been invaded by incredibly prescient and tenacious aliens who are rapidly going to kill all humans. One woman was suddenly able to kill 300 baddies in a battle, and, spurred on by her success, humans are grouping for a final battle. A guy who has been helping on the media side is suddenly thrust into the attack force against his will, only a day after landing in basic training against his will. He dies quickly, but reawakens at the start of basic training again and lives the day over, and over, etc. He has to find out why, and what he can do to win the war.

People have compared this to Groundhog Day, but really it is more like Source Code, since it is not so much about personal redemption but about getting thrown repeatedly into an unwanted violent situation.

The action is about the same as other recent sci fi flicks, but the story is kind of interesting. It seemed to me that there were a whole lot of holes in the plot, or perhaps explanations left out of the source material. A quick perusal online after watching the film thankfully pointed to the latter, and really it wasn't too bad (not like a lot of other recent crappy showings like Elysium and Oblivion). And I concede that, notwithstanding what I wrote above, Tom's one dimensional character transforms over the course of the movie (from a ditz to a soldier).

Directing and effects are good. Can't say it's important, but it's entertaining for a popcorn movie.

We Bought a Zoo: A movie I saw on the plane back from the US, this is a light kids movie. A guy who misses his wife, together with his kids who miss their mother, leave their job and social circle and move to a house on which property is also a large dilapidated safari like zoo. The zoo comes with a variety of employees paid by the state (or they were, anyway). The zoo is in danger of being shut down unless it is brought up to code. The head keeper is a cute woman, who initially crosses heads with the guy, but of course, eventually ...

The son has issues, and these also have to be worked out, between son and father, and between son and one of the employees who is, coincidentally, a girl about his age. They initially cross heads, but of course, eventually ...

And will the zoo succeed or be closed by the overzealous and critical zoo inspector before it can open and make money?

Right. We don't even get to see much of the animals. Cameron Crowe has made some amazing movies; this one is kind of dull.

Adult World: I watched this because I thought "How bad can a John Cusack movie be?" Well, it wouldn't have been a bad movie if it were a John Cusack movie, i.e. if the movie had focused on the Cusack character and his struggles and transformations. But it wasn't and didn't. Instead, the movie focused on this twerp of a young adult woman who majored in poetry and is so insipidly unworldly, and so boneheadedly childish, that it was painful to watch. She refuses to do anything useful except spend money entering poetry competitions and submissions to poetry journals, and she runs away from home after being called childish. Eventually she lands a job at an adult store, whose seediness is entirely glossed over and instead is populated and frequented by colorful characters.

The movie makes a whole lot of bad decisions. It starts you with her staging her suicide, which she does in the hopes of being made famous after her death like Sylvia Plath; mid-scene we flash back a year. There is so much wrong with that opening scene that it is hard to know where to begin. There follows many more scenes that don't work, including one where she stalks and forces her way into her favorite author's house (he happens to live nearby), and he takes her on as a maid and protege instead of calling the police. I got about halfway through and gave up, totally uninterested at making it back to the opening scene and the obvious self-realization she will surely attain in order to have a happy ending.

In truth, any one of the other characters would have made a more enjoyable focus.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Save or Enslave the World: Takeaways from #gsummit 2014, the Gamification Conference

GSummit SF 2014 was a gamification conference organized and run by Gabe Zicherman and his cohorts at Dopamine,, and Livecube.

Why I Went

I went to the conference to a) understand the disconnect between what the theorists write, what gamification companies present, and what real companies implement, and b) find out what I could contribute to the gamification world, either as a writer, an employee, or a consultant.

Gamification companies present basic, or even bad, game mechanics as implementation examples and in their turnkey products. Often there is no relation between their implementations and the motivational psychology that they espouse. The papers, articles, websites, case studies, and books on gamification present some good information about psychology and motivation, but they present gamification systems with only basic game mechanics. Simply adding points, badges, missions, and leaderboards to a process doesn't make a good game, let alone a more motivational process. Some case studies mention more complex mechanics but leave out the complex implementation details.

