Gaming Will Change the World: Seth Priebatsch at SXSW

By Kiran Aditham 

Yesterday at SXSW, gaming finally had its day. Officially kicking off the interactive portion of the conference was a highly anticipated keynote delivered by Seth Priebatsch, the 22-year-old CEO of SCVNGR, a Google-backed, location-based gaming startup.

Priebatsch delivered an energetic, organized presentation focused on the game layer – gaming mechanics applied in the real world that will create influence. He stated that the last decade “was about social – putting our connections online”, and we’re now at the point where those connections can actually drive action. Games are the key.

To prove his point, he took the audience of 2500+ through a series of examples, beginning with education. Referencing the problem of cheating, he cited Princeton University’s solution to combat the problem. The administration changed the rules, and removed oversight during exams – no teachers or TAs in the room. Students simply sign waivers agreeing to the honor code – not to cheat, and if they see anyone else cheating, they must report it. It’s a very subtle shift that changes the game – other students become both competitors and comrades. Cheating has since dropped from 400 to 2 incidents annually.

Subsequent examples were business focused – he moved from school, to customer acquisition and loyalty – but what Priebatsch really wanted to get to was how gaming will combat bigger, global problems. In his final example, he challenged everyone in the keynote ballroom to play along in what he called “communal gameplay”. Each person was given a colored card – there were 3 colors in total – and the challenge was for each row of seats to be one color. Audience members had to agree on colors and swap cards to reach the goal within 180 seconds. The reward was a $10,000 donation to the National Wildlife Foundation. The audience won.

The point? That decentralized leadership and organizing around local solutions to global problems can often lead to faster results than organized government. “Moving something from impossible to something that is very difficult is a very big win”, he said. The game layer will eventually help us do that.

Kirsten Cluthe, the author of this post, is a consultant with The Frontier Project and a mediabistro contributor.