SXSWi 2011 <3′s Games
Every year around this time, anyone whose parents describe their careers as “Oh, I don’t know, something with computers” picks up and ships down to Austin for SXSWi (South by Southwest interactive, aka spring break for nerds). In a horrendously broad stroke for the uninitiated, the conference tends to lay out what will happen in the next year of digital media, if you’re hanging out in the right places, listening to the right people. Twitter started here, and that’s supposed to be pretty big.
The problem with this usually lies in the signal-to-noise ratio. With so many companies wanting to lead their space, and so many people spouting their opinion as fact, there is frequently conflicting information in panels, and it’s easy for an attendee to just go numb to all the different inputs. This year was a bit different, and a large group of presenters from the keynote speakers to panelists had one topic on their minds: Games.
But not the readily thought-of types of games – not the big-budget console games and not Angry Birds. The commotion was about bringing games into real life. The biggest push came from Seth Priebatsch’s Saturday keynote on what he called “the game layer” (this is a much nicer term than “gamification,” which i’m afraid is going to win the buzzword battle). Implementing the game layer simple in theory: take game mechanics and apply them into real world situations. This isn’t new; Foursquare has been doing this for 2 years. Other companies, too. But it was the success of Foursquare and its competitors that made people take notice, and it was the futurespeak of Priebatsch that opened the eyes of many to the possible applications (here’s his TED talk on the topic).
Nadya Direkova of Google gave a fantastic solo presentation on applying sixteen existing game design patterns to specific problems, using real-world numbers to support claims of engagement when possible. Her talk was a perfect complement to Priebatsch’s, acting as a “want to know more?” kind of panel. The big takeaway that she wanted to stress (and I completely agree with her) is that the game layer is about much more than “points and badges”. Be careful when you implement and do it in a well-thought-out manner.
That’s going to be the trick of the next year or two, as more companies try and use the game layer. Games are complex things. They take time and involvement on both sides, the creator and the player. Do it wrong, and you’re likely to just make people bored. We’ll see this as me-too’s begin to crop up and promote their series of points and badges without much thought or plans for the future. On the other hand, do it right, and you’ll actually create something people are excited to use and, in the best cases, actually works to improve the life of a player (See Jane Mcgonigal’s talk on the benefits of gaming). So if I can give a professional opinion here to marketers particularly, it’s this: work with people who made games before this push. Work with gamers. Be open to mechanics and methods of engagement you might not think of as being game-like, and hear them out. It’s not a bad thing to be a me-too, but it is bad to look like Foursquare with not much idea why.
In all, though, it’s a very exciting time to be a designer, particularly one who has a strong eye on gaming (ahem). On the same note it’s an exciting time to be a developer, as these gaming patterns haven’t yet been templatized, and games by their nature require a bit of custom work, so the room for experimentation is wide open. Finally, it’s an exciting time to be a game maker: the audience has never been so ready and willing.