Gaming Technology: A tool for productivity


Watch a seemingly indolent teenager play a favorite video game and you can’t help but be impressed by the intensity and focus applied to memorizing arcane rules and developing strategies simply to beat another player or to move up to another level. What if you could tap some of that power for productive purposes?

That’s the idea of a new field called “gamification.” Scholars and entrepreneurs are taking techniques first developed to motivate and drive players in the game world to drive productivity and creativity in other areas. One local company has developed a game that encourages people to live a more balanced life, while another helps people better manage their money.

The Seattle area, with more than 150 game companies and numerous educational institutions dedicated to game design, including the recently opened Academy of Interactive Entertainment and the now venerable DigiPen Institute of Technology, is emerging as a key center in the potentially transformative phenomenon of gamification.

When Scientific American listed gamification as one of the top “World Changing Ideas” for 2010, one of its primary examples was Foldit, a puzzle game developed at the University of Washington that allows nonscientists to fold proteins in new ways that could offer potential breakthroughs in everything from biofuels to virus inhibitors. An associate professor in the UW’s Division of Biomedical and Health Informatics has developed a game intended to help diabetics manage their blood sugars more effectively by teaching them about the carbohydrate content of various foods. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is so convinced by the power of games that it donated $20 million in April to support game-based learning projects in areas such as mathematics.

Gamification draws strength from its ability to trigger elements of human physiology that drive us to work hard at achieving certain goals. “The reward centers [in the brain] that are lit up by well-designed games will light up when we engage with any well-designed interactive system,” Byron Reeves, a psychologist and games expert at Stanford University, told Scientific American.

The application of game techniques to nongame areas is still a relatively young field. M2 Research, a California-based media and entertainment research company, estimates gross revenues by businesses in the field this year may total $100 million, a tiny slice of the $25 billion U.S. video game industry. But M2 predicts that projects using this approach will generate revenues of $2.8 billion by 2016. And Gartner Inc., a Connecticut-based technology research and advisory firm, predicts that by 2014, more than 70 percent of the organizations in the Forbes Global 2000 will have at least one product that exploits such technology.

Kristina Hudson, director of the Washington Interactive Network, says the term “gamification” has become so popular in the past year that some companies simply add the word to their presentations in hopes of attracting more money from investors.

In its purest form, gamification is about creating an interactive experience that people find rewarding. “Young people expect to be rewarded constantly,” says Ian Cohen, cofounder and creative director at Wexley School for Girls, a Seattle ad agency. “If you want to put your message out in the consumer world, it makes sense to game it, so it’s engaging and relevant.” Deal-of-the-day sites like Groupon are successful, Cohen points out, in part because they turn shopping into a game.

Some proponents make more far-reaching claims for the field. Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group in Palo Alto, California, argues in her book Reality Is Broken—Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World that game elements may help fulfill people by offering exhilarating rewards and stimulating challenges while also encouraging them to develop solutions to the world’s complex problems. McGonigal helped develop World Without Oil, a game that simulates what will happen to the world when it starts to run out of oil.

Zoran Popovic , director of the UW’s Center for Game Science and creator of Foldit, is skeptical that gamification will prove to be a quick-hit moneymaker for businesses. “Once companies realize how hard it is to keep people’s attention and repeat it, they won’t be so excited,” he says. “…You can slap on badges to everything and they might work at first, but it will be short lived.”

Still, Popovic is hopeful about the long-term promise of gamification in areas such as education. “I think games have an amazing ability to lead people to higher levels of understanding,” he says, “which means the entire educational field can be revolutionized.”

Scott Dodson, the COO of Seattle’s Bobber Interactive, believes that even if the first wave of companies offering gamification faces daunting challenges, eventually the sector will get it right.

The power of gamification has already proven itself in military and medical applications, notes Benjamin Ellinger, program director for game design at DigiPen. The medical industry increasingly uses simulators to train surgeons for risky operations. Adds Ellinger, “The military has gone well beyond simulators; they have actual game-like [applications] that are more like role-playing games.”

It’s important to remember that games have been around since the beginning of the species, says Brayden Olson, founder and CEO of Kirkland-based Novel, which is applying gamification to the business world in a partnership with the UW’s Foster School of Business.

Nobody knows how effective gamification will be or how far it will advance, but to many companies it looks like a game changer. Microsoft is investing $15 million to look into ways of integrating gaming technology into the classroom. Nevertheless, Dave Roberts, the CEO of Seattle’s hugely successful PopCap Games, recently warned that gamification is the new buzzword among opportunists eager to make a fast buck. “Really?” Roberts asked. “Is everything a game?” Probably not, but on these pages we profile some of the organizations that are intent on playing through.

