The photo above illustrates the sort of thing that makes SXSW Interactive distinct from other technology conferences: I suspect that you don’t normally get on an escalator at Interop and find yourself descending into a mass of attendees doing the Watusi.

Today, two prominent speakers addressed some of the biggest challenges facing the world, and proposed some intriguing approaches to solving them.

Seth Priebatsch is the Chief Ninja of SCVNGR, a site that describes itself as “a game about doing challenges at places.” Players check in at locations, undertake challenges, share with their friends where they are and what they’re doing, and unlock badges and real-world rewards. Seth talked about what he calls the game layer on top of the world. It doesn’t exist yet, but it’s being built.

Over the past decade, he said, we built the social layer, which is all about connections. That layer is complete: its framework is Facebook and its Open Graph. The game layer will be all about influence over where we go, what we do, and why we do it.

He immediately dove into the “so what” by applying game mechanics to solve five real-world challenges: school, customer acquisition, loyalty, moving location-based services into the mainstream, and global warming.

For example, he described school as containing all the elements of a game, “but a poorly designed one.” The two main problems are lack of engagement and cheating. Seth said the broken game mechanic in this case is the reward system of grades, which constitutes a “moral hazard of gameplay” by replacing a real reward (acquiring knowledge or a skill) with a fake reward (a grade) which is inconsistently provided, and after graduation is no longer provided at all. He also pointed out that school is a game that that we don’t want anyone to lose, yet the option for failure is built in: one bad day can earn a straight-A student an F, which never disappears from their record.

To fix the problem of engagement, Seth proposed that the means by which students are graded be made progressive: students would begin school with a score of zero, and their experiences and achievements gradually increase that score (which never goes down, only up.) To fix the problem of cheating, he drew on the real-world example of Princeton. There, tests are conducted with no oversight: the only people in the room are the students taking the tests. The rules are that before starting, every student must write down the Honor Code declaring that they will not cheat; and if you see other students cheating but don’t do anything about it, it’s considered just as much a crime as cheating yourself.

For customer loyalty, one game mechanic that businesses can use is status: regular customers receive badges of honor that raise them above other, less loyal customers. Another mechanism is the level-up, in which taking advantage of one deal unlocks another deal, and so on. A third mechanic is inclusive ownership, which Seth defined primarily by what it’s not: exclusive ownership, where one person owning a thing prevents other people from enjoying its benefits. By contrast, Whrrl Societies confer a type of ownership through check-ins that benefit other players.

When it came time to “solve” global warming, Seth said that there is no way the game layer will solve that problem, or other massive, complex ones like it. But it’s one tool among many that moves us forward, and makes a solution at least possible.

To make his point, Seth then conducted a game using placards in three colors. All 2,500 audience members had 180 seconds to arrange it so that the people sitting in each row were all holding the same color placards. We were allowed to trade cards with each other, but we weren’t allowed to leave our seats. If we succeeded, SCVNGR would donate $10,000 to the National Wildlife Federation. We did succeed, proving that a large group of people can mobilize quickly to solve a tricky problem, in spite of severe limitations on their ability to communicate, an unequal distribution of resources (some people had more than one placard), and decentralized leadership.

Lunch was breaded chicken in a waffle cone.

For lunch, I had breaded chicken and jicama slaw in a waffle cone that had bits of bacon baked into it. Welcome to Austin.

Following that keynote, game designer Jane McGonigal gave a talk on the subject of her new book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. After listing some¬† assumptions our culture makes about games — that they’re a waste of time, that they are addictive distractions from things that really matter, and that people escape into games because they are not “good at life” — she discussed what research has uncovered about how games affect people.

She said research has shown that there is no correlation between playing violent games and tendencies toward real-world violence, but people who play cooperative games are much more likely to help other people. As to whether game play discourages actual engagement with the world, one study found that 67% of people who played games that simulate playing musical instruments reported that they were inspired to learn to play real instruments, while musicians reported that they played their instruments more often. And to the point about games enabling social ineptitude, people who play just 90 seconds of a game where their in-game avatar is physically attractive experience a boost in their confidence and competence that lasts 24 hours. Gamers are also less likely to experience nightmares, and report a higher incidence of “lucid dreams” where they are able to control the direction of the dream.

(Jane pointed out that research shows there is a point at which the science “doesn’t work”: gaming begins to have a negative effect at around 28 or more hours of gameplay a week, or if you are a jerk to other players, or if you play with jerks.)

She compared gamers with the superhero Spider-Man, who originally sought to use his powers to become a successful wrestler, fighting against challenges that didn’t really matter. Gamers are empowered by games; so what if, as Spider-Man did, they became aware that with great power comes great responsibility, and set out to change the world for the better?

Jane listed several case studies where gamefulness has been turned toward solving real-world challenges, including the digital school Quest to Learn, the crowdsourced scientific research site Foldit, and the social entrepreneurship game EVOKE.

Waffle cone photo credit: Patrick Chaupham

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