Everything’s a Game

I recently crossed a 100 miles per gallon with my Chevy Volt. For those of you who live in “advanced” societies that follow the metric system, that would be 42.5 km per liter.

If you fell out of your chair at that number, that’s probably because you don’t know that the Chevy Volt is an electric car with a back up gasoline engine. A full charge takes me about 30 miles after which it switches to the petrol engine. So if I keep driving on my battery, the mileage keeps improving.

I crossed a 100mpg after some effort. I charge the car using a standard 110V outlet which takes 10 hours for a full charge. Which means that I have to remember to plug it in at night, otherwise the next day I’ll be driving on gasoline. I now regularly forget to charge my iPad, but almost never, my Volt.

So when I crossed 100 mpg, I was naturally quite thrilled about it. I posted this tweet

To which I got some responses that were humbling. Like this one


After which I joined voltstats.net and kept at it. My mileage is now 104mpg.

Why would I spend any time pushing my mileage up? And then joining a website with a bunch of people who are similarly engaged? I get nothing out of the deal. Yes, there is some satisfaction on doing my bit to save the planet, but anything over 17mpg (my previous car) would have been an improvement. Why go for a 100?

This behavior, that would make no sense to economists, is driven by what is called gamification. Apparently we are all wired to play games.

There’s a lot of action around gamification of the enterprise. SAP is investing in this area. Salesforce.com bought a company Rypple that uses gamification to improve employee performance.

Outside of the enterprise Stackoverflow uses badges and so on to reward certain activity. My daughter does Math exercises on Khan Academy, which awards badges after you win a certain number of points. It certainly keeps her going without much complaint. We offered her a reward for every 10,000 points. But she has never claimed it. Achievement is its own reward?!

But I wonder if the psychology at work here is the same thing that makes us play silly games, board games and basketball? Does that capture what is going on here?

I think there is something else at work here. If you can measure something and if you can influence it, that something automatically becomes a challenge, a contest. Is it the overachiever in you that compels you to better your best score (or someone else’s)? Or is it your playful, game loving side? Perhaps they are all at work here – play, achievement, competition – just in varying proportions for different people.

Whatever it is, we will see more and more of it in our companies. For a game to be successful, the measurement of outcomes should be largely driven by game play not by random or extraneous circumstances. As life gets more digitized, such opportunities will keep popping up.

Ten years ago, you could never have had a contest on how many friends you had. Now I can say that I have more Facebook friends than you.


  1. Krishna says:

    …Gamification is indeed a useful tool when used in moderation… The downside of gamifying everything is that it trivializes even important topics, while pushing the gamer to focus on score cards, rewards and badges than on the immersive process that precedes it… It sure grants you bragging rights over the size of your FB buddy list, but the long tail would also mean least attention per buddy, beating the very purpose why we built out all those connections…


  2. Games work beautifully in training/learning situations too – specifically adult learning. And, perhaps for the same reasons you quoted – fun, challenge, achievement, competition. Interestingly, it works across cultures, organizations and age groups.


  3. Siddharth says:

    Why is Prius different looking than other cars? It also sells more than the Honda hybrid. This same phenomenon can explain why people join like-minded herd clubs. This is certainly not Gamification.


  4. Skd says:

    Interesting post on gamification.

    The calculation on the mpg is so misleading that it is deplorable.

    Only if you use just the gasoline to charge the battery and then drive 100+ miles, then the number of 100 mpg is accurate.

    If I carry 1 gallon of fuel in a container on an electric train that travels 1000 miles it doesn’t mean that the electric train, which uses electricity from the grid to charge itself, is giving 1000 mpg.

    driving an electric car is in itself a step in the right direction. You don’t need to come up with a superficial and inaccurate method to feel good.


  5. Hi Basab! Been some time since we connected.. stumbled upon your blog, and loved hearing your ideas and views. I have been working on gamification, and eMee is our first product in that area. Have a couple of other ideas. Let’s connect some time!


  6. Pavan says:

    Read this book. Excellent take on gamification.


  7. Mohan says:

    Volt is an excellent car but Prius will beat it for $ to $ and TCO over the years. Prius on average gives 55 mpg and this is only gas -electric hybrid and not the alternate hybrid model. I am driving the same for over seven years and except for some recall repairs (no expense from your pocket and they treat you well) there is no major maintenance; touchwood. Waiting in queue for the Prius Alt-hybrid model.

    The human mind is trained for cause and effect phenomena of getting rewards for the act. Rewards may build up more stress even if you get reward or not. If you get reward then you will quest for more prizes and the process goes on…. On the otherhand if the rewards are snatched then one will be depressed. In the long run this may be detrimental to the process as the reward hungry mind will except doing anything to get reward.

    Innovation leads to excellence and give that extra joy. This extra joy helps the mind to break the gamification barrier of just achieving the score but to think bigger. A balance between Innovation and Rewards may be ideal.


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