To celebrate Pac-Man’s 30th anniversary last year, Google embedded a special version of the game on its launch page.
This awesome little Easter Egg, understandably, went viral immediately, and was enjoyed by millions of people. The game included 256 levels (including the legendary glitch that brought the game to an end on the final board), a 2nd player option with Ms. Pac-Man, and authentic sound effects and graphics. All in all, a pretty cool way to waste away a Friday in the office, right?
Well, according to a (tongue-in-cheek, I hope?) article from a research firm called RescueTime, the Google Pac-Man cost employers $120 million in lost time on Friday — enough to pay all 19,385 Google employees full salaries for 6 months.
The article made use of RescueTime data, which uses a representative sample to generate data for productivity research. RescueTime estimated that the average user spent 36 seconds more than usual on the Google page, and found that 4.8 million hours of time were spent playing Google Pac-Man. From there, they used some other assumptions to arrive at the $120 million figure. If the assumptions are correct, the data is pretty alarming, right?
Well, actually, no. There are a number of problems with the assumptions, the first of which concerns productivity levels. RescueTime is assuming that employees work at 100% efficiency, when there is, in fact, no reason to make this assumption. Employees take breaks. They surf the Web. They take phone calls. They get distracted. They doodle. All of these activities are built into their salaries. Truthfully, the reason most office workers are required to be at work for 40-50 hours a week has less to do with the actual work they’re doing and more to do with being available to work with others on the team.
Second, the data assumes that every user was accessing Pac-Man from work or during work hours. Again, there is no reason to make this assumption. It is possible that people were playing on their breaks, before work, after work, or at home.
Third, the data assumes that by playing Pac-Man, employees weren’t working. In this day of teleconferences, customer support calls, dull meetings and similar time-consuming activities, that’s not a fair assumption to make, either.
Fourth, the data assumes that because there was a spike in page time, users were playing Pac-Man. It’s a likely assumption, but not a provable one. Users could have been stopping on the page longer as they talked with co-workers about their LOST finale theory, or made plans for Towel Day, or shared BBQ invitations for Memorial Day weekend, or one of any number of other coincidences.
There are, of course, many other factors I’m not going to touch on. What I do want to discuss, however, is why data like this is detrimental to the research industry.
First of all, I’m not going to pick on RescueTime for releasing these numbers, because my suspicion is that they meant for this to be a satirical means of promoting their services. They had some numbers, they played with them, and they blogged about it. I’ve got no issue there.
What does concern me, however, is when data like this, which is not sound and which is not limited by proper assumptions, is reported as fact. As it happens, I did not discover this story through RescueTime; I saw it on Fark.com, which in turn linked an article from PCWorld.com. They weren’t the only ones to cover the story. I’ve also seen it on Mashable, The Huffington Post, Computerworld and DailyMail, just to name a few of the 400+ sites carrying the story. Given the way the news cycle works, you can probably expect to see this in mainstream news sources by the end of the week.
The lack of skepticism that these sites show in carrying the story is alarming. I realize most are carrying it because they think it’s an interesting piece, and that’s about as much thought as they need to run it. It makes the Internet seem awfully important. But when you stop to think about the implication here — that Google is so powerful that a slight tweak to its page can cost other businesses hundreds of millions of dollars — you can see that this story, unlike Pac-Man himself, has some teeth.
This also shows the problem with looking to data to answer questions without first questioning whether or not the data can answer those questions. Often, peoples’ motives for doing things are very complex, and you have to either ask very specific questions (which results in very specific data) or you have to assign all sorts of limitations to your conclusions. The news media rarely reports limitations, and as a result, we get reports on polls, ratings and other syndicated data that don’t really understand what conclusions to draw or how error can make a seeming statistical difference actually not a difference at all.
In the field of work-based behavior, I’m sure even RescueTime would agree that productivity is not about scheduling every aspect of your time, but rather, eliminating behaviors that put you in an unproductive mode (such as getting on Facebook, checking sports scores, or reading rambling marketing blogs) during times in which you need to be working. At the same time, we all know that those behaviors should be a part of break behavior, if you enjoy them, because taking occasional mental breaks is important for your overall productivity throughout the day.
And if that’s true, Google’s little Pac-Man diversion may have actually aided productivity throughout the day. It might have also been an opening line for a sale, or an icebreaker topic in an activity, or any number of other, positive things.
Which is why it’s a good idea to be skeptical about anything you read, especially if lots of numbers are involved.
What are your thoughts? Share them below!