SCVNGR at SXSW--high-flying, or head in the clouds?

First keynote speaker at SXSW festival, Seth Priebatsch of Google-backed SCVNGR, talks of changing the world by making everything more like a game. Could he use a dose of skepticism?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--Hailing the 2010s as "the decade of games," Seth Priebatsch, founder of the Google-backed start-up SCVNGR, brought a bright dose of dreamy enthusiasm to the first official keynote of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Saturday afternoon.

Plowing through problems from education reform to global warming, and how they could be addressed by applying the principles of games, the skinny Priebatsch showed up for his talk, "The Game Layer on Top of the World," in a bright orange polo shirt with matching sunglasses perched atop his head and spoke with the jerky staccato of a "Speed Racer" character. He is 22, and his obviously astute entrepreneurial mind seems like it could be at odds with the naivety of youth.

"The game layer is brand new. It has not been built," Priebatsch said. "The framework for the social layer (last decade's accomplishment) is now built. It's called Facebook and it now owns the digital representation, the social layer, for 500 million people."

SXSW organizer Hugh Forrest introduced Priebatsch as exactly the sort of person whom the conference hopes to attract: a young, creative college dropout developing a well-funded and promising mobile gaming application (and one who, unfortunately, refers to himself as "chief ninja" instead of CEO, a business title that actually gets taken seriously at SXSW). Priebatsch talks about the big ideas that the laptop-gazing digital thinkers of the SXSWi fishbowl love to toss about: "engagement" and social connectedness and fueling the physical world with the philosophies and algorithms that have built the digital-media world.

His talk focused on a hot topic among developers--"gamification" or "game mechanics," or how the factors typically associated with games from Monopoly to Super Mario can improve digital media. That's what SCVNGR does: encourages users of the mobile app to perform "challenges" in order to earn rewards at partner locations. Priebatsch's keynote brought the same kind of strategy to some much bigger areas of concern, such as education and global warming.

Priebatsch referred to the education system as "one of the most perfect game ecosystems that's out there," full of challenges, rewards, rules, allies, enemies, countdowns, and incentives, "all sorts of things that basically make school the best real-world implementation of a game that's out there." But Priebatsch said that "it's a poorly designed game; it's kind of broken."

One of the points he brought up: how arbitrary and ultimately dull most letter grades and achievements are. "If (a class valedictorian) were called 'White Knight Paladin Level 20,' people might study a little harder. I certainly would."

Priebatsch might have been naive, but his energy and charisma kept his speech from going the way of some famous SXSW keynotes from years past, in which lackluster energy and a lack of sweeping, big-think ideas caused some of those in the audience to bail. Seth Priebatsch managed to keep them interested.

He also showed some inkling of the pragmatism that comes from running a real company rather than a fly-by-night start-up, taking some time in the middle of his fast-paced talk to discuss the fact that location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla--and SCVNGR itself--haven't entered the mainstream yet in spite of significant amounts of venture capital and marketing partners. But his thoughts on potential solutions, however, were incoherent.

At the end, as promised, he touched on global warming.

"It's kind of naive for me to say that any one thing can solve these huge problems," Priebatsch said, but "while one thing cannot solve these massive problems, it can give us tools to make the solutions possible, to move an impossible problem from being completely unsolvable to being something that's just very, very difficult--and that's a huge win."

To demonstrate this, he told the audience in the 3,000-person ballroom, each of whom had been handed a piece of solid-colored paper in a variety of shades upon entering the room, that they were going to participate in a communal game. They would have two and a half minutes--180 seconds--to successfully sort out the cards so that each row of the audience consisted of a unique color of cards. No one was allowed to stand up. "None of you have the right resources, and so you're going to need to trade," he said. The game exhibited many of the things he'd been chattering about earlier--a tight countdown, restricted movement and communication, and a joint goal--Priebatsch said that SCVNGR would donate $10,000 to the National Wildlife Federation.

With a minute to go on the clock, the audience had successfully sorted the cards. "That's freaking awesome!" he exclaimed.

"There's a joint goal that everyone can individually buy into," he said, leading to "epic meaning...you are part of something so much bigger than yourself and because of that you are able to work incredibly hard. You are blissfully productive."

Of course, no one in the room was simultaneously trying to sabotage the game. No one believed they had any reason to not participate. No one believed that something bad would happen if the cards were successfully sorted. Everyone in the room had already committed to attend the talk, meaning that they likely were not being drawn away from participating by conference calls, meetings, or other obligations; their attention was undivided. However momentous his statement, Priebatsch's naivety still showed through.

But he does appear to have grasped something very important: Priebatsch hardly mentioned his own company during his talk. In a conference swamped by marketers, pitches, and sponsorships, in the end it was refreshing to see a hyped young entrepreneur talking about his observations, impressions, and hypotheses about the world around him rather than simply self-promoting.