Sunday, March 27, 2011

SXSW 2011: Gamification: a buzzword streaks across SXSW sky

Gamification was high on the radar at this year's SXSW, judging by how many panels it was mentioned at. To put it simply, gamification means devising a system of points, rewards and incentives to motivate people to do certain things -- in a software application or in real life. It's funny, but 2-3 years before it became big at SXSW, this trend was noted by "old media" newspapers like New York Times. Even I blogged about an application idea that could combine gamification and lifelogging three years ago. This year at SXSW however, it was brought into spotlight by Seth Priebatsch, creator of location-based game SCVNGR, who gave a keynote address about building a game layer on top the world.

Like other keynotes, it was broadcast live in many SXSW venues -- convention center rooms, and probably those in the satellite hotels. I caught the beginning of it in the Samsung Blogger lounge. For the first 10-15 minutes of Priebatsch's speech the room was quiet, but as he continued, most people tuned out and went back to their conversations. So I missed the rest of what was said. A pity, because Seth Priebatsch is a lively and energetic speaker. (That would be an understatement, according to this New York Times article, which uses Priebatsch to illustrate an idea that hypomania may be an essential trait of an entrepreneur.)

Seth Priebatsch gives his keynote address at SXSW 2011

Seth Priebatsch, as seen on a TV in the bloggers' lounge. More pictures from SXSW 2011 are in my photo gallery.


Of course, I could have gone to one of the conference ballrooms that were dedicated entirely to watching the keynote, but I was tired from all the walking I did that day, and loath to leave the power strip I found in Blogger's lounge, which I used to recharge my laptops. The opening part of the speech, that held everyone's attention, was Priebatsch saying that many human behaviors are ripe for gamification. For example, parents give young children stickers and points for brushing teeth. School is another area that could be gamified, but in Priebatsch's opinion, incentives are set up in such a way that you can only fail. I think what he meant was that bad grades are penalized, but high grades do not provide any noticeable rewards. (I don't know if that's universal -- it probably depends on a teacher, and also on a curious phenomenon called regression to the mean, described by Doug Lenat in his speech on artificial intelligence.) In any case, it was around that point that the audience in the Blogger lounge lost interest in Priebatsch keynote, and the failed gamification of schooling was the last observation from this speech that my Twitter friends tweeted.

And so yet another trend streaks like a meteor across the SXSW sky, and retreats to... not obscurity, but a long, pothole-ridden path to maturity.

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