Are We Currently in the Game Layer Decade?

Last week, I had the chance to visit SXSW Interactive on behalf of Ketchum. I wasn’t there specifically for any clients we work with, but instead, Ketchum sent me alongside my Ketchum Social Media colleague Jon Bellinger to spot trends for the upcoming year; meet and greet with Internet culture luminaries like CollegeHumor.com, the founders behind the movie Browncoats: Redemption, a few select reporters, etc., and more.

I attended all the keynotes I could while I was there, and the most interesting one, was by the founder of SCVNGR, Seth Priebatsch. SCVNGR, if you’re unfamiliar (and I was), is described as a mobile game that is a game layer on the top of the world. You go places and do challenges and earn points, unlock badges, etc.

According to Seth, the last decade was about the social layer, in how Facebook and sites/apps like it, permeate everything we do. We share things with each other and strangers more than ever before in human history.

And now, we’re in the decade of the game layer according to Seth.

Look at the rise of Foursquare, where just visiting places is turning into a game. Like SCVNGR, you unlock badges, earn points, etc. just for doing something you would have been doing anyway—going out.

Seth started his keynote by sharing some instances of where companies and society use the game layer without even realizing it. Princeton, for instance, “changed the game” to stop cheaters. There’s no oversight during testing, but every student has to agree to 2 rules: write the honor code when they complete a test, and acknowledge that complicity is a crime.

Seth referenced, but didn’t specifically call out other companies using the game layer, as he cautioned that while everyone in the location-based services space is giving rewards, consumers aren’t necessarily coming back after getting their reward. I can definitely admit that on Foursquare—after I get the badge, I won’t necessarily come back if I can’t ever achieve a mayorship reward.

To showcase how important this is to the real world, Seth challenged the entire audience to a game. When we entered the ballroom, we were each given a cardboard piece of paper with two colors on each side. During the game, we were challenged to match up our entire row with one color, without getting out of our seat. We had under 3 minutes to accomplish our goal by holding up our papers once we had the color chosen. If we won, SCVNGR would donate $10,000 to the Wildlife Foundation.

I remember quickly looking down my row and seeing most of my row, including myself, having orange on one side. I yelled orange and with only two trades, we were ready. The entire audience (in the thousands) won the challenge in roughly 30 seconds.

(Seth admitted he was going to donate the money anyway.)

Seth was out to prove that game dynamics are powerful. And that “communal gameplay + communal discovery + complex problems = slightly less impossible problem.” We talk a lot in the PR industry about creating incentives for our consumers/potential customers. As in, what’s the reward at the end of a “task” we might give them? But we rarely, if ever, talk about things to keep them engaged throughout the process, so that it seems more like a “game” than a “task.” Seth’s keynote, and real-world example, certainly proved the power of that.

I don’t know if a game-based (I have a feeling we’re going to see that phrase, or the phrase “game mechanics” a lot over the next 3-5 years) application, company, Web sites, etc. will be a similar behemoth to Facebook. But I do think that theory is here to stay and it’s something we should make is at the heart of most of our PR campaigns.

Alan has been with Ketchum for more than five years. Follow him on Twitter at @adanzis if you want rare insights about PR and social media, and tons of stuff about video games, technology and other sci-fi and nerdy things.