Game Boy

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

Priebatsch spends nearly every waking moment thinking about SCVNGR, and rarely leaves his office near Kendall Square. When I go to meet him there, he bursts out from behind a wall — “Hey!” — and strides toward me much too quickly, as if he’s competing in the Olympic power walk. Leading me on a tour of the office, Priebatsch shows me the spot under his desk where he routinely unfurls a sleeping bag at night. He doesn’t have an apartment, so he spends his evenings at either SCVNGR or his parents’ house in the Back Bay, where he sleeps in his childhood bedroom, complete with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. For a man who gets people at bars to play games, he does not have much of a social life. His father, Norman, says he’s not sure what Seth’s up to on those nights he doesn’t make it home, but “all I can tell you is, it ain’t with a girlfriend.” The son, though, shrugs it off, noting in his faint South African accent (Norman is from South Africa) that female companionship “lessens efficiency.”

Priebatsch’s single-mindedness stems from his absolute conviction, shared by many others, that what SCVNGR is building will do nothing less than change society’s behavior. He starts to unpack this thought as he shows me SCVNGR’s main conference room. It’s an airy space, with openings at the corners of each of the four bamboo-paneled walls and a round table in the middle. A shiny black globe, tilted on its axis, sits at the center of the table. Priebatsch thinks SCVNGR can grow to be a billion-dollar company, and seems to be only half-joking when he says the conference room “is used to plot world domination.” Indeed, Priebatsch is on a very specific mission. He will not stop, he says, until SCVNGR “builds a game layer on top of the world.”

SO JUST WHAT IS A GAME LAYER, and why does the world need one on top of it? Priebatsch explains that the past 10 years have been dominated by social media providing people with a way to have the social interactions they already want. Facebook, for example, makes it easier to connect with your Aunt Edna in Kentucky or keep up with your college buddies. The next iteration of social media, Priebatsch believes, isn’t about helping people do what they want — it’s about influencing them to do what you want.

So how do you do that? Priebatsch has devoured the academic literature on game mechanics, identifying individual dynamics that can affect behavior. Some are as simple as what he calls the “appointment dynamic,” which involves giving people a reward for being in the right place at the right time, such as with a happy hour. Others are more complex, like the “variable interval rewards schedule” dynamic, which holds that rewarding people on an irregular basis will keep them working at a more consistent rate than rewarding them on a fixed schedule. The game-dynamics theory boils down to this: A little extra motivation can influence your behavior in ways that perhaps you don’t even realize. Leveraging those dynamics properly, Priebatsch believes, can do everything from improve education to help solve global warming.