A small number of gamification critics who present more comprehensive motivation models are entering the gamification business. Their gamification implementations are allegedly constructed to match their motivational principles, but these implementations still lack the rich potential of complex game mechanics developed in the last forty years. Their systems are still built around an endless parade of points, badges, missions, and leaderboards abstracted from games like World of Warcraft, Farmville, and Second Life. This is akin to watching publisher after publisher espouse the rich potential of board games and then release an endless stream of games based on Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit.

What I Found (Overview)

The con was held in downtown San Francisco in a sketchy, treeless neighborhood that hosts Zynga and other trendy companies in posh buildings half a block from drug dealers and the ramshackle homeless. I estimate that around 300 people attended. Except for some audio problems, it went smoothly.

Every company with a remote connection to any definition of gamification thinks that theirs is the only correct one: they define what gamification is, they present an implementation that conforms to the definition, and then they mention case studies that have little to do with their definition. Companies that promote straight gamification were present together with those who promote play gamification, each one presenting evidence that the other ones didn't know what they were talking about.

When you carefully look at the numbers presented by these companies, few point to a challenge that was properly defined and solved using gamification. They throw out percentage increases in a metric that has little to do with the actual problem. For instance, they might say that a particular system was used by 98% of a group of people. Were these people forced to use the system? What was the net effect in those participants compared to those who didn't use the system? What was the net ROI for the company or the participants? Also, they don't present the implementations that didn't work.

Researchers on standard motivational theory, as well as companies that had nothing to do with gamification, such as purveyors of rewards, gift cards, and loyalty programs, were there. The new gamification companies presented evidence that old-school methodologies don’t work or never worked, while the old loyalty companies trotted out case studies and evidence proving that they work perfectly.

Loyalty programs, customer management, data collection, location tracking, rewards, and manipulation techniques are black hat motivation techniques (getting consumers to do what you want, or playing on consumers’ fears) and these sessions were depressing. Many sessions were sales pitches for services or books; their claims and evidence presented were directly contradictory: loyalty programs worked; loyalty programs didn't work. Don’t design for games or fun, design for engagement; you can’t design for engagement without games and fun. Rewards work amazingly well; rewards actually demotivate.

Sessions from companies or organizations that had implemented systems (straight gamification, play gamification, gameful design, or playification) described how they achieved buy-in from their organization, what were the results, and what they plan to do next. These sessions were the most helpful; they tended to be more honest than the vendors who sell gamification platforms, and in some cases they described the implementations that didn't work.

What I Heard (Details)

Rather than present the contents of each session, I will present what I learned by topic [with my comments].


While gamification tokens (points, etc) are extrinsic “rewards” awarded after completing a task, an argument was presented that gamification increases intrinsic motivation by orienting you to do tasks that you will find rewarding. Some said that there is no fine line between the two, and most motivation is a complex combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Intrinsic motivation can trump rewards or threats of punishment. For example, if you are threatened about submitting a report late, you might still submit it late because you want it to be just right. Threats (an external demotivator) actually increase intrinsic motivation that can remain after the threat is removed.

One robust theory on motivation (Octalysis) includes eight parameters: 1) meaning (purpose), 2) accomplishment (mastery, competence), 3) empowerment (autonomy), 4) ownership (acquisition), 5) social influence (relatedness), 6) scarcity (limited awards, rankings), 7) unpredictability (random awards, exploration), and 8) avoidance (loss, opportunity cost). Some of these parameters are extrinsic and some are intrinsic; some are white hat (positive) and some are black hat (negative).

As the ease of performing a task increases, the required motivation to do it decreases. If a trigger to do a task falls under this curve, the act is not performed; above the curve, the act is performed. In any case, a trigger is needed (you may be motivated and able to exercise but forget to set your alarm). Every action is measured independently: the same action may require more or less motivation as it becomes easier or harder (or the motivation changes in some way). So you have to decide between managing the motivation, making the task easier, or providing a trigger.

The methods you use should depend on whether you want the task done once, over a period of time, or long term, and whether you are asking the person to perform a new action, repeat an action done before, change an action, do an action less, or stop doing an action.

