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My Personal Biggest Takeaway from GSummit 2014

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

logo GSummitSF2014.pngTwo weeks ago I attended the gamification summit 2014 (a.k.a. GSummit). I normally don’t do conference recaps, because I speak at so many of them throughout the year. Since my work covers so many different areas of business—spanning from big data/analytics to gamification, I’ve spoken at many different conferences and heard many different perspectives. The problem with participating at so many conferences is that many of them start to look the same. Many talks are simply a reiteration or application of the same old concepts in a different context, or they are are simply different use cases of the same technology.


However, this year’s GSummit was quite unique, and I took away something big. It’s not what most people would have expected from a conference—it isn’t new knowledge, new opportunities, connections with new people, or reconnection with old friends, but something more inspiring to me personally. Still interested? Read on as I tell you more about this conference through the narrow spectacles of a scientist.


Note: this post ended up becoming pretty long, and there are many hyperlinks in this post to videos and source materials, so feel free to explore and learn.


Pre-Conference + the Venue

As with most conferences, the first day consisted of the pre-conference workshops that are often attended by those looking to learn new skills. I wasn’t planning to show up for the pre-conference because I was actually speaking at another conference that morning—Predictive Analytics and Business Insights 2014. Yet, I had to rush to the Concourse Exhibition Center (where GSummit was held) that afternoon, because I had an interview with Clark Buckner from TechnologyAdvice.


The venue itself wasn’t great, because it's not conveniently located in downtown SF. The space wasn’t nearly as nice as the Museum of Jewish Heritage (where I previously worked with GSummit 2011 in NYC). Nevertheless, I had a fun interview with TechnologyAdvice focusing on the sustainability of gamification strategies. SoundCloud has a copy of what we discussed:


The Plenary Sessions

Despite the inadequacy of the venue, the plenary sessions were excellent. Brian Burke from Gartner opened the day with a visionary perspective of what gamification could mean to the future of digital business by blurring the boundary between digital and physical world. Gamification could be transformative, but this future relies on the fact that consumers will continue to play along. And this will happen only if consumers are getting value from the gamified behaviors today and are recognizing those values. This is also why I often stress the importance of designing a strategy for the long run.


Being a scientist, I liked the focus on behaviors and principles rather than tools, because tools can change quickly with the market landscape. Andrea Kuszewski shed light on people’s seemingly irrational behavior due to the social effect of group identity and cognitive dissonance. The finale of the plenary sessions was keynoted by an old friend at Stanford—Prof. BJ Fogg. Prof. Fogg introduced his behavior model and used it as a framework to discuss the design patterns for long-term behavior change. Since I’ve worked on this quite a bit in the past, I’d like to devote another blog post to go deeper into the details of this design pattern.


The Tracks and Sessions

The bulk of the conference was divided into 3 tracks that ran in parallel:

  1. gamification design
  2. customer loyalty
  3. employee engagement


The loyalty and engagement tracks were filled with case studies and applications. I really liked the study by Wharton’s Prof. Ethan Mollick on what happens when you try to mix games and work by making them mandatory. Apparently the loss of autonomy in such “mandatory fun” won’t appear fun anymore. And it will actually decrease affect, attitude, and performance at work. I also heard the most amazing ROI story from Ian DiTullio of Air Canada. They are realizing a 560% ROI through their Earn Your Wings gamified loyalty program. 560%!!!


Although applications and case studies are important for businesses as proof points, I was more interested in the design track, where you can learn the basic building blocks (i.e. the theories and principles) and create something novel from them. There is no limit to what you can build from these basic principles, because it’s entirely up to your creativity and imagination. This is why design is fun. Since I don’t want to miss the fun of contributing, I also presented a session in this track—level up your gamification to solve big business problems. Here is a 2 minute snippet from my talk on ForaTV.


