Saturday, August 18, 2012


In response to The Engagement Economy: How gamification is reshaping businesses

Gamification is the application of game mechanics to non-game situations. The hip business wonks have stolen the term 'gamification' and applied it to the practice of co-opting the most shameful and worthless aspects of gaming throughout history and using them to extract cash from their flock of 'users'.

this is a hover

Gamification in its current state is the biggest pile of garbage in tech in the past 10 years. People play games because they are intrinsically fun, not to collect meaningless badges or points. Sure, games can have some drudge work (though I argue that's simply poor design) in order to enrich the gaming experience through advancing the narrative, teaching game skills, unlocking new areas, etc. Gamification as it's used here and by abominations like Zynga is nothing more than a dirty trick to capitalize on and exploit some people's obsessive need to collect - a personality defect. 'Gamified' tasks rank right up there in fun with washing the dishes or sorting laundry. Only with those tasks you have a reward that is tangible. In fact, any task worth doing already has its own reward that is much more compelling than any e-badge will ever be. Zynga has never made anything even resembling an actual game.

See: Cow Clicker


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Nonprofit Data

Many ISPs are considering the move to usage-based tiered pricing models. This would result in data caps and overage charges or bandwidth throttling. These new models are simply a cash-grab which plummets us back to the stone age. Remember counting usage hours and AOL disks with x hours free where 10 < x < 1000 (hint, there are no more than 744 hours in a month)? Being in the streaming HD video business, Netflix is not at all happy about this.

Running an ISP is an expensive proposition for sure. Stringing wires, or fiber if you're lucky, across the US does not come cheap. Nor does tapping into the internet backbone. The beauty of data bits, unlike public utilities is that they are never "used up", and marginal costs of service are small. ISPs are trying to double dip. They want to charge the end user an additional fee per gigabyte when their marginal costs are already <$.01 per GB. They also want to charge Netflix to access their own customers over the last mile. The marginal cost of this is minimal. $7.44 is the maximum monthly marginal ISP cost for a household which streams HD netflix 24/7. And people watch a lot of TV, but not every hour of every day.

The problem is that the ISPs delay upgrading their infrastructure. When the current systems of cable lines and early generation DSL were built streaming HD video was a pipe dream. The current setup has served us well to a point, despite it being designed from the ground up for vastly different purposes (cable for analog television, and DSL lines running over POTS). When people simultaneously stream HD video content the network is brought to its knees. Rather than spend the money to fix this problem, the ISPs take the view that if they charge enough it will go away.

ISPs are just getting frustrated that their customers are vocal when the quality of service for data suffers via a slow connection. They can’t play the same data games as they do with cable TV video signals, such as shoving 500 "HD" channels through a tiny slice of bandwidth, resulting in horrible visual artifacts due to compression. It's ludicrous that a paid cable TV service has a lower picture quality than an over-the-air HD broadcast.

While we're on the topic of bandwidth issues, it's time to realize that there is a time and place for lossy compression, but there is no place in home or mobile consumer level networks for lossy transmission. Much like ISPs, cell phone companies built the networks to handle a particular load, voice. With an analog voice connection some lossy transmission is expected. With a mobile digital data connection it is unacceptable. Wireless mobile networks are more constrained than fiber to the home, but a phone call doesn't need to have the acoustic properties of a concert hall. That's where lossy compression comes in. Depending on content, information can be fudged. Lossy transmission in a digital phone call leads to a dropped or missed call. While this seems to be the norm at times, it is unacceptable. Bits are sacred and cannot be fudged. It's time to treat them with respect.

Just reinvest the profits in the infrastructure and let people use more bandwidth. It’s the only service that complains and reduces QoS when customer reliance and retention grows. Would a neighborhood barbershop throw a fit if they had a line around the block? No, they’d invest in capital and hire more barbers to service more customers and make more money. Everybody wins.

Why can’t the ISPs figure this out? They need to reinvest in their infrastructure. Instead of forcing their will on their customers and bending their usage habits, try being flexible and realize that this isn’t going away. Bandwidth usage has increased regularly since prehistoric times, except maybe for a period in the dark ages. Bits are bits, and we’re happy to pay for them, but we demand a fair price and QoS. I can’t wait until we have viable alternatives to drive competition.

So what's the solution? Run ISPs like a non-profit public utility. Austin Energy is one such utility. They have a clear monopoly on the electricity market, but their customer satisfaction ratings are through the roof. Employees at ISPs deserve to get paid, and as an organization they should make enough to cover their costs. The only public benefit to having for-profit ISPs is increased tax revenue. As a community owned service with completely transparent financials we can be assured that profits are reinvested in the infrastructure. Internet access is becoming more and more essential. Do most Americans regularly worry that we won't be able to take showers at the same time or keep our refrigerators cool enough? No. We should expect the same from our ISPs.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Massively multi-player games: an epidemiologist's workshop

I've been engrossed in reading This Gaming Life by Jim Rossignol recently. A significant portion of the book discusses the oddities of the role of video games (and games in general) across world cultures. This book also presents the most comprehensive defense of playing video games recreationally, that video games are not a pointless time-sink and that the players are not simply "blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious [B. Johnson]."

The most fascinating content of this book is the discussion of how people behave in multi-player online games. Numerous examples are given, ranging from piracy and espionage in EVE online to collaborative meeting spaces in 2nd Life. Such aspects of gaming really hit on my own personal research interests of human behavior in technology mediated social networks. One example of human gaming behavior in particular highlights an unexpected application of online gaming worlds: modeling the spread of disease, or epidemiology.

At one point the game World of Warcraft had a game play mechanic where players could contract a disease called "corrupted blood". This disease caused physical harm to the players' characters, and was communicable from one player to another. The disease was never intended to appear except under very controlled circumstances. Once the disease was unleashed, Blizzard had to run rolling restarts of their servers to eradicate the plague.

Epidemiologist use complicated statistical models and utility function driven multi-agent simulations to try and predict the spread of diseases. One problem with these models is that they are missing a human component. The models are designed to approximate human behavior on a large scale, but this can only truly be accomplished by measuring actual human behavior.

I'm a little late to the party with this story, but Nina Fefferman has been featured extensively in the press for her 2007 paper with Eric Lofgren titled "The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds to Shed Light on Real World Epidemics," published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Nina has recognized that online gaming worlds contain a wealth of data about human social behavior and that this could be used for epidemiology.

According to Rossignol, these data can be harvested from games without affecting the gamers' experience in any way. An online community could be infected with a disease which exhibits no symptoms at all, but merely spreads in a non-deterministic way. As long as the characters carrying the the disease (or payload) can be identified then useful data will be available to researchers.

Harvesting human behavior patterns for epidemiology is just one of the ways in which modern gaming can benefit society. Passionate gamers and radical scientists like Rossignol and Fefferman are helping to give gaming a good name.