[ work/life balance ]
To Your Health!"
Mindbloom > Seattle

In the messiness of our daily lives, job concerns can easily take priority at the expense of mental and physical well being. The Life Game, a free, web-based application from Mindbloom, is designed to help users find a better balance by using a tree as a metaphor for life. A healthy lifestyle in real life nurtures a healthy tree, providing feedback that creates incentives to make healthier decisions. Each leaf represents a part of life that the user has decided is important, such as creativity, health or relationships. A user who nurtures creativity by learning to play a new song on the guitar is rewarded with seeds that can be used to add more branches and leaves to the tree. He or she can also grow a forest by adding friends, with whom one can share progress and accomplishments. The colorful game features woodland creatures guiding players through the rules and the structure.

The Life Game targets the $2.7 trillion health care industry, with Fortune 500 companies interested in using it as part of their employee wellness programs. Pharmaceutical giant Bayer HealthCare incorporated Mindbloom’s Life Game into its One A Day multivitamin site to encourage customers to visit more frequently.

Chris Hewett came up with the idea after one particularly grueling period of 14-hour workdays at Monolith Productions, a game company in Kirkland. He says he was forgetting the parts of his life that mattered most: playing music and spending time with his family. So he started making time to focus on these neglected areas, which prompted an interest in using game mechanics to help other people live more balanced lives.

In 2007, he contacted Brent Poole, a close friend who had spent 10 years in senior management at Amazon, and told him about the idea. Poole and Hewett created Mindbloom in 2008. “Mindbloom is the one game you want to be addicted to,” says Hewett, “because we believe that being addicted to living a healthy, balanced and meaningful life is a good thing.” A.A.T.

[ research ]
Fun With Science
Center for Game Science > Seattle

Group think: Zoran Popovic with a folded-up protein puzzle. Photograph by Mary Levin/University of Washington.

Housed in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, the Center for Game Science is where scientists and scholars apply gaming principles to projects as diverse as biology, education and nanotechnology.

“We work on the [projects] that are harder nuts to crack but have a larger impact,” says center director Zoran Popovic . Its most prominent project, Foldit, a puzzle game released in 2008, has attracted tens of thousands of players from around the world who turn, shake, twist, stretch and squeeze colorful geometric shapes, representing individual parts of a protein, to find the most stable structures. Points are accumulated as the efficiency of the structure is improved.

Foldit has helped scientists with the little understood process of protein folding. We already know what proteins do—they form the building blocks of all cellular life, from aiding muscle movement to digesting food—but the process in which strips of amino acids suddenly organize themselves into a working protein after being synthesized has proven more difficult to understand. Foldit’s mostly nonscientist players can find solutions to specific protein problems that computers can’t solve. Players may even manage to create new proteins, like virus inhibitors and enzymes, which could eventually lead to new types of biofuels. The center takes a scientific approach to gamification, continually refining games by studying which features drive people to keep coming back and to solve critical problems. Research has concluded that the broad sense that a player is engaged in something of social value is as important a motivator as incentives such as scores and badges.

There is also a social element to gaming. Players share strategies in a Wiki forum. Some organize themselves into groups that compete to achieve the highest score.

Popovic believes the center can make its biggest social contribution by using games to discover more about how people learn. When students play one of the center’s education games, researchers can evaluate and adapt the game to how each learns best, based on understanding of the material, learning preferences and socioeconomic status. “That means we can create [something] as close as possible to a one-on-one tutor,” Popovic says.

“Think about how effective that could be worldwide,” he adds. “No matter how crappy their classes are, they could take out their smartphone and get into a game that enables them to learn new concepts and empowers them to see that they can learn it.”

A prototype of the center’s education-based products is Refractions, an early-math puzzle game that won the grand prize in the Disney Learning Challenge last year. It features cute animals stuck in spaceships without power. Players must solve problems involving fractions to recharge the ships.

The center is also working on projects in nanotechnology, the study of manipulating matter on a molecular scale. Players, for example, will build their own nanomachines, which could eventually do things like remove plaque from arteries.

“This is all very grandiose stuff,” says Popovic . “When we first started Foldit, a lot of scientists said it would never make any actual scientific contribution, but the game has solved protein structures that scientists have been trying to solve for the past 15 years in only a few weeks.” A.A.T.

[ leadership ]
World Domination
Novel > Kirkland

Game on: CEO Brayden Olson with colleagues at Novel. Photograph by Hayley Young

At 17, Brayden Olson was elected leader of England in the virtual world of Renaissance Kingdom, an online video game. Olson was convinced his success reflected leadership skills that would translate into the real world.

They did. Olson’s faith in the predictive value of video games became the basis for a new business. Today, at 23, he is CEO of Novel, a Kirkland company he started in 2007 while a student at Seattle University. Novel’s ambitious plan is to dominate the emerging market for games that simulate the real world of business, thereby helping employers with everything from recruiting to training.

“We want to be the undisputed heavyweight in this new idea of bringing games into the business world in a way that actually improves performance,” says Olson.

Novel already has a partnership with the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington to develop enterprise simulations—games that increase individual performance and help businesses make better decisions. And he’s working with the heads of HR at Starbucks, Nike and Alaska Airlines on issues related to personnel assessment by having them play a Novel business simulation game.

