Two of the better talks I’ve attended at SXSW this year have been about games. No real surprise that it seems so hot right now, but as Duncan said on Twitt...

Seth Priebatsch, at all of 22 and heading Scvngr, pretty much said that games are going to pervade our lives and they need to be done right. He said that Facebook has already added the social layer,  now it is upto us to add the game layer in a manner that isn’t about gamification. Badges may be a reward but they don’t address the root issue you’re trying to solve. If you give your child a coin for every time they brushed their teeth and one day stopped, you’d see their teeth rotting because you’re not addressing the actual behaviour you want them to learn, which is to brush their teeth regularly. In fact, he showed a rather awful picture of decayed teeth, saying that all you need to do to get a picture like that is google ‘British teeth’. Joke!

He started off mentioning school as an example of a poorly designed game, because of two key reasons: there is a lack of engagement by students because it uses a rating system which is broken, and two, it encourages cheating by placing a premium on winning or scoring higher grades with no reference to how you got them. He mentioned Princeton University, which he dropped out of after a year, as an example of an educational institution that is stemming this problem by changing the game. With cheating, for example, the current problem is that we use disincentives to guard against it, but it is wrongly structured – the problem is really only if you are caught cheating. If you get away with it because no one sees you, you’re not going to stop doing it, are you? Princeton has found a way around this by having no one to supervise tests, by having students go by an honour code, and by making it clear that complicity is a crime – so it’s not just about disincentivising someone against cheating but about using group psychology to deter people who aid and abet that as well. 

The second thing he mentioned was using game play for customer acquisition, like Groupon does by leveraging the power of the community. Things like the countdown (‘x’ hours left to purchase this deal) seem to work remarkably well – apparently they see their highest number of purchases just before the bidding closes.

A well-structured game also leverages loyalty – people should be rewarded for being regular by giving them a status that distinguishes them from everyone else. American Express does this very well with its green, grey, gold and black credit cards. There’s always a desire to level up in humans, and they use this psychology very well. Scvngr is also testing a pilot in Boston and Philadelphia at the moment with a game called Level Up that employs his strategy. They encourage people to move to the next level by keeping the higher levels locked till they satisfy certain criteria.

And then of course he mentioned location-based services as potentially being able to draw people in – except that no one does it well yet because it is too tightly tied to location (you have to be in Place X right now to avail of any benefits). Seth wondered whether making it more loosely structured would be able to solve this – can people participate if they’re within a certain radius for example? With all Foursquare and Gowalla’s attempts, they’re still not mainstream and will not be either, because of this. Location-based services are still very much the domain of the geek ("of all the people in the world using location-based services, a large percentage of them are probably in this room right now")! It’s true – and that reminds me of another thread of thought that seems to be running through SXSW this year – people are advocating focussing not on the bulk in the middle, but the extreme use cases at either end, because if you take care of them, the middle takes care of itself.

Jane McGonigal, who Seth referenced liberally in his talk, spoke in a slot right after him. She of the TED fame rightly impressed. Her talk was more philosophical – she said that any game that makes a difference to her should satisfy the PERMA rule (Positive Emotions, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment), which is to say, does it make you feel good, does it create stronger relationships with the people around you or those whom you play with, does it give some meaning and a sense of accomplishment to your life? She quoted a number of statistics to substantiate her point that playing games is the single most important thing we can do with our lives, and she’s campaigning to get kids playing 10,000 hours of games by the time they are 21 to better prepare them for life. In a survey of 7000 music gamers, for example (Guitar Hero-style games), 67% of players were motivated to pick up an instrument for the first time and 73% who were already musicians started playing more as a result. Some people at Stanford have also done research that proves that simply having a sexy avatar online can make you more confident in real life for 24 hours (no jokes!).

She also spoke about eustress or positive stress, which comes out when you play games. She calls this being gameful: having the spirit, not just the mechanics of the game. What you feel on a day-to-day basis as a person apparently spreads to 250 people around you directly and indirectly, so if playing a game can give you positive feelings, you’re going to impact 250 people in a good way – which is clearly a good thing.

Some examples of games she is working on currently include Find the Future, a game for the New York Public Library to get young people coming to the library more, which instead of the usual points/rewards system is a one night game where 500 young people will explore the 40 miles of books stored under the floor of the library from 8pm to 6 am and work towards writing a book in that time which will be published and archived in the library for all time. Another one is Evoke, which is a game for the World Bank Institute. At the end of the game, the Institute certifies you as a social innovator. It started out as a pilot with 20,000 students as a 10-week programme, but is now open to 130 countries.

Two completely different talks, and I felt very positive when I finished listening to them. Both Seth and Jane made the audience play games during their talks, so they certainly practised what they preached to boot. 

People haven’t cracked the Next Big Game yet, but I’m not worried - I don’t think there has to be one. Small elements of gaming will slowly find their way into everything we do in a seamless, sensible way, and to me that will be the gaming industry’s biggest success. That's the hope, anyway!

Anjali Ramachandran

Anjali Ramachandran

Anjali couldn't shake off the habit of calling herself a 'citizen of the world' for the last decade, having lived in 5 countries so far, but has now amended that to 'citizen of the internetz'. She is a strong believer in technology as an agent of social change and likes exploring the relationship between digital services and physical objects. Robots and transmedia storytelling projects intrigue her.