Think video games are just for entertainment? Think again.
Though some may be quick to dismiss gaming’s potential, the reality is that video games have the power to make those who play them more educated, more prepared, and even more humane. Not only are games able to explain complex systems and scenarios, they can be used to vet them well before resources or lives are lost. The same mechanisms that make games compelling can motivate employees, customers, and citizens. And by encouraging role-play, games can go as far as changing mindsets.
That’s the belief of Phaedra Boinodiris. A technology strategist, cognitive designer, intrapreneur, and mover and shaker at IBM, Boinodiris’ career has centered on harnessing the technical and cultural power of games to create radical, positive change. Thanks to the ample resources and support she receives at IBM, she’s able to execute highly original visions — visions that have the potential to transform the way we perceive gaming, for good.
We got to chat with Boinodiris about the under-tapped true potential of games and gamification, as well as the ways IBM empowers employees to let their cyberspace imaginations run wild. As a serial entrepreneur-turned-INTRApreneur, she was led by a string of seemingly fated events to make her home at IBM. And that string started with two small girls discovering their shared serious love for gaming.
“Because I grew up in a family of technologists, my sister and I were always encouraged to play around on the computers — not just ‘playing,’ but putting computers together, taking them apart, and coding on them,” Boinodiris said. “We ended up gravitating toward video games, and in fact started to design our own games.”
After graduating with a degree in math and computer science (there was “no such thing” as game design and development collegiate tracks at the time), she went on to found one company, dealing with custom software application development, with her mother, and soon after founded a second company at the urging of her sister. That company was called WomenGamers.com.
“The reason we started WomenGamers was because as much as we’d played games, our friends played, our cousins played — we’d go to most magazines or websites for gaming and they weren’t targeting us at all. They were targeting young men,” Boinodiris explained. “So, we started this company where we did reviews of games and consulting for game studios and publishers who wanted to target women, and we actually wound up starting our very first scholarship program for women to pursue degrees in game design and development here in the U.S.”
Both companies were successful and long lasting in their own right, and she could have stopped there with plenty to hang her hat on. But a desire to get her MBA (and a better grasp on how to procure VC funding) led Boinodiris to the Kenan Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where her path was to become unexpectedly intertwined with IBM. The tech giant was sponsoring a challenge between UNC and Duke University in search of, as she put it, “an innovative way to explain business process management to non-technical people.” Instantly, she saw the solution as being a strategy game — but one of her teammates didn’t quite agree.
“I ended up arguing with him until 2 in the morning because he said, ‘IBM is too conservative of a company, they’re never going to buy this idea. And oh, by the way — games are for kids,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘You know, the average age of the gamer is 34 years old, and 43 percent of PC games and 38 percent of console gamers are women, and games, if you think about it, can be incredibly adept at explaining complex systems.’ So we argued, and he abandoned the team.”
The next day, Boinodiris and her remaining team members pitched her idea in the competition — including to one judge who, unbeknownst to them, was an IBM VP. Immediately after the pitch, the VP approached her and greenlighted her idea, asking if she could have a proof of concept ready in three months. And so, Boinodiris went to IBM to incubate its first games for marketing program, a move that was “completely unexpected” (both her parents were former IBM-ers themselves), as well as the jumping-off point for some of the most exciting work of her career.
Since joining IBM, a couple of projects stand out to Boinodiris as particularly significant, the first involving process optimization games. While presenting her work on this subject at the Enterprise Architecture & Technology Innovation Summit, she got the idea to create advanced serious games that could be integrated with real data and real processes to address disaster preparedness. And it was her work in this arena that ultimately led to her receiving a rather unexpected phone call.
The caller was David Conover, a teacher at a disadvantaged Texas high school. Conover was heading up a computer science class — but with an atypical approach. Honing in on serious games design, he was encouraging the kids to come up with their own business plans and models in order to create a game, sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that would teach other kids about pandemics, how they work, and different kinds of pathogens.
The class’s result? A “Medical Minecraft” game that allowed players to fly a nanobot through the human body — and they needed the help of Boinodiris and IBM’s artificial intelligence program, Watson, to complete it.
“When the nanobot met up with a pathogen, like ebola or tuberculosis, they wanted to actually be able to converse with IBM’s Watson from within the game to ask it questions like, ‘How would I recognize symptoms of ebola?’ or ‘If there was a tuberculosis outbreak in my region, what should I do?’” Boinodiris explained, adding that she began Skyping regularly with the students shortly afterward. “I was so completely overwhelmed by how engaged this classroom of high school kids was. The conversations I was having with these individuals, it just blew me away… their levels of imagination and engagement were off the charts.”
So, Boinodiris not only helped the class integrate Watson into their project — she also hopped on a plane along with an IBM film crew and did a short documentary of the class. That documentary got international attention and ultimately helped transition what could have been a one-time classroom experiment into an ongoing program.
Today, students in Conover’s class have the opportunity to intern at IBM’s Watson lab in Texas, and they’ve also pioneered a new, hands-free model of the Hungry Hungry Hippos children’s toy. Powered by a brainwave monitoring device, players can only control the hippos by going into a semi-meditative state — and the reason for that is seriously inspiring.
“The kids have plans to playtest the new smart toy to kids going through chemo at the Dell Children’s hospital, to help with their stress,” she explained. “I am so proud of them.”
Boinodiris was able to take her experience with these students and channel it into an IBM K-12 program, the first course of which teaches kids how to build empathetic conversation bots to help alleviate issues like stress and cyber bullying. She’s also using her platform on IBM’s Blockchain team to promote that technology’s role in transforming education, a topic she’s keynoting on at IBM’s THINK conference in March.
It’s a fitting progression for a career that’s been built around the idea of “tech for good,” and one she finds equally fitting of her overall life at IBM.
“What IBM has been doing on the forefront of technologies like AI and blockchain — these are world-changing technologies,” she said. “I think there really is an opportunity for people to have a voice in that and to shape that, for the good of the planet and the good of people.”
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