IF11 Preview: SAP's Mario Herger on Gamification's Green Promise

IF11 Preview: SAP's Mario Herger on Gamification's Green Promise

In the runup to our Innovation Forum 2011, we are conducting a number of short interviews with some of the presenters at the event, which takes place October 11-13 in San Francisco.

Our first preview comes from Mario Herger, a Technology Strategist & Community Manager at SAP Labs, who talks about how gamification can help everything from company carpooling to energy efficiency, and why gamification means a lot more than playing video games. He will be presenting the Gaming for Sustainability workshop at IF11.

Matthew Wheeland: Mario, let's start with just an overview. Will you tell me briefly what you're presenting on at our upcoming Innovation Forum -- what is your workshop focused on?

Mario Herger: My workshop at the event is a 90-minute process where I and all the participants will try to gamify interactively during the 90 minutes, with a direct focus on problems around sustainability and developing applications for sustainability. We will use either examples that I've come across in my own work or any problems that participants want to bring to the table.

We will work at those problems and then try to understand the motivations for the behavior that you want to encourage: What do you want to achieve, who wants to achieve what, how does it conflict between users that are working with the application?

You also have to discuss the motivations of the people operating that application or introducing that application and to make sure that we are all in sync, that there aren't conflicting goals or targets. These are some of the questions and thought processes you have to engage with when doing this kind of work.

And by working and trying different game mechanics and understanding that, we are will try to figure out what is likely to work and where we might run into problems with using these game mechanics.

We also will look holistically at the different player types that we have there, like Bartle's player types: the Killer, the Socializer, the Explorer, the Achiever.

By discussing how people interact in game settings, we can learn not just how to cater to them, but also that participants can understand that there are four types of players; the misconception is that all people are just Killers, or single players who only want to win by beating others. In fact, the collaborative games outrace you three to one over solitary competitive games that appeal to Killers.

That is what we want to look at to get people understand what gamification is -- and also to understand an important point: Gamification does not mean that we are making a game. It means I'm using game mechanics, and while it could be a game in the end, but in most of the cases a game is not the result.

MW: Why do you think gamification is becoming such a hot topic right now, particularly in sustainability and innovation areas, but really just everywhere you look: Everyone's talking about gamification. Why is that?

MH: Well, video games have been around now for 40 years now, and people of my generation grew up with always having video games available. These people have marched through the ranks in corporations and we are coming now to a stage where some of these gaming ideas are able to be put in place easily.

We've seen also in the past few years the rise of mobile devices, and mobile devices tend to use a lot of game mechanics and game-like features and make it sticky -- so suddenly we see this stark difference between desktop applications and mobile applications.

One good way to understand why this is such a powerful idea is to look at how four-year-olds can use software on a mobile device -- which uses lots of game mechanics, remember -- without being able to read any instructions.

To understand that we can look at video games, why they are so encouraging, why people are spending so much time on there and really working hard. I mean, look at what they're doing. They're doing a lot of hard work with that. There are a lot of statistics out there. The technologies like wiki, the corporate world's use of wikis -- which [at its base level] is a game -- and the largest of them all, Wikipedia.

So if you want to know why that is happening and what can we learn from that, how can we direct this energy into the real world to make the real world better, as Jane McGonigal asked.

Also I think my generation, who grew up with video games all the time, are often in this age where they have kids and from four-year-olds to teenagers -- if you have kids, you know that often a gamified, a gameful approach dealing with them works way better and is way more successful than just commanding and ordering them around.

We play a lot of games already in our real life. We don't know this, consciously, but loyalty programs are using game mechanics. You stick with the same airline. You stick with the same hotel chain. You're collecting points on your credit card. You're collecting coupons. These are successfully using game mechanics and what can we learn to make software better.

MW: You mentioned Jane McGonigal and her TED talk on games making the world a better place. Is that the kind of idea that's driving gamification into the sustainability and innovation arenas?

MH: Of course. I mean, what gamification is doing for the sustainability area and I have to admit, I haven't seen a single sustainability application that didn't use game mechanics. So all of them actually that I've seen in my corporation had use of game mechanics. More playful, less playful, but always include game mechanics.

Of course if we can use the energy that we have for playing games and would invest in spending time on something like sustainability and can make just little small steps within our own role, the role that we control, like separating waste, turning off some lights, biking instead of driving or turning off lights in the office and so on and trying to also create change in our work places. Just little things in the end, some add up to huge savings.

Another aspect that I see is that gamification might in the sustainability area might not necessarily be the biggest driver for making sustainability successful. What gamification normally brings is making information transparent. Suddenly I know how much energy my fridge uses or my dryer and then I can decide okay, wow, is the dryer responsible for 50 percent of my energy consumption at home.

So let's just, in some areas, especially in this state [California], hang it up on the lawn and dry it like this. Or if I figure out that my car contributes to 70 percent of my carbon footprint, then I say okay, I'll bike more, I'll walk more, I'll do carpooling and have some other benefits. I'm saving gas. I'm networking. I'm socializing with other people. So this is an indirect thing.

