SXSW Day Two: Seth Priebatsch on the decade of the game layer

SCVNGR_logoIn Seth Priebatsch’s highly anticipated keynote, the SCVNGR founder discussed how the game layer is poised to change the way we interact with brands and each other over the next decade. Referring to Facebook’s implementation of Open Graph protocol, Priebatsch noted our advantage as we stand at the beginnings of location-based services — we have the ability to define the game layer’s purpose and direction before we’ve created a framework to use its data.

Gaming in education

Priebatsch used education as a prime example of a “game that’s broken.” Schools are nearly perfect game ecosystems because they have motivated players, rules, rewards, levels, and incentives/disincentives, among many other characteristics that fit the profile of a good game. The problem, he theorizes, is that the real rewards of education (learning for learning’s sake) have been replaced with fake rewards (grades), and once that switch occurs, the real incentives can no longer be seen as valuable (even if the false rewards are removed). Between lack of student engagement and the issue of cheating, Priebatsch sees a game worthy of and in need of fixing.

One of the main themes Priebatsch returns to as a solution is the shift of power from those in charge to the students themselves — community managers would refer to this as a “self-regulating community.” To allow for this, the rules themselves must be changed. Princeton’s honor code, consisting of simple rules that make complicity as punishable as cheating itself, significantly reducing Princeton’s annual reported violations as compared to other institutions.

Customer acquisition

Groupon was presented as a prime example of using game mechanics for customer acquisition. By combining “free lunch” with communal gameplay (a complex problem can be solved by a large decentralized group of people if the rules are clear) and a countdown (limiting time in which a deal can be acted on), Groupon has taken an e-mail list and made it incredibly profitable.

realfoursquareCreating loyalty to businesses in the real world

Priebatsch took this portion of the presentation as an opportunity to preview SCVNGR’s new LevelUp program, which is currently testing in Boston and Philadelphia. It operates on the notion that games work best when they include multiple levels that can be unlocked by performing particular actions. He also differentiated between location-based tools that operate on “inclusive ownership” (ex. Whrrl and their creation of societies) and those that operate on “exclusive ownership” (think: Foursquare mayor specials).

Moving location-based services to the mainstream

Though we’d like to think location-based services are the “next big thing” for marketing on the web, the reality is that just four percent of internet users are using them — and just eight percent of online adults 18-29 (Pew Internet). How do we move LBS into mainstream use? Priebatsch suggests a multi-pronged approach, involving partnering with big brands (think: Pepsi’s partnership with Foursquare). He also suggests that we loosen the rules a bit, to allow more than just strictly present individuals to interact with a place. “Will be visiting later” or “want to visit here” should also count as valid interactions in location-based networks, and provides more opportunities for businesses to connect with their customers.

Are early adopters spoiled?

One of the “moral hazards” Priebatsch pointed out to early adopters of LBS is the conditioned expectation of receiving a reward for every check-in. Should users expect to get a discount or special recognition every time they check in to a location on Foursquare? Will SCVNGR users participate in treks only for the prizes, or simply for the fun of it? This is something builders of location-based tools should be mindful of.

Playing games to save the world

By addressing impossibly large world problems with game mechanics, Priebatsch believes we’re poised to help solve them. By participating in a game that contributes to a real-world cause, we derive “epic meaning” — feeling part of something bigger than ourselves, and feeling more productive in a large group than we could be on our own.

Want to learn more?

SCVNGR has posted on their blag on Seth’s keynote coverage in the media. You can also view Seth’s keynote slides here.

Notecard image courtesy Dennis Crowley on Flickr / Creative Commons.

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