One of my favorite talks in this track was Nir Eyal’s hook model for building habit-forming products. However, my favorite part of Nir’s talk wasn't actually about the hook, rather it is about using the hook to discuss the ethics and morality of changing (or manipulating) people’s behavior. Nir asked a tough question “is some tech is too addictive?” He challenged companies to think about their responsibilities when designing habit forming products that could potentially be addictive. Gamification is powerful because it could change real behaviors in the physical world, and as such, there are far reaching consequences in real life. Companies need to think deeper, longer, and more responsibly about designing for behavior changes. Only then can we reach the gamified world as envisioned by Brian Burke.


Nicole Lazzaro’s “science of fun” was a fun talk for me, because she’s making a neurobiological connection between her 4 keys for play (i.e. easy fun, hard fun, people fun, and serious fun) to the “happy chemicals” in our brain (i.e. DOSE: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphin). I can certainly appreciate all of this being an ex-neuroscientist who left academia ~6 years ago.


Amy Jo Kim’s “7 rules for co-op game design” was very insightful, because it covers a completely different class of games—non-zero-sum games—where the players play, win, and lose together as partners. This is very important because it has been shown that co-op games tend to create greater value, last longer, build deeper relationships, have greater health benefits (both physically and mentally), and they are more intrinsically motivating.


Finally, I also enjoyed Matt Danna’s persuasive design playbook, which provides a fairly long list of design patterns for micro-persuasion.


The Networking + Some Cool Toys

EGC+mwu_250.jpgOne of the best parts of any industry conference is what I called the “hallway track,” which provides much of the social and networking opportunities. GSummit provides a long 90-minute lunch break and plenty of short coffee breaks for the attendees to mingle and network. I always use these breaks to catch up with old friends in the space and talk to clients who happen to be attending. I’m very glad to see Mario Herger, Roman Rackwitz and Marigo Raftopoulos again, and I also had the great pleasure to finally meet Yu-Kai Chou in person for the first time. But what’s more exciting is that these 4 superheroes have joined forces, understanding that together they can achieve something greater and create more value than the sum of the individuals. This 1+1+1+1=1111 is precisely the promise of the non-zero-sum co-op games that Amy Jo Kim talked about.


Besides reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones, I also got a chance to take a look at some cool tech toys that vendors are offering. This year, I was most impressed by LiveCube—one of the most engaging gamified event apps I’ve seen. You can see what the app looks like for GSummit. The entire app is built with responsive web design, so users can use it on any device of their choice. What I like most about LiveCube is that it allows attendees to interact with focus on the conversations that are specific to the session they are attending, but at the same time filtering out all the irrelevant conversations at the event. This hyper-relevance is what’s going to drive attendee engagement through the roof. Moreover, these digital conversations are recorded forever, organized by sessions, and may be revisited and viewed as notes long after the event is over. If you want to gamify the digital engagement at your event, I definitely recommend checking out their demo video.


The Closing

gsummit_pix02 Jane McGonigal_sq_250.jpgAs GSummit came to an end, we were treated to a fireside chat with Jane McGonigal—acclaimed TEDster, author, and inventor of the SuperBetter game. She shared some amazing results from her NIH funded research with UPenn on the health benefits of alternate reality game (ARG), like SuperBetter. Apparently, ARG is able to eliminate 6 symptoms of depression in 6 weeks. And playing games like Tetris for only 10 minute within 6 hours of a traumatic experience can reduce your odds of developing PTSD. Moreover, playing co-op games will increase your social resilience.


Finally, the closing keynote for the GSummit conference was delivered by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson—astrophysicist, author, educator, and TV host of the Cosmos Series. The title of his keynote was “Science & Pop Culture.” It sounded like an interesting topic, but I can’t quite draw the connection to gamification, yet.


Dr. Tyson began his keynote talking about space toys, then he move into is space comics, geek cultures around space science, and finally space themed games. Throughout his keynote, he was dropping nuggets of astrophysical facts and knowledge, but in a subtle way. His entire talk was very fluid, almost in flow. It was a bit unstructured, but it wasn’t difficult to follow at all, and the entire room was filled with laughter the whole time, even when the audio system failed.


