Game Boy

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

I’VE ACTUALLY KNOWN PRIEBATSCH for a long time. I was a classmate of his sister, Daniella, in middle school and high school, and Seth was just four years behind us. I rarely (if ever) spoke with him, but we spent two years on the same Noble and Greenough campus in Dedham. I remember three things about Priebatsch: He ran pretty much everywhere; because of this, everybody at the school knew who he was; and the older kids called him “Pip.” (A former cross-country teammate of his explains: “We were looking for something that said young British chimney sweep.” The subtleties of the English and South African accents were apparently lost on the group.)

Pip was an excellent student at Nobles, perhaps because his parents had been pushing him hard (“encouraging” him, in their words) since birth. Norman, a biotech entrepreneur, says his son was reading by age three or four, and that he taught the youngster to read pages upside down as a challenge. Moving past the standard children’s fare — which Norman found boring — the two tackled biographies, history, and other advanced subjects. Seth developed a particular fondness for the stories of Hannibal of Carthage and the French Revolution. In the Priebatsch household, TV was a no-no.

The family traveled extensively. There were trips to England, France, Italy, Israel, Spain, India, Japan, Thailand, and Australia, plus annual treks to Norman’s native South Africa. On each journey, the children had to keep journals chronicling in “excruciating detail,” as Priebatsch puts it, what they’d seen and done. “It was like ‘Oh my God, I’m in Australia and instead of being on the beach, I’m doing
6 to 10 hours of writing.’”

But in the Priebatsch family, good behavior brought rewards. “We had this cheesy star system,” Priebatsch says, explaining how his parents awarded him credits for cleaning his room or doing homework, and yanked them away for fighting with his sister. “I lost a fair amount of stars that way,” he says. When he earned enough, though, his parents gave him the money to buy a toy. From an early age, then, Priebatsch learned that game structure could be an effective way to influence behavior. His mother, Suzanne, a financial adviser at Smith Barney, used to take the kids to the Museum of Fine Arts. “And in order to keep them entertained, we did mini scavenger hunts,” she says.

So by the time Priebatsch got to Nobles, in seventh grade, he had an unconventional appreciation of the world. English teacher Richard Baker says that in his 40 years at the school, he’s never taught anybody else quite like Priebatsch. “He’s unique,” Baker says, “in the sense of energy, in the sense of entrepreneurial interest and skill.”

The problem was, Priebatsch knew that. Of some of his teachers he says: “Their domain expertise was weak at best. Their teaching style was acceptable but not exceptional by any means. And I’m sure I was difficult to them.”

Throughout high school, Priebatsch always seemed to be putting another business plan into action — and not all of them of the high-tech variety. Influenced by a story in the book Freakonomics in which a guy made a bundle selling bagels on the honor system, Priebatsch decided to open an “underground snack bar” at Nobles. First, he rented out three lockers in a prime location. “I would just hang out,” he recalls, “and when people would open their locker I’d be like, ‘Hey, you’ve got a really nice locker. If I give you 50 bucks, can I have your locker for the month?’” He then stocked them: One locker was for chips, another for candy, and the third was packed with ice for cold drinks. Next, he e-mailed the locker combos to his friends, telling them to just pay for what they took. He says he made $200 on the first day and $600 on the second. On the third he was called into the provost’s office and told to shut it down.