Different gamification techniques are more effective at different points; this makes sense due to flow theory. Points are easy to acquire, so they are short term; reputation is more challenging to acquire, so it is long term, and it is also harder to game. Ramp up the processes and switch people to long term focused systems as they gain familiarity.

Happiness is short term and transient. Purpose, which may include short term unhappiness (struggle, challenge), is long term and sustained. The chemicals dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphin make us happy, but they each have a different trigger. Dopamine: anticipating rewards. Oxytocin: bonding socially. Serotonin: feeling pride.

There are different types of fun, including hard fun (challenges), easy fun (exploration), people fun (social), and serious fun (purpose). [This correlates – kind of – to Bartle's four gamer types.]

A special note about Rajat Paharia on BunchBalls' philosophy: there is no place for game deign or fun in gamification; it is all about engagement. His philosophy makes zero sense [it's engaging because it is fun and designed well!], but it's (I hope) mostly a matter of terminology and the fact that he presents his product as black hat gamification. Several companies are using BunchBall's turnkey system.

Black Hat Motivation

Rewards: A big prize (like the XPrize) focuses effort and legitimizes the time spent working towards that goal. It motivates disparate teams to accomplish things outside of companies. The cash value, above a certain amount, is not relevant, since the research results, interesting nature of the challenge, and community built during the process is rewarding to the participants. This allows you to get people to do more while spending less.

People also love lotteries and unearned coupons, which are prizes offered for no challenge.

However, rewards signify the end of a process, while business motivation must remain indefinitely.

Tracking: The Internet of Things will enable locators in billions of objects that can track people by their smartphones (or other devices). You can use exact data about people’s movements throughout a store – you can even use hidden cameras that capture their facial expressions while they interact with certain products – to gain insight on how to sell to them.

Subversion: People are entrenched against persuasion from people they oppose. You can influence their behavior more readily by using people in their own camp or people whose opinion they respect. Exploit social behavior: tell people stories while pitching to them, and use human interest and their friends.
Channeling: People are less likely to opt out than to opt in. Provide wizards. Show empty areas that need filling or populate things by default. Consider page scanning on websites and thumb reach on devices for elements you want clicked. Reduce choices, chunk, block options, block sites with popups, guilt people to not choose undesired options or make them unattractive, hide escape links, and disclose only what is necessary. People think that presented choices are valid choices: this makes them feel smart and valued, which is more effective than rewards. Make your site look credible.

White Hat Motivation

Companies that focus on making virtual things more real (like the big game companies) are ignoring the market for making real things more virtual. [The speaker ignored companies that do ARGs and other pervasive gaming. However, gamification needs more and better game designers creating better gamification techniques.]

Gamification provides a means for people to reach their goals; your company’s goals should align with people’s goals. Collaboration is better than competition. Have people compete with a system, not each other, win or lose together, interact with shared but different responsibilities and resources, and allow for user-generated and emergent features.

Gamification fights boredom. Companies in the entertainment and food industries have been attacking consumer boredom for ages, and there is no reason why we shouldn't do so in the business world for employee boredom. Motivated workers are more productive and their work is better quality. Games can provide holistic experiences that model complex systems. Emergent behavior can produce viable solutions [like in Ender's Game]. Gamification systems must include ROI, understand the learning and pain points, and consider the genre and platform.

Most disruptive technologies provide people with better means of communication. MyFitnessPal has trounced Weight Watchers in a short time because it uses effortless peer-to-peer communication. Education can be similarly disrupted. [I’m not sure that this is absolute, since apps require self-motivation without a trigger, as opposed to coaches and teachers. Not everyone is motivated by their peers!]

Case Studies

IBM created a rich and complex series of gamification processes that includes training and brainstorming. They consider it to be very successful. See Serious Games for Business.

T-Mobile is gamifying 38,000 call center workers, but balancing the rewards is very tricky, since people do what gives them a reward regardless of whether it is the best thing for the customer. If you reward quickness, customers get hung up on. If you reward no return calls within X time (a short time), workers give “solutions” that delay the return call. Etc. Groups in different locations and cultures respond to different rewards, mechanics, and structures.

Applebee's (RMH Franchise Corp) introduced a straight gamification system with no rewards. It reduced a 130% employee turnover rate by about 20% in a year. They plan to add status rewards, such as a special colored jacket for best performing employees.

Wikipedia and Delta Airlines presented gamified training programs, but it was difficult to see if these made any real substantive difference to their bottom line. The people who took the gamified training programs liked them and were trained.

The Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy gamified its scrum (agile software development) program. All of its participants were student game designers. The gamification included a full D&D-like experience played on a whiteboard with moving Post-It Note characters, earned equipment, etc. One goal was to increase the accuracy of time estimations; this also had the side effect of making people more familiar with teammates' work items. Another goal was to reward showing up for scrum meetings. The system worked for one group that had a supportive leader, but not for another whose participants saw it as additional busy work.

Gabe Zicherman led us in a workshop. We had to come up with ideas to solve a problem, including voting on the best solutions. It was "gamified" because a) we voted on the best solution, so there were points awarded (kind of), and b) he gave a prize, a t-shirt, to the winning team's solution. [In my book, it was an example of a non-gamified task nearly destroyed by an incredibly sucky game. We were already motivated to come up with a solution; the "award" of a t-shirt was actually demotivating.]


Jane McGonigal said that a controlled study now proves the efficacy of Superbetter. Superbetter's effects can change your life even if you stop playing it after six weeks. Games of any kind help with real world problems; for example, playing Tetris for 10 minutes within 6 hours of a trauma can help reduce PTSD. People find this weird, though they wouldn't find it weird if the activity was meditation or prayer; games still make people uneasy. 10 minutes of games also help push out other drives, like overeating or the desire for alcohol.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talk was interrupted frequently by microphone problems. He is a dynamic and funny speaker. He talked about how science is becoming mainstream, with examples from pop culture. He also briefly mentioned gamifying science using crowdsourcing.

Adopting Gamification in Your Company

Here are some steps that you can use to bring gamification to your company:

  • Create a business case. Find other companies in your sector who use gamification, especially competitors.
  • Shamelessly promote the idea of gamification until people are used to the idea and agree to a pilot project to see if it works.
  • Identify the specific problems you want to solve. Take the time to do a proper survey.
  • Ensure that gamification is the right solution. For example, gamification is great at providing immediate and progressive feedback, and at clarifying complicated procedures, making them less threatening and more likely to be completed.
  • Estimate the ROI. Define the metrics that define success or progress.
  • Find a champion for the pilot. Find coworkers willing to give time to the project, especially gamers who believe in the idea. For future projects, ensure that you’re not the only champion, or you will become a bottleneck and it will fall apart when you’re not around.
  • Ensure that there is someone leading the process, so that people don’t become lost.
  • Use outside solutions if they make sense and it simplifies things.
  • Define desired actions and how they report the metrics.
  • Design for different types of players.
  • Create seamless, non-intrusive flow for discovery (finding out about the system) and onboarding (first steps to use the system), habit building (becoming comfortable with the system in the short term) and mastery (continued relevance in the long term).
  • Reward people for using the system, since it is saving time and money elsewhere.
  • Integrate gamification into many parts of the company (the whole flow, if possible). It should become a natural part of business.
  • Keep the system fresh; games become stale so a gamification system requires constant input of fresh ideas. It may not be suitable for all people.
  • [I will add: Provide autonomy so that people don’t feel like they are forced to do things they don’t want to do. Provide purpose: the reason they’re doing this, and the benefits for the company or for the world, whichever is relevant.]


Before, during, and after the conference, I also met or talked to professionals who didn't attend the conference but who work in motivation, games, or both. They say that gamification is a meaningless buzzword, a con, or nonsense (they used less polite phrases). I think that their complaints were aimed at straight gamification and the companies that sell it.

When you consider play gamification, the gamification is a tiny part of it. In the same way that Dan Pink didn't really add much to self-determination theory, but his simplifying and popularizing it added a great deal of value, gamification simplifies and popularizes playification, which may not be too bad.