That information suddenly becomes available that was always there, but I never had it really at my hand and suddenly a gamified approach brings it then at hand and then it gives you more. It gives you goodie points. It lets you grow something, like a plant, and people get hooked into that.

MW: That's really interesting that you tie gamification and sustainability to things like what SAP does with its business information software. Do you see more successful applications for internal company operations or is it more for external changing customer behavior sort of things?

MH: Well it depends what company you're on. You have utility companies who are displaying information about your household consumption and compared it to your neighborhood and put a smiley on top of that are definitely changing their uses or behavior, even if it means that the utility companies made, earned less because people start saving energy consumption,

But utilities here are changing from trying to sell as much energy as possible to a service institution giving you the best option, the most carbon-efficient option, the most environmentally sustainable option.

In a company like SAP, we do have multiple ways to put it in place -- we have all these software applications that we are selling to our existing customers and they're using and implementing that and can save server costs.

But on the other side, we're also trying to use it internally by encouraging people to carpool. So we have, as an example, a carpooling application that just came out two or three months ago. It's now used at the German headquarter where we have 15,000 employees. This application, called TwoGo, is one where you can find other colleagues that live in the same neighborhood and you carpool. [You can read more about TwoGo and other SAP sustainability efforts in my interview with SAP's Rami Branitzky.]

What is the big benefit for SAP? First all these cars that are carpooling are corporate cars. So that's the way it is in Germany, in Europe, you get corporate cars. So you have 50,000 employees and nearly as many corporate cars.

So if you don't have to build 10,000 parking spaces for them, then you are already saving. You would use the time that people spend driving and riding because they are in traffic jam, but you also, and it's included in the corporate car, you have a gas card for the gas. So it means you're not paying the gas. The gas is paid by SAP. So when you go to the gas station you use that card and if people start sharing their rides, carpooling, definitely you will see a drop in gas consumption and that translates immediately into real hard dollars and Euros.

So if you suddenly have 7,000 cars, 5,000 cars on the street, that also means I have a third less gas consumption or maybe 20 percent less gas consumption, which could be multiple million Euro per month in savings in a given time frame. Another effectthat I have through such an application, through such a sustainability application, then I have suddenly people riding, carpooling that would have never met in the company.

You have this networking effect and from carpooling conversations people learn about other employees' interesting work and they say, "well, you should follow-up with that. Maybe we can have a project or business together here." So sometimes you have a networking effect and that increases how people work together.

Then you can gamify it. So the more ride you share, the more people are in each car, the more points everybody earns and then you could have specific activities, like if you don't drive in that week with the same driver twice, always try to find another driver to increase networking features.

The place where SAP is located is close to the Formula One Circuit Hockenheim, which once or twice a year has Formula One race hosted there. So basically there is a lot of traffic there at this time and you could encourage people to share, to ride even more together so that they avoid traffic jams and in time at work and don't leave early.

MW: I'm curious where you see companies struggle or where they fail to implement these practices and what kinds of things will they take away from your presentation at our Innovation Forum that might help them overcome these obstacles?

MH: That is simply a lack of skills. Today we do not know much about how to create a game. This is a similar problem like how to use social media properly. That's kind of a dark art. These are soft skills to some extent that I have here and we have the skills not available in a typical corporation. We don't have really much game designers or we don't even have an official position for a game designer or a game administrator.

We have in our company, for example, I identified through my gamification community 13 people who raised their hands and said, "Well I actually am a game designer. I started at -- I have experience with that 'cause I build iPhone games or I do that for my Girl Scout, but they were not hired in that position. They do that as a kind of hobby.

So we are missing these legs today and they think we are -- the problem will be that we repeat the same errors as with social media, that we do not totally understand it, what it is and people need to understand that this requires a different skill set. It's more soft skills that they need. It comes from a different area and it's not just that I create an app, toss it out and I may have a successful application.

No, it requires of course to moderate that, to engage with my players to figure out if somebody's cheating or if there are cheating things or if I've not encouraged achieving the wrong things through my system and I didn't realize that.

So I might need to fine tune that and after a certain period I might need to change completely the, so to speak, the game, the application because my goals might have changed or the stuff that I want to encourage might have totally changed.

I also want to avoid player fatigue so that people are still engaged with that and that I encourage like novices to experts to real masters who want to have a say of how the game should be or want to participate in creating the game.

This is something that we have become aware of. So the notion today that I just had a couple of funky points and freaky badges and I have a successful gamified application is not the one. If I have already a shitty app or a shitty process the application's not getting better, if I'm adding just points and badges, it's getting even worse. I should take the chance -- when I'm thinking of gamification tools, improve my applications.

For much more on how to apply game mechanics to sustainability, and many other ways companies are innovating to achieve their green goals, check out our upcoming Innovation Forum 2011.