SxSW 2011: Gaming the system

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Imagine a room full of people. Each person has a card, with each side painted one of half a dozen colours. The cards are randomly distributed about the room. A few people have two cards, and even fewer have three.

How would you get the cards arranged so that each row can show the same colour, and how long would it take?

If you planned it from the stage, it would be a nightmare problem. Co-ordinating such a large-scale, distributed problem is nigh on impossible.

Now what happens if you set a three-minute time limit, offer a prize that everyone wants, and leave it up to each person to trade with their neighbours?

Astonishingly, the audience at the opening keynote address at the South by South West film, music and interactive festival in Austin, Texas, achieved it in half the allotted time.

Seth Priebatsch, CEO of SCVNGR, used this simple game as a demonstration that game mechanics can turn impossible problems into merely difficult problems. Align everyone's objectives, give them a motive in the form of a reward, and put them under a time constraint, and anything is possible.

“The last decade was about the social layer,” the lively young man in shades and a bright orange shirt says. “There's a ton more interesting innovation to happen, but the framework exists in the form of Facebook and the OpenGraph Protocol.

“The next decade is the decade for the game layer. This is still being built. The traffic on this layer is influence. It acts on individual motivation. What we do, how we do it, and why we do it? We are in a position to define what we want the game layer protocol to do,” he adds.

He uses five examples of issues that could be solved or improved using the mechanics of game-play.

The first is education. There are two key problems: school is boring, so kids don't pay attention, and they cheat because that's an effective way to get better grades.

The problem? The incentives, grades, are badly designed. “Take a toothbrush. You need your kids to brush their teeth. So create a game. Give them points. If they brush their teeth five days in a row, they get points. As soon as you stop the game, however, the fake rewards vanish, and so does the behaviour you're trying to encourage.”

The same happens with school grades. Status labels like valedictorian aren't cool, and the fact that you can progress negatively - dropping from a B to a D - is a huge disincentive.

“We don't want this,” he says. “Why not create a grade dynamic that is based on progression? Start with 0XP, and increase XP over time. You still get a normal distribution, but students don't level down. The question is how quickly and how far you can progress.”

This would make school more like World of Warcraft, where you can get better and earn cool status symbols. “Focus on the final goal, not some interim ersatz reward,” he says.

Since games are all about engagement, we can use the same mechanics to increase engagement levels in school.

Then there's cheating. At Princeton, where Priebatsch learnt all he needed as a freshman before dropping out, the problem of cheating was made a community problem.

Traditionally, there's no disincentive for cheating; only for getting caught. “People learn to play the game how you designed it,” he says. “It's designed wrong.”

There's no cheating at Princeton because it does away with all supervision during tests. There is no risk of getting caught by authorities. However, each student has to write out a code of honour, and agree not only to abide by it, but that complicity in letting others break the code is considered as bad as the crime itself.

“Now players trust one another, and enforce the honour code on one another. Cheating occurrences dropped from 400 a year to two,” he says. “It's been very successful, and it doesn't have to apply only to school situations. It can be applied to tax, for example.”

Another area where game mechanics are being successfully deployed is in customer acquisition. He dissects the very successful Groupon, which uses a combination of “free lunch” offers (or rather, big discounts), communal game-play, and a countdown.

It exploits the natural scepticism of offers that seem too good to be true, by making it clear that there's a catch: a group of other people has to participate in order to earn the deal. And there's only 24 hours in which to do it.

“So now the free lunch is justified. And still, the consumer doesn't have to do any extra work. It's the ultimate free-lunch dynamic, really nicely implemented,” he says, adding: “The countdown is a great psychological motivator. You give people less time to decide. The 24-hour countdown is far more effective than a 30-day countdown with more time to sell.”

Customer loyalty is the logical next step after customer retention. Again, game mechanics are not unknown in this field. Witness American Express has a well-implemented “level up” dynamic in the form of its green, silver, gold and black card progression. Others offer “inclusive ownership” rewards, rather than granting exclusive rights to loyal customers. An example is the location-based service, which offers membership in “societies” for people who frequent particular establishments.

Services such as whrrl and FourSquare are popular with the 'in' crowd, but as Priebatsch shows, the mainstream does not yet use them. In fact, his pie chart of users versus non-users had an amusing slice removed from the users to account for “the people in this room”.

How to mainstream location-based services is an area Priebatsch feels can be addressed from a game-mechanics perspective.

One way is what he calls Quantitative Easing. “That's the technical term for printing a trillion dollars to flood the economy with cash, because saying you're printing a trillion dollars to flood the economy with cash sounds scary. The government does this when the game becomes too hard, and people aren't playing (lending, spending), so they change the rules of the game. From a game design perspective, the rule we want to change is that you have to be at a place in order to play. Loosen that rule, to encourage engagement with places, rather than just attending. Change the rules from tight location-based rewards to a loosely location-based game. This new type of engagement - where you're rewarded even for just saying you're going to a place, rather than actually going there - can change the game.”

His final example was rather startling. “Game mechanics can solve global warming,” he said. Priebatsch granted that he might be overselling the case a little, but that's when he came up with the spectacular practical demonstration that, if properly designed, game mechanics can motivate a diverse, disjointed group of strangers to achieve a great common goal, and do it quickly.

“This is the power of communal game-play,” says Priebatsch. “You can give a large group of disconnected people a tricky problem, and get it solved insanely fast, with purely local action, without co-ordination or communication. A 3 000-person problem was reduced to just the eight people around you. Trading patterns became incredibly complex. Some people had two or three cards, which gave them more power, and more flexibility to contribute to the solution. Leadership was decentralised. There was an explicit countdown, to achieve a joint goal.

“Now apply this thinking to poverty, climate change, the national debt, whatever,” he says. “Game dynamics are powerful, and they can make impossible problems slightly less impossible problems.”

* Ivo Vegter is reporting from SxSW 2011 in Austin, Texas, courtesy of Old Mutual. He covers the conference on Twitter as @sxswsa, and edits a group blog written by several South Africans attending the festival at

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