It turned out to be a very entertaining keynote. It was such an extraordinary presentation that there was a standing ovation after his concluding remarks. After the conference adjourned, I had the great pleasure of joining Dr. Tyson at the VIP reception.



I hadn’t participated in GSummit for the past 2 years due to conflicts with my other speaking engagements, but I’m very glad that I could make it this year. It’s nice reconnecting with old friends and seeing new faces in the scene. I am definitely pleased to see the stronger focus on behavior centric design and a shift towards approaches that are more principle driven rather than technology driven. I’m also happy to see more rigorous academic research done in this area. It’s a sign that the industry is growing, progressing and maturing.


gsummit_pix03 Neil deGrasse Tyson_sq_250.jpgSo what was my biggest takeaway? It was watching Dr. Tyson teach. He is so good at communicating science that it’s a humbling experience for me, so humbling that it even felt a little humiliating.


The reason is because I’ve always believed that I am a pretty decent teacher. I know I'm not great, but deep inside I have always thought I did an OK job, because many people have told me so throughout my life. Moreover, I was often told that I can explain complex concepts in a simple way that even laymen could understand them. So this belief is actually a made belief.


However, watching Dr. Tyson teach made me realized there’s a whole new level of teaching that I was only scratching the surface at best. He is so great at teaching science that he’s able to talk about a complex subject with fluidity and humor. During the closing keynote, he was basically lecturing us without us knowing that we are being lectured. We, as the audience, simply felt that we are enjoying the presentation and having fun, as if we are watching a comedy. But at the end, we all learned something deep and profound about the universe we live. We all became smarter and wanted to learn more.


I was able to draw the connection midway through the closing keynote. This is a gamification of education at the highest level. And Dr. Tyson did it without any points, badges, leaderboards or any gamification tools. He’s simply amazing at what he does. Although I may never get to that level, it’s definitely my aspiration. And that was my biggest takeaway from GSummit 2014.



Michael Wu, Ph.D.mwu_whiteKangolHat_blog.jpg is CRM2010MKTAWRD_influentials.pngLithium's Chief Scientist. His research includes: deriving insights from big data, understanding the behavioral economics of gamification, engaging + finding true social media influencers, developing predictive + actionable social analytics algorithms, social CRM, and using cyber anthropology + social network analysis to unravel the collective dynamics of communities + social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics + its application to Social CRM. He's a blogger on Lithosphere, and you can follow him @mich8elwu or Google+.

About the Author
Dr. Michael Wu was the Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies from 2008 until 2018, where he applied data-driven methodologies to investigate and understand the social web. Michael developed many predictive social analytics with actionable insights. His R&D work won him the recognition as a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine. His insights are made accessible through “The Science of Social,” and “The Science of Social 2”—two easy-reading e-books for business audience. Prior to industry, Michael received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics program, where he also received his triple major undergraduate degree in Applied Math, Physics, and Molecular & Cell Biology.
CCO Emeritus

This was superb, Michael. I really enjoyed reading your impressions of the event. I was sorry to miss GSummit this year -- I was presenting at one of our Gen C events in Europe, so had to pass my ticket along to one of our colleagues -- but your summary makes me feel like I was there. I'll definitely follow up on some of the links and names you shared. Thanks!

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @JoeC,


You are welcome. Glad you liked the recap. Too bad, you couldn't make it. It would have been fun to have you there as well, but @XavierJ was there for one of those days. 


I heard the Gen C world tour went really well. I hope you have some time to enjoy the travel as well. I'm looking forward to hear more about it from you when you return and visit SF soon.


Thank you for the comment, and see you soon.


Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Great write up Michael, thanks for sharing with us!
Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Thx for the comment @BrianK,


I actually love to share goodies from my external engagements (I have the motivation). Just finding the time to write them up or present to the teams is always a challenge (I don't have ability). Sigh... Hope I get to do more recaps in the future.


See you next time.