Gamification proponents call points "rewards", and critics rightly point out that points are not rewards. A game where you click a button and get a million points isn't rewarding. Minesweeper gives you a point every second, but your object is to get the least amount of points; are these points rewards? People don’t run a 100 meter dash for the points, but for the intrinsic value of the race. But not so fast. The critics are not entirely correct. When a person runs all out and sees the numbers, the numbers matter; they focus the runner and provide a goal to achieve. I admit that, despite the inanity of the conference's gamified chat system (Livecube; see below), whenever my points closed in on a round hundred (500, 600, etc), I was motivated to post a few more times just to see the number roll over that hundred mark. After it did, I no longer cared one whit about my number if it was not attached to a real reward, and the additional posts I wrote to increase my score were valueless. Still, point-driven motivation does exist, at least in the very short term.

I went to the conference to a) understand the disconnect between what the theorists write, what gamification companies present, and what companies implement, and b) find out what I could contribute to the gamification world, either as a writer, an employee, or a consultant.

A) The disconnect exists because there is no clear definition of gamification, companies are still carving out a space, and as a result they disagree on what works. The long term results are inconclusive, but they are also promising for certain types of goals, especially for training and cooperation.

B) A game designer has experience with the application of hundreds of mechanics that could be used in gamification systems but currently are not. To give you an idea, consider what a game designer could do with “points” (this is off the top of my head):

  • Points that are positive, negative (used sparingly!), themed, tradeable, or assigned only collectively
  • Multiple point tracks, for example green points, blue points, and red points. The biggest problem with black hat gamification is that it reduces autonomy (by incentivizing some tasks and deincentivizing others); by allowing participants to select among multiple point options, you add autonomy back into the process. In any case, different point structures are required for different positions in the company (you can’t use the same point structure for call center workers and IT personnel).
  • Goals based on different point tracks and levels, with badges earned either by concentrating more on one track or diversifying between tracks.
  • Participant created goals and levels, thus establishing point goals that work for each participant (see flow theory)
  • Additional factors to earning points. For example, if tasks are completed in a certain time, in a certain order, or with a certain buy-in, they scale upwards or include residual effects.
  • Limited replenishing points that can only be assigned to others.
  • A rich set of point redemption packets that utilize different point combinations, as well as a series of redemption missions (redeem A to acquire B or C, redeem C or D to acquire F).
  • Ensuring that play and mastery is part of the system, and not just more work for virtual rewards.
  • Most importantly, ensuring that points encourage people to do things that they already want to do, not things they will regret, feel tricked into, or come to regard as busy work.


A final word about Livecube, the conference chat system designed by the guys who ran the conference.

Livecube presents chat rooms for sessions and lists of speakers and sessions, and also integrates with Twitter. It includes a gamification system that awards points for posting (more for posting pictures), reposting, favoriting, getting reposted, and checking into and rating sessions. I appreciate the chat rooms, though a real chat system works just as well. As it stands, its gamification system is a disaster. Leaderboards kill the motivation of anyone but the leaders to post anything, and demotivate reposts (since it gives leaders more points than it gives you). The badges are worthless and repetitive. The points don’t reward any accomplishment, but inspire inane post after inane post; the result are chat sessions filled with noise instead of signal. Worst of all, encouraging people to tweet when they should be listening to a speaker is a Really Bad Idea. On the technical side, conversations are hard to follow. Limiting posts to twitter length makes many types of conversations and useful information impossible to communicate. In short, the system encapsulates everything that is criticized about gamification.

A few ideas to fix it: Remove the points and badges for things that are not actually accomplishments, such as hitting the send button. Reward a random participant each day for each session; this keeps people checked in, but not posting too frequently. Deincentivize multiple posts that are not favorited or reposted. Deincentivize posting during a lecture; incentivize for posting after the lecture (or maybe lecturers should give two minute tweet breaks during lectures). Create group incentives for teams. Remove the leaderboards; leaderboards are only appropriate for when you want only a few people to do something, not when you want everyone to do something. Create achievable missions. Create rewards for tagging people physically to foster real world social interaction. Etc.