To be successful at Novel’s game, users must display the collaborative and management skills they need in the real world. “The power of game technology is that we can predict reality,” says Olson. “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” he adds, quoting Plato. “You can ask someone if they are a team player… or you can put them in a situation and watch them.”

Many of the lessons learned from the simulations will be similar to those in the company’s multiplayer game, Empire & State, in which a player creates an avatar and sets out to colonize the planet Altea. Numerous traits required to be a good player in the game are traits prized among leaders, including good communications skills. Because the game allows players to make great progress in just 20 minutes, the mechanics are easily transferable to a corporate setting where time is scarce.

The product will be tested later this year by business students at the Foster School, says Bruce Avolio, executive director of the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking. The ultimate goal, notes Avolio, is to integrate elements of the game into the school’s curriculum.

To build the product, Olson has put together an impressive team that includes Toby Ragaini, vice president of Novel Studios, a former student of molecular biology and former vice president at Big Fish Games; creative director Mike Marr, who has degrees in computer science and biochemistry and has worked on strategy games like Powered Games’ Supreme Commander and Electronic Arts’ The Sims Online; and technical director Paul Furio, who was a lead software engineer at Playdom, where he worked on the Facebook game Social City. E.P.


A successful game offers…

Anticipation. A hint of some upcoming scene or development that keeps gamers playing.

Puppy Treats. Subtle rewards that direct players to progress through the game.

Excellent Pacing. Maintains player interest with an appropriate balance of challenges and rewards.

Sense of control. Empowers players and keeps them engaged.

Sense of achievement. Provides the satisfaction of gaining knowledge or mastering a skill.

—Aaron Alan Tilley

Sources: DigiPen, UW Center for Game Science, Bobber Interactive


[ marketing ]
Badge of Honor
Big Door > Seattle

When Major League Baseball wanted more fans to use Gameday, a website service that allows people to receive online information about every game on the baseball schedule, it turned to Seattle-based startup BigDoor, a developer of game tools for websites.

BigDoor added game elements to MLB’s Gameday site, providing a sort of reward aspect to the popular pastime of checking the site for free real-time updates on games in progress. If, for instance, Ichiro Suzuki hits a home run while a registered user is logged in on Gameday, the user might receive an Ichiro “badge.” Visitors can collect badges for each game they “watch” and store them in a virtual trophy case.

BigDoor has added similar appurtenances to the websites of more than 250 companies, says Keith Smith, cofounder and CEO, and clients have found that customers spend more time on the sites and are more likely to register when given the opportunity to interface with a game element. BigDoor also offers monetizing opportunities: Seattle-based DevHub, which helps people build their own blogs and websites, introduced a virtual currency that allows users to buy new widgets that will improve their websites’ functionality.

Smith launched BigDoor two years ago after he noticed that both his 12-year-old daughter and 40-year-old brother obsessively played Face-book games to accumulate points and rank. Smith says his biggest challenge is helping companies build a strong and committed user base for their websites. “Companies,” he says, “need to understand how complicated this process is.” A.A.T.

[ personal finance ]
Money Matters
Bobber Interactive > Seattle

Every year, members of Generation Y in the United States represent $200 billion in discretionary income—the money left over after they’ve paid their bills. But managing one’s finances usually requires more discipline than most teens and twentysomethings can muster. So Bobber Interactive aims to give America’s young people an enjoyable social experience that teaches them to make smarter financial decisions.

People who play Bobber set financial goals, then devise a plan to reach those goals. They first input information about where they get their money and how much they have. Next, bar graphs allow them to allocate and monitor how much of their money goes toward short-term savings goals. They can earn points by accepting challenges, such as reducing spending for a month. These points may be redeemed for a cash-back boost on their accounts. The application is integrated into a user’s real-world existence with a prepaid, reloadable debit card that is FDIC insured. Because the whole system is based on real capital, users can’t fib on their progress. These features allow Bobber’s financial management system to be both a social experience and one grounded in real-world consequences.

Bobber Interactive cofounder and COO Scott Dodson is betting that the game will catch on with today’s youth once beta testing is complete. And he says that the number of companies in the financial industry that have been reaching out for potential partnerships is staggering.

Cofounder and CEO Eric Eastman, whose background is in financial services, sees Bobber Interactive as a way to financially empower today’s youth at a time when their trust in banks and the financial system is low. A.A.T.


Game Players

A sampling of institutions and enterprises in the local game-based environment and their partners/supporters/customers.

Novel: Starbucks, Alaska Airlines, Nike, University of Washington Foster School of Business

Mindbloom: Bayer Healthcare, Aetna, Girl Scouts of the USA, University of California–Santa Barbara Health Games Research program, Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab

BigDoor: Major League Baseball, Buddy TV, Cheezburger Network

University of Washington Center for Game Science: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation, Microsoft, Adobe, Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Seattle Business editor Leslie Helm and editorial assistant Sarah Dewey contributed